As a Guatemalan who has spent 30 years as a priest in the United States, the Rev. Silvestre Romero has honed a niche as a builder of cultural bridges, especially between Anglos and Latinos in the Episcopal Church.
But those bridge-building skills have prepared him for what lies ahead in his new role as Bishop of Guatemala.
He will soon return to a country rife with challenges that he readily listed in a two-hour interview with TLC. The sick and injured are not treated in Guatemala unless they bring medical supplies to the hospital. Children receive no education unless their parents can afford shoes, books, and other essentials.
The church knows hardships, too. The church provides housing for its priests, but they earn less than $100 a week on average. In Guatemala, $100 buys a new, low-end bicycle. For comparison, $50 buys a bag of groceries with such staples as rice, beans, detergent, and milk, according to an index by Compassion International.
A diocese of 32 congregations can do only so much in a nation of 11 million, Romero concedes, but it can improve lives by building up the church and using its assets, including relationships. That is apt to mean bridge-building on a new scale across borders, class lines, and disparate cultural values.
“It’s one of the realities that I have lived throughout my whole ministry in the Episcopal Church as an ordained minister: trying to bridge those differences and bring people together,” Romero said at St. Peter’s Church in Salem, Massachusetts, where he has served as priest-in-charge since 2012.
Starting in November, Romero will serve for a year as bishop coadjutor before the diocesan bishop’s crozier becomes his to carry. At that point, he will inherit an episcopate with wide latitude to shape the church, especially through the ranks of ordained clergy. Unlike in the Episcopal Church, Guatemala’s 20 active clergy are paid by the diocese and answer directly to the bishop.
“In Guatemala, there are no real parishes in regard to having full independence to make decisions and so on, like you would find” in the Episcopal Church, Romero said. “The power of the bishop is one of the things that I know will be a process for me, because I’m not used to that.”
Romero begins with one advantage: he is already known to his flock. They call him Silito, or little Silvestre. That distinguishes him from his father, Sylvestre, who came to Guatemala from Belize in the 1960s to take a job as a driver. His father converted from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism, which flourished in pockets on the Atlantic Coast through the influence of United Fruit Company chaplaincies. The elder Romero was among the first indigenous people ordained to the priesthood in Guatemala in the 1970s and later served as Anglican Bishop of Belize.
Romero might need all the familiar ties and political capital he can muster if he engages the volatile issue of homosexuality and the church. He supports the Episcopal Church’s teachings on same-sex marriage and ordaining clergy regardless of their sexual orientation. That will make him an outlier among bishops in Central America, where conservative theology is more widespread.
“I will advocate and work in all the ways that I can to have this happen,” Romero said. “At the same time, I need to work with the whole diocese to ensure that they walk with me in this process. I cannot say, Well, if you don’t accept it then you are out, because otherwise I will be losing more than I will be gaining.”
Romero plans to encourage gay and lesbian Christians, while also looking for the right timing to bring the first LGBT candidates into the priesthood. For nearly a year, he has worked closely with the congregation of San Marcos in Quetzaltenango, which is known for its LGBT ministry.
“It has to happen naturally,” he says, if gays and lesbians are to openly join the priesthood and claim a place in the Christian community.
For Romero, the church’s more pressing issues are to strengthen its ministries and improve the well-being of communities. He recalls visiting Guatemala, seeing churches in disrepair, and wondering how he could help.
“The church used to have more activities and programs to help children and youth explore and live to a potential that, on their own resources and means, they could not,” Romero said.
Romero cleared his morning schedule for his interview at a time when he was trying to raise the profile of his new diocese. The Diocese of Guatemala has done little to spread the news of the episcopal election or the fact that a woman made a historic appearance on the ballot, he said. He wants to get the word out so that Guatemala, its needs, and its opportunities are on the international radar for potential supporters.
Romero spoke enthusiastically in an upstairs common area at St. Peter’s, where stuffed furniture welcomes guests and an Apple computer from the 1990s collects dust on a high shelf. Romero wore jewelry symbolic of the worlds he straddles: a polished silver watch on one wrist, a Guatemalan yarn bracelet on the other, and a cow-bone pendant round his neck, created recently by his father to bear the seal of the Diocese of Guatemala.
Bringing together different worlds — North and South, rich and poor — will be key to the church’s future in Guatemala, Romero said. His entire budget, covering all priests’ salaries, maintenance for church buildings, and outreach, will be $350,000. That is only 46 percent more than the budget at St. Peter’s, which cut Romero’s salary to half time this year to save money. He hopes international partners will help expand the church’s footprint as donors, church workers, and medical missionaries.
Bolstering the church in Guatemala starts, Romero says, with showing how the faith community is relevant to challenges facing the country. He envisions congregations addressing an epidemic of gang violence by convening conversations about why youth feel pressure to join gangs. The local faithful might not always have deep pockets, he explains, but they might have land that could host soccer leagues or other healthy alternatives to gang activity.
Evangelism needs a new push as well. The newest mission outpost in Guatemala opened 11 years ago, and Romero hopes more will take root in coming years. Deacons could play a larger role in evangelism and spiritual formation. Guatemala has only three deacons, and Romero plans to encourage more diaconal vocations.
Few such efforts will succeed, however, unless Guatemala can build up the ranks of its priesthood. By 2020, the diocese will lose 20 percent of its priests to retirements. He hopes Guatemala might develop a process akin to Total Ministry, which helps congregants become ordained and serve locally without devoting three years to seminary.
Identifying and educating potential candidates needs to be a priority, Romero said, along with increasing salaries. He said too many potential candidates enter other professions, such as teaching, because the compensation is higher. Raising salaries will not be easy, he admits, but it will be a major goal — one of many.
“The possibilities are there,” Romero said. “How do we work them, engage them, make them a reality on the local level? That’s a different story. And that’s something I still need to go and figure out.”