For many Dominican Catholics, the appointment of Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Espaillat is long overdue but welcome.
The appointment of the first Dominican bishop, at a time when conversations about Afro-Latinidad versus Latinidad are increasing in theological spaces, gives us, as American Catholics, the opportunity to elevate and more fully understand the nuances of the Latinx experience.
On March 1, Frs. John Bonnici and Espaillat were to be consecrated auxiliary bishops by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Espaillat will be the youngest American bishop.
These appointments by Pope Francis were first announced on January 25. “Pope Francis has selected two outstanding priests, both experienced pastors, to serve the people of God in this archdiocese as auxiliary bishops,” Dolan said after the announcement. “I look forward to working even more closely with Bishop-elect Bonnici and Bishop-elect Espaillat, as they take on this new role in their priesthood.”
Bishop Joseph Espaillat, also known as Father J., was born on December 27, 1976 in Manhattan, and is the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. He has a Catholic upbringing and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Fordham University in 1998.
He was ordained five years later, in May 2003, at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie.
From 2009 to 2012 he worked at St. Peter’s in Yonkers, New York, and from 2012 to 2015 he worked in youth ministry for the Archdiocese of New York.
It is refreshing to see one of our own chosen to serve as a bishop for the first time in the Archdiocese of New York. The majority of Catholics in New York are Latinos, and Dominicans are the largest immigrant group here. As in many parts of the United States, while Latinos make up the majority of churches and parishes in our city, church leadership is still overwhelmingly white. Many Dominican Catholics hope Espaillat could begin to change that, with many hoping he will one day become the future archbishop and cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York.
I was a parishioner at Our Lady of Martyrs Church in Washington Heights, upper Manhattan, when Espaillat began his ministry in 2003. I remember being pleasantly surprised to see him sitting in a neighborhood park, talking and listening to young people.
He currently serves as a pastor in the South Bronx at St. Anthony of Padua Church. As part of his ministry, he is part of “Sainthood in the City”, a podcast and YouTube ministry series run by the Centro Católico Carismático. He uses rap music to reach young people and has joked about rapping as a bishop.
While many praise Espaillat, others point to an episode last year of “Holiness in the City”, in which he described how the devil moves “azabache” Where “evil of ojo“Afro-indigenous customs popular among many Dominican and Latin communities. I was not surprised to hear this from him, as many Dominican Catholic bishops also use rhetoric and scripture to revise how much Christianity and other Indigenous and African traditions of worship and religions are intertwined.Caribbean, this language ignores that God is present in our Afro-Dominican Catholic traditions.
It’s an unfortunate part of Dominican Catholicism, but I hope Espaillat’s appointment will help us begin to address it.
Espaillat worked as director of the Hispanic Charismatic Catholic Renewal for the Archdiocese of New York. I grew up in this community because my father, to this day, is a charismatic Catholic. Charismatic Catholic Renewal has often helped me in my life to come together with others in prayer and to express joy through dance and music in a church. I have also met charismatic Catholics who understand that prayer is an essential part of social justice action, although this is still an issue where I think the movement needs to improve.
As an adult, as I have drifted away from the charismatic faith of my childhood, it is still part of how I integrate my progressive politics into my life of faith, including my work as an anti-capitalist Catholic organizer, one who believes in the abolition of all oppressive systems. And because of this focus, as I see and must name how Espaillat’s nomination also elevates the anti-blackness that I am working to dismantle within Dominican and non-Dominican religious spaces, I also find hope in how his appointment and ministry can help challenge our faith, including his charismatic commitment to using resources like rap music to engage with young people.
His appointment comes at a critical time for the American Church, as the number of Latinos continues to grow in the United States and in the Church, and as we undergo a synodal process in which Pope Francis invites us to “walk together and to reflect together on the journey that has been made.”
The appointment of the first Dominican bishop, at a time when conversations about Afro-Latinidad versus Latinidad are increasing in theological spaces, gives us, as American Catholics, an opportunity to elevate and more fully understand the nuances of the Latinx experience, starting by addressing how deeply rooted anti-darkness is in our spaces and communities. I hope Bishop Espaillat can challenge our Latin and Dominican community to challenge anti-Blackness more deeply within our own communities, especially as we see the Haitian immigration crisis at the US border and the Dominican Republic builds a border wall.
I hope his nomination can be prophetic, even if our approaches to our faith differ. I hope that through his work as a bishop he can inspire white Catholics to think more deeply about white supremacy in our church.
As Catholics, I also hope that we can challenge Bishop Espaillat and the rest of our church leadership to fight against their own internalized anti-blackness. As part of our synodal journey, we must challenge ourselves, our communities, our church and our leaders.
I am grateful to see Dominican representation at the conference, and I pray to Our Lady of Altagracia, Spiritual Mother of Catholics in the Dominican Republic, that Bishop Espaillat may be a prophetic voice, like Bishop Óscar Romero, for all oppressed peoples of the Bronx, in New York, in the United States, in the Dominican Republic and in the world.