Community Service Remains Essential for Bishop Arias
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of his episcopal ordination, Bishop David Arias, O.A.R., is thankful for his many pioneering accomplishments. As the first Hispanic auxiliary bishop in New Jersey, his impact as a pastor, author and teacher in the Archdiocese of Newark is well documented and undeniable.
However, as he reflects on the blessings of his silver anniversary, Bishop Arias said that while he is grateful for his achievements and the accolades he has received over the years, he is most proud of his work with the people in his community.
"The life of a priest is to serve the people," he declared. "It might be laboring at times, but it is rewarding when you see people come out of problems and see them improve their lives. There is an inner satisfaction of the work."
Bishop Arias was born July 22, 1929, in Mataluenga, León, Spain. As one of seven children, he has two brothers and one sister in religious life. At the age of 12, Bishop Arias began his studies that led him to the priesthood.
"When I was younger, a priest from the Augustinian Recollects went to Brazil and showed all the schoolchildren slides of his trip to the Amazon. The pictures looked so beautiful and the children were so enchanted by what he showed us. He asked who in the class was thinking of becoming a priest and I said that I was."
Bishop Arias attended high school and college at Saint Rita College in San Sebastián, Spain, and then joined the Order of Augustinian Recollects. From 1948 to 1952 he studied theology at Good Counsel Theologate in Monachil, Granada. He was ordained a priest in Barcelona at the XXXV International Eucharistic Congress of 1952-a landmark event believed to be the single-largest ordination of priests in the Catholic Church.
"There were 830 priests ordained in Olympic Stadium. There were 28 altars set up with 25-30 candidates in each altar," Bishop Arias recalled.
After his ordination he served as a priest and a professor, teaching cosmological and natural sciences at Saint Rita College in Spain. Later, after studies in Rome, he became prefect of Saint Augustine Seminary in Kansas City, and teacher of Church history, psychology and spiritual theology.
His parish assignments during his early years in the priesthood included Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Mexico City, where he served as founding pastor; Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Fabens, TX; Saint Mary's Parish, Marfa, TX; and again at Our Lady of Lourdes, Mexico City.
In 1967, Bishop Arias arrived in the Archdiocese of New York where he served as director of Saint Joseph's Center and spiritual director of the Cursillo Movement (Web site: www.natl-cursillo.org). Founded in Spain in 1949, the movement focuses on fundamentals of the Catholic faith.
"The Cursillo Movement pursued the conversion of a person and includes a three-day retreat where talks are given by lay people and by priests. Those on the retreat reflect on their lives and their faith. By the end of the retreat, there is a renewal. For everyone present, their lives are changed," Bishop Arias said.
While at the Archdiocese of New York, he was a pioneer of the "Worldwide Marriage Encounter" outreach program. "When I came to (the Archdiocese of New York), there was no Marriage Encounter," Bishop Arias recalled. "I invited a couple from Mexico City to the Saint Joseph's Center and they gave the first retreat there and then we had another bilingual retreat in 1968 with the founder of Marriage Encounter, Father Gabriel Calvo. Marriage Encounter then took root in the tri-state area."
Father Calvo launched the Marriage Encounter outreach in Barcelona, Spain, in 1952. "The program helps couples reflect on their personal and married lives. Marriage Encounter provides the opportunity that seldom presents itself for couples. There is time for separate reflection. The movement helps couples dialogue about their lives and improves their marriage. Through the talks given by priests, they rediscover the light of faith in married life and with prayer, many problems are solved," Bishop Arias explained.
During a five-year period, from 1978 to 1983, Bishop Arias was director for Hispanic Affairs in the Archdiocese of New York and provincial vicar for the Augustinian Recollects in the United States. Then, in 1983, he received a fateful call that would lead him to the Archdiocese of Newark.
"I was in my office in New York and my secretary received a call from the Apostolic Nuncio in Washington D.C. who said Pope John Paul II had appointed me an auxiliary bishop to the Archdiocese of Newark. I was in shock. It was totally unexpected," he confessed.
Archbishop Peter L. Gerety ordained Bishop Arias as auxiliary bishop in the Cathedral Basilica of the Scared Heart on April 7, 1983 (see related story in this section). With 53 bishops in attendance and the Newark Cathedral filled with faithful, the ordination had cultural importance. Bishop Arias, at the time, was only the 15th Hispanic bishop consecrated in the United States since 1974, and the first ever in the Garden State.
"I knew superficially the activities of a bishop-that there would be a more intense pastoral life," he said. "The concerns are larger than the ordinary role as priest and everything would be on a much larger scope."
The bishop's previous experience in working with the Hispanic community in New York would be of primary importance here in the Archdiocese of Newark. "There were newly immigrated people coming from abroad that need assistance and we had to provide services according to the needs of the people," he said. Soon after his episcopal ordination, Bishop Arias became the archdiocesan vicar for Hispanic Affairs, created the Board of Hispanic Ministry and the Hispanic Pastoral Commission, and began work on a new plan and study about the Hispanic population in the area. The Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry, called Presencia Nueva (New Presence), was organized in 1989 and the Newark archdiocese became the first in the nation to implement such a plan.
"Archbishop Gerety told me that I know my people more than he does. I was to tell him what was needed to serve the Hispanic community as members of the Church, no matter the cost. I felt we should begin by knowing the reality of the community-how many there are, where they are located and what are their social problems.
"The (Board of Hispanic Ministry and the Hispanic Pastoral Commission) did a sociological and anthropological study on the Hispanic people in the Archdiocese of Newark," he continued. "We designed a pastoral plan and the study took three years with help from Seton Hall University (South Orange) and experts."
The goal of the study and pastoral plan was to embrace the large Hispanic population and integrate them into archdiocesan activities. "We wanted the Hispanic community to feel like they were a part of this archdiocese. We wanted them to integrate but also bring their values and not abandon their identity. This has been my life for the past 25 years," Bishop Arias stated.
Along with providing programs and movements to help the Hispanic community grow and participate in their spiritual life, the pastoral plan outlined six areas of focus: formation of lay leaders; evangelization; spiritual life; marriage and family; youth ministry; and social services.
"The Parish Visitor program was established for people to go out an invite people in their communities who have been away from the Church to Mass," he said. "Some Hispanics are afraid to join the American Catholic Church and view it as an American institution. Another denomination might invite them, in Spanish, to their church and they go. We also developed ministries and youth programs to bring Hispanics back to the Church."
When Presencia Nueva was implemented, the response was positive in the archdiocese. "We shared the facts of the study in parishes and diocesan meetings and people expressed what they needed and what can be done in their area. Meetings were planned on county and diocesan levels. Presencia Nueva, in one way or the other, has been implemented in every parish in the archdiocese."
Seventeen years ago Bishop Arias was appointed Regional Bishop of Hudson County and in 1993 he was appointed pastor of Saint Joseph of the Palisades Parish in West New York.
"As a regional bishop, with the help of other deans and bishops, I had to try to serve parishes, schools, hospitals and other Catholic institutions in the area," he said. "When Archbishop Gerety asked me to be pastor of Saint Joseph of the Palisades, I was surprised. It is a big challenge because there are three sites: a grade school; a high school and parish-with 75 employees."
With an estimated 40,000 Catholics in the jurisdiction of Saint Joseph-including a diverse community of parishioners residing in North Bergen, West New York and Guttenberg-Bishop Arias appointed Father Frank Rose as his administrator to help with the daily activities of the parish. (Today Father Rose serves as the pastor of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Saint Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Plainfield.) Committees were formed to implement Presencia Nueva and there was an increase in regular parishioners and more people actively participated in the parish ministries.
Along with his work in the archdiocese, Bishop Arias has published several books as an extension of his ministry. His books include; "Luz y Vida" (Light and Life), which has biblical dialogues and religious topics for lay leaders; "Spanish Roots of America: The Legacy of Spain in the U.S."; and "Spanish-Americans: Lives and Faces," which has 100 biographies of prominent Hispanics who have shaped history.
"There is a Hispanic legacy (in America) that should be acknowledged, but has been ignored. To hear these stories creates a sense of pride in the Hispanic community and encourages them to be true to their identity. The community should bring their values to America and integrate without forgetting who they are. This country is a compound-a whole made up of many people who have come here for the past 500 years," Bishop Arias said.
Over the years, Bishop Arias has seen strides made in the archdiocese to integrate the Hispanic community. "I am happy to see that many priests in the archdiocese are bilingual. In the beginning, there was reluctance for some priests to learn Spanish and they encouraged Hispanics to go to the Mass in English. More priests are serving the community and the change has been good. One-third of the population in the Archdiocese of Newark is Hispanic and the number will continue to grow. As long as the Hispanics in the area continue to integrate and learn to speak English, they will continue to be served."
Six years ago Bishop Arias celebrated 50 years of service to the Church. In 2005, the Holy Father accepted Bishop Arias'resignation from the office of auxiliary bishop of Newark upon having reached the age limit under Canon Law.
Today he looks back fondly upon all of the people that have impacted his ministry. "I admire many priests who help develop the lives of the people," Bishop Arias said. "The bishops have been very good to me. I would like to thank Archbishop Gerety, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Archbishop John J. Myers who have been great pastors for this archdiocese. We have had a great time helping each other in carrying out our pastoral life."