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Hempstead Catholic priest picked for new mission, ministering to Hispanic flock

Father Luis Miguel Romero Fernandez, who is the

Father Luis Miguel Romero Fernandez, who is the new vicar for Hispanics in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, stands in Our Lady of Loretto Church in Hempstead. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Luis Miguel Romero Fernandez is a Roman Catholic priest, has worked for 35 years overseas as a missionary in South America and India, and has a doctorate in biology.

Now, the native of Spain is taking on a new role: He is heading the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s efforts to minister to Long Island’s growing population of Hispanic Catholics.

“Without doubt, it is an honor,” said Romero, 65, who has served as pastor of Our Lady of Loretto Roman Catholic Church in Hempstead for the last six years. “I am so grateful to Bishop [John] Barres for this special assignment in serving the Hispanic community of our diocese. With a humble spirit, I thank our bishop and repeat what Christ said about himself: ‘I did not come to be served, but to serve.’ ”

Barres, who was named head of the diocese and its 1.5 million Catholics in December 2016 and has called outreach to Hispanics a priority, said Romero is an ideal choice to serve as Vicar for Hispanic Ministry and Evangelization. Romero, who will assist Barres, is a member of the Idente Missionaries, a Catholic congregation founded in Spain in 1959.

“Father Luis Romero is a global Churchman who lives the Idente Missionary charism in an inspirational way,” Barres said in a statement. “His pastoral, formational and evangelizing leadership at Our Lady of Loretto will translate well into his diocesan leadership as the Vicar for Hispanic Ministry and Evangelization.”

Latinos make up at least 30 percent of Catholics on Long Island, according to community leaders, and their numbers are growing here and throughout the United States. They are seen as a key to the future of the church, which has been buffeted by declining attendance at Mass, fewer vocations to the priesthood, and a sexual abuse scandal.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops last month named its first Hispanic to lead the umbrella organization for all bishops in the country, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles. Romero replaces Bishop Robert Brennan, a Spanish-speaking native of Long Island who was serving in the post on an interim basis until he became bishop of Columbus, Ohio, in March.

Romero said it was too soon to lay out his priorities as vicar, but noted that Pope Francis often has spoken about the importance of reaching out to immigrants.

“Without doubt, there are a lot of needs in our community,” Romero said in Spanish in an interview. But he noted that Hispanics are very family and church-oriented, and are “extremely hardworking and dedicated.”

His appointment comes the same week thousands of Latino immigrants lacking legal status celebrated gaining the right to have a driver’s license in New York State, which is among 15 states that have approved the move. Thousands of immigrants packed Department of Motor Vehicle offices on Long Island to apply for their permits, with advocates calling it a historic moment. Critics said it was unfairly rewarding people for being in the country illegally.

Romero said the move had “made a lot of people happy,” and he supported it. His parish, where he will continue to serve as pastor, is heavily Central American, especially from El Salvador.

Romero arrived at Loretto in 2014 after then-Bishop William Murphy asked his order to come to Long Island to assist in ministering to Latinos. The parish now has two priests and three seminarians from the order, which is also staffing St. Luke Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood.

Romero was born in northern Spain in 1954, and grew up in the southern region of Andalusia. He recalls as a young man seeing a monument in the city of Huelva of Christopher Columbus looking at America and embracing a cross. “At that time I did not imagine that my life would be a replica of it — look at America and embrace the cross,” Romero said in a statement.

After he was ordained a priest in 1981, he ended up spending 25 years in the South American nations of Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador. He served as both a parish priest and a university administrator and professor.

In Ecuador, he served as chancellor, or head, of the Private Technical University of Loja, a Catholic university under the administration of the Idente Missionaries that is now considered one of the top universities in Ecuador. He has published articles in numerous publications and has presented at conferences in the fields of biology, philosophy of science, ethics, theology, distance education and university management. He also has served in leadership roles in his religious order, which also includes religious sisters and “associates” or lay people.

Romero said his order encourages members to study not just theology but other “civilian” fields including mathematics, physics, literature and other sciences. “This permits a dialogue between science and faith,” he said. “We have to relate to the world of today.”

Barres said Romero’s diverse background will serve him well in the new post.

Romero “has an exceptional capacity, with his extensive academic background in religion and science, to address how the truths of our Catholic faith in regard to the Gospel of Life, Catholic Social Justice teaching and the Church’s advocacy in history of ethical scientific development need to be brought directly and compellingly into the public square,” Barres said.

After his time in South America, Romero served for two years in India, where the southern part of the country has a substantial number of Christians, he said. From India he transferred to Hempstead.

He said he is used to moving from country to country. “The life of a missionary is that, to leave to go to other places to help,” he said. “If the church needs me in another role, then I am delighted. I will do whatever is possible.”

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