For Bishop Rojas, changes aren’t really anything new

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, August 14, 2011

On July 6, Bishop Alberto Rojas sat in his office at Good Shepherd Parish and looked at a stack of letters on his desk. Nearly six inches high, the stack was made up of congratulatory and welcoming notes sent by his now brother bishops in the United States. He’s saving them because he knows he must reply to each of them.

But he was not sure exactly when that would happen. First he had to prepare himself spiritually for his ordination, help create his coat of arms, choose a motto, deal with the thousand details that come up with family and friends traveling from out of town, plus find a new place to live and move — just a year after moving into Good Shepherd.

A month earlier, he said, he had no inkling that he would become a bishop, a successor to the apostles.

Bishop Rojas will be Cardinal George’s vicar for Vicariate III, which takes in the West Side of Chicago and some areas of the near Northwest and near Southwest sides. He also will be the liaison to Hispanic Catholics.

For Bishop Rojas, 46, abrupt changes aren’t really anything new.

Seminary at 13

He was born in Aguascalientes, the sixth of eight children. He began thinking of the priesthood when he was about 11, he said, and a group of seminarians visited his parish and held a week’s worth of spiritual and fun activities with the children.

That inspired him and he thought, “I could do that, too.”

So at age 13 he went off to the minor seminary, returning home only once a month. He enjoyed life there, playing basketball and joining choirs and clubs.

As a young man, he was confirmed in his vocation, but wanted to leave the seminary for a time. “I told the rector two years,” he said. “I didn’t think they would give me any longer. I wanted to know what it was like to work. I had entered the seminary too small.”

So he took entry-level jobs — one of them was doing clerical work in an accountant’s office –— and got to know his coworkers and learned what it was like to earn a living.

His foray into the working world ended after about a year when a seminarian friend, who had a sister in Chicago, told him about Casa Jesus, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s house of discernment and formation for Latino young men. The program includes a year learning English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and that appealed to Bishop Rojas, as did the opportunity to help meet the needs of the many Spanishspeaking Catholics in the archdiocese. So he called on a Friday afternoon, and the director answered.

“It was already June, and he said, ‘You’re calling a little late,’” Bishop Rojas said. “He didn’t think he could find a place at the university that quickly. But he said he’d call back on Monday.”

The director did manage to enroll him and invited him to come, and Bishop Rojas said yes. Two months later, in August 1994, he was in Chicago.

He liked it at first, he said, but the first snowstorm nearly did him in. “I thought I had to return to Mexico because I thought that was a little too cold for me,” said Bishop Rojas, recalling that he brought a jacket with him, but it was no match for a Midwestern winter.

Connections to cardinal

Since he had already started major seminary in Aguascalientes, he started as a second-year student at Mundelein the following year and never looked back. His class was the first in Chicago ordained by Cardinal George, and he will become the first man to be ordained both a priest and bishop by the cardinal.

He never thought about becoming a bishop, he said. When he was a seminarian, he didn’t know who the auxiliary bishops in the archdiocese were or what they were responsible for. As a priest, he didn’t pay too much attention to which bishops were in charge of which committees. He never thought about being anything but a parish priest.

His ministry detoured away from parish life only five years after ordination, when he was asked to join the faculty of Mundelein Seminary as director of Hispanic Ministry.

He held that post from 2002- 2010, teaching and working on his own doctorate, which was almost finished when Cardinal George called him and told him he would be leaving the quiet, predictable academic life and becoming pastor at Good Shepherd, a bustling parish in mostly Mexican Little Village.

“I said to him, ‘I promised you obedience so I will go,’” Bishop Rojas said. “But I didn’t know anything about it.”

A year later, he was just starting to feel comfortable in the position when he learned he would be moving on again.

“I spent most of the year just learning, not changing anything,” he said. “I finally felt like I knew what was going on and could make some plans.”

The parish, for example, is selling food after Masses each Sunday to help raise money to replace the carpeting in the church and fix the plumbing in one of the bathrooms.

He enjoys the personal contact that comes with being a pastor much more than the administrative responsibility, shutting off lights, closing windows and so forth, he said.

Family ties

Rojas said his family all have legal residency in the United States, something his father was able to petition for after coming often as a guest worker in the 1960s, although his mother and most of his brothers and sisters live in Mexico. He became a U.S. citizen after coming to study here.

When he first called his mother — whom he hasn’t seen since becoming pastor of Good Shepherd — to tell her that he had been appointed a bishop, she already knew from media reports in Mexico, he said. He told her it would likely mean more responsibility, and she said, “Why did they give this to you?”

When he worries, he remembers that he is not alone. He is part of a team with Cardinal George and the archdiocese’s five other auxiliary bishops. When he expressed his trepidation to Cardinal George, he said, the cardinal gently reminded him that he was still in charge.

Bishop Rojas doesn’t know yet what he will enjoy about his ministry as a bishop, but he believes this is what he is being called to do right now.

“It seems like since I came to Casa Jesus everything just flowed,” he said. “I trust the Holy Spirit.”