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California’s Bishop-Elect Comes from the Eternal City

When a priest is elected bishop, it often involves moving to a new diocese. The newly elected leader of the Diocese of California will be making a shift of nine time zones.

The Rev. Austin K. Rios currently leads the only Episcopal church in Rome, as the rector of St. Paul’s Within the Walls. This raises an obvious question: Why would he want to give up such a cool title for the much blander “Bishop of California”?

Austin K. Rios

“Well, if it weren’t a call, I don’t think I would have done it,” Rios said with a laugh. “It has been a gift to serve here. And I do have a lot of emotions about saying goodbye to the people and the ministries and the relationships that we’ve had here. But ultimately, it was the sense that through the strange contours of my life, it just felt like the things that the diocese needed and the things that I have been involved in were divinely aligned.”

The Diocese of California is headquartered in San Francisco, which, like Rome, is a thoroughly multicultural city. Both cities have large Hispanic populations, and Rios, a Mexican-American through his father’s side, speaks fluent Spanish. (He learned to speak Italian when he started his current gig almost 12 years ago.) Both cities are magnets for refugees and immigrants, and St. Paul’s major ministry for four decades has been a refugee center operating in the parish’s crypt.

The Joel Nafuma Refugee Center “had its roots in the ’70s, when Ugandans were fleeing Idi Amin,” Rios told TLC. “Joel Nafuma was an Ugandan priest who worked with folks, his countrymen, who were in Rome at the time. That expanded to serve others who were coming, Nigerians, and then eventually to a much larger host of people who found their way to Rome as refugees.”

He continued: “The center is a day center, it’s open 8:30 until 2, Monday through Friday. For many of our guests, the most important thing is a roof over their head and a warm place to be after having spent time unhoused. That’s really a difficult reality for most of our folks, and has only increased in the years that I’ve been here. There used to be a lot more facilities for folks, but that has not been the case recently. We serve a breakfast, and then people have access to a supply closet of clothes, basic necessities.”

The center also provides services to help people rebuild their lives in a strange land, including language classes, support for traumatic stress, a jobs clinic, and more. The center provides support to nearly 250 people daily. Rios is executive director of the center, with a staff of seven and dozens of active volunteers.

St. Paul’s Within the Walls was built in 1873 as the first Protestant church allowed within the walls of the city. (In America, one hears more about “the walls of the Vatican” than “the walls of Rome,” and Rios said people often wonder if the church is in the Vatican. It’s actually about a 20-minute drive from St. Peter’s Basilica.) St. Paul’s is now one of two Episcopal churches in Italy, the other being St. James in Florence. Both are part of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.

St. Paul’s is establishing a reputation as a bishop factory. Rios’s predecessor, Michael Vono, was elected Bishop of the Rio Grande in 2010. Later that same year, Vono’s erstwhile associate priest at St. Paul’s, R. William Franklin, was elected Bishop of Western New York.

“I kind of joked with the search committee when I came here,” Rios said. “Let me get this straight — you’ve got two priests who are now elected bishop, and you’re trying to replace them with one priest?”

The church’s main 10:30 Sunday service is primarily in English, with parts also conducted in Italian, followed at noon by a Spanish-language Eucharist. Because it is the only Episcopal church in town, it plays a prominent role in local ecumenical activities. Rios has had the opportunity to interact with two Popes and two Archbishops of Canterbury.

Rios was born in Texas and lived his early years in Louisiana. He was baptized as a Methodist, but his parents joined St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in Monroe, Louisiana, when he was about 2. When people ask if he is a cradle Episcopalian, he says he is a toddling Episcopalian.

“I grew up in a household of very active Christians that I did not realize was not the norm until much later,” he said — prayer meetings, Bible readings at breakfast, Christian music. He was an only child, but thought of the children of his parents’ friends as brothers and sisters. His father moved several times for work, so Rios was confirmed in Wisconsin and went to college in Davidson, North Carolina, a couple of hours from his parents’ home.

After college, he moved to Austin, Texas. “My grand plan at the time was I was gonna go establish residency in Texas, go to University of Texas Law School, and do a simultaneous degree at the seminary in counseling, so that I would be a caring lawyer,” he said. He was accepted to a part-time program at the Seminary of the Southwest, but was not accepted to law school. With time on his hands, he ultimately transferred to the full-time master of divinity program. As part of his studies he spent a year in the Diocese of Southeastern Mexico, while what is now the Anglican Church of Mexico was moving toward independence from the Episcopal Church. He was ordained in the Diocese of Western North Carolina.

He became active in churchwide governance, and after serving on the Joint Standing Committee for Nominations, he accepted a nomination to serve on the board of the Church Pension Fund, and he is now nearing the end of his first term. He said it “taught me a lot about the ways in which, as an institutional investor, you can do good through the church by impact investing, and by being conscientious about church values, even while remaining a fiduciary.”

Rios was elected December 2 on the second ballot, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The other nominees were the Rev. Phil Brochard, rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Parish in Berkeley, California, and the Rev. Canon Augusta Anne Anderson, canon to the ordinary and chief of staff in the Diocese of Western North Carolina.

Assuming he receives the necessary consents from a majority of standing committees and bishops with jurisdiction, he will be consecrated Bishop Coadjutor of California on May 4, and will serve initially with Bishop Marc Handley Andrus. Andrus plans to retire in July after 18 years of service. Rios will then become bishop diocesan, the first Latino to hold that role in the Diocese of California.

The Diocese of California originally encompassed the entire state, but now shares the state with five other dioceses. It now comprises all or part of six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, with 75 congregations reporting about 18,000 members in 2022.

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