*This blog was first posted on the diocesan website on Thursday, April 12, 2012*
Retired Auxiliary Bishop Agustín Román in front of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami, Florida. Photo provided by the Archdiocese of Miami.
I was enjoying a perfectly wonderful evening tonight when a phone call to a priest friend in Miami brought me the news that one of my episcopal idols had been called home to the Father earlier in the evening. Bishop Agustín Román, for thirty-one years the auxiliary bishop of Miami died tonight, reportedly in his car at the very Shrine to Our Lady of Charity, which he erected, staffed, and called home for over forty-six years. Eighty-three years old last night, he was to Miami’s Cuban community their “bishop.” They loved him, they adored him and they will miss him greatly. And already I feel his loss as well.
Bishop Román was expelled from Cuba after being briefly imprisoned by Fidel Castro shortly after the revolution in the early sixties. Placed by government authorities in the hold of a ship, he was packed off to Spain. Soon he would come to Venezuela to continue his ministry but very shortly thereafter landed in Miami. Accepted into the priestly ministry there by Archbishop Coleman Francis Carroll, Miami’s first bishop and its first archbishop, Father Román’s ministry was immediately to the exile community, the great diaspora. For them he built a shrine to the Ermita de la Caridad, the Blessed Mother and the shrine and its altar faced the direction of Cuba. Thousands would come each week to pray to the Blessed Mother for family and friends back in the homeland. Bishop Román’s arsenal against the army and government of Fidel Castro consisted of only one weapon – prayer. He was tireless in his ministry to the exile community and he became their priest and eventually their bishop.
In 1978, Miami’s second archbishop, Edward A. McCarthy sought the appointment of two priests as auxiliary bishops, John J. Nevins who was to become the first bishop of the diocese of Venice and Agustín A. Román who died last night. The Miami Beach Convention Center was filled that day with thousands of Cuban there to cheer and pray for this nation’s first Cuban-born bishop, their friend and their priest, Agustin Román. Ever humble, the new bishop was embarrassed at first by the trappings and expectations of office. Entrusted with the pastoral care not just of the Cubans who would soon experience a second invasion of people driven from their native country by the Cuban government, Bishop Román spent endless hours at the Krome Avenue detention facility where Cubans and Haitians seeking freedom could be found. For many Cubans and Haitians his was the first face of priestly ministry they would see in this new country, county and city to which they had fled.
One night when I was the Rector of the college seminary in Miami, I took a seminarian to the emergency room of Mercy Hospital on Miami’s Biscayne Bay and next to the Cuban Shrine to Our Lady. When we were discharged at 2:15 in the morning and were driving back to the seminary, a car pulled along side mine at a traffic light and inside was Bishop Román, praying the rosary in one hand and headed out to the Krome Avenue detention facility I was certain. I recall saying to the college seminarian in the car with me, “I wish I could be half the priest as that man is.” His office hours were when ever anyone needed his priestly presence, regardless of the hour or the inconvenience.
He remained a Cuban citizen all his life and never sought, to the best of my knowledge, a US passport because he did not wish to turn his back in any way on the country of his birth. But, he also vowed that he would never personally return to his beloved homeland until Castro was gone and the people once again free. Several pilgrimages were subsequently arranged by the Archdiocese of Miami to Cuba for papal visits and although never publicly critical of the decision to go there, he never went. His public opposition to the Cuban government never reached the decibel level of the exile community who surrounded him, but they knew that in his heart he mourned the absence of religious freedom in Cuba and the ensuing poverty visited upon his beloved people. He was their bishop and they were his people. There are few priests about whom other priests do not have something sometimes unkind and uncharitable to say, but to a person, Miami’s priests acknowledged that Agustín Román was an extraordinary example and witness to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Leaving Miami for me to come to St. Petersburg was hard in many ways when it occurred and a part of that sense of loss was leaving Bishop Román, even though we would now both be brothers in the episcopacy. Holy, Humble, Hard Working were the marks of this rather small of stature man but his witness to the Gospel was outsized. His wisdom, counsel and guidance to me prior to my ordination was simply this: “Bob, make yourself always present to the people as Jesus did.” Bishop Román never failed in that but I have from time to time.
Agustín, you went gently into the night this evening, coming back from an act of service and kindness and our God allowed you to safely park your car at your beloved shrine before calling you to Himself. I will always love you. I will always miss you. Until we are together again, thank you for your incredible example of how a bishop should serve his people. Rest in peace.