By Chris Stone
Ramón Bejarano’s first job was sorting tomatoes in the San Joaquin Valley — field work like his father’s. Tuesday, Bejarano was picked for his latest assignment: an “immigrant bishop in an immigrant church.”
Coming from self-described humble origins, Bejarano became only the second Hispanic auxiliary bishop in the Roman Catholic diocese of San Diego (after Gilbert Chavez).
“I am overwhelmed by the amount of blessings that God has bestowed on me,” he told a crowd of under 100 socially distanced attendees at his ordination in Immaculata Church at the University of San Diego.But he had a quick confession to make.
His first question to San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy was: “Please tell me, how do I get out of this?” He said he prayed for an excuse to turn down the assignment.
Since he was a child, Bejarano said, he always wanted to be a priest, but never a bishop.
But he thought about the Virgin Mary’s acceptance of God’s will, and so he received his ring, mitre (hat) and staff from McElroy in front of family and friends three days before his 51st birthday.
Among the attendees at the live-streamed event were retired San Diego Bishop Robert Brom and retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.
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Despite Bejarano’s humility — or maybe because of it — McElroy sees plenty in his new colleague.
McElroy said Bejarano served several parishes in Stockton with “a collaborative spirit and a sense of tender engagement,” and through his leadership tackled major issues and brought unity to each parish.
“He really does have the heart and soul of a Good Shepherd. That was the primary thing,” said the San Diego bishop.
The new bishop will have special ministries within the Hispanic community, but McElroy stressed that Bejarano will be a bishop of the entire diocese. His duties will encompass a wide range of areas, as does those of John Dolan, also an auxiliary bishop.
The San Diego diocese, which includes Imperial County, was entitled to a third bishop because of a church policy for one bishop per 500,000 parishioners. San Diego has 1.3 million Catholics.
Though Bejarano was chosen bishop on Feb. 27, he had to wait until Masses and ceremonies could be held indoors because of the coronavirus shutdown.
On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that reopened places of worship had to be shut down again as of midnight Tuesday. That deadline allowed the ordination to take place in the afternoon.
When Bejarano began speaking at his ordination, he told of the difficulty of wearing a new hat — literally. When he removed his mitre for the first time, his violet skullcap came off, too.
The mitre, he joked, was something he would have to get used to, as with other duties in his new role.
After the ceremony, Bajarano said he had always shied away from being a bishop because of the administrative chores.
“I like being with the people, the common people,” said the new bishop, who was born in Texas but his family soon moved back to Mexico. He returned to California at age 18, settling in Tracy. “I don’t like being a focus of attention for anything.”
“So with all of this, I feel I am being challenged to be a little different than what I want to be,” Bejarano said. “The bishop has to be more visible, and that’s not really who I am. With the help of God, I hope to grow into my new ministry.”
But he added that being an auxiliary bishop would allow him more time with parishioners.
Bajarano said his mission was to bring hope and healing to victims of racial division and abuse.
“I hope that I can be a blessing to every ethnicity and culture,” he said. “Because of my personal background, I’m here to promote unity among everyone.”
He also feels that people have become “cold or lukewarm” to their faith during the restrictions on Masses and sacraments and that a need exists for spiritual renewal.
Bejarano was ordained a priest in 1998. In 2001, he was spiritual director of the Office of Migrant Ministry in the Stockton Diocese. At St. George Church in Central California, his parish served camps for migrant workers and their families.
In 2005, he was named founding pastor of Holy Family Parish in Modesto. He served as pastor of St. Stanislaus Church in Modesto from 2008 to 2019, when he was named the pastor of the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Stockton.
Bejarano was there only four months when he got word that he would become a bishop in San Diego.
In his homily Tuesday, McElroy said Bejarano’s background “has emblazoned in your heart and soul with the essence of the immigrant experience and will make you an essential collaborator and architect in building up gospel solidarity in our local church.”
He added that new bishops “thirst for justice” will bring “fire” to the social teachings of the church.
A great danger exists that that pandemic is creating a “culture of increased disengagement within the life of the church that will persist long after a vaccination is found,” McElroy said.
McElroy said a transformation, rather than a recovery, is what is needed in the church. The roadmap for the change lies in a document written by Latin American bishops, he said.
He quoted from a document: “Those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.”
In answer to Bejarano’s unease, McElroy said, “Today, Ramón, you leave security on the shore.”
“You come among us as a loving shepherd, a man of sustained faith and an immigrant bishop in an immigrant church,” he said. “In that, we rejoice.”
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