Silhouettes (Originally published May 1, 2015)
by: Tiffany Razzano
Father Carlos Rojas
In his late teens, Father Carlos Rojas found divine inspiration in the most unlikely place: the movie “Braveheart.”
More specifically, this inspiration originated from the film’s tagline: “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.” Every time he glanced at the DVD box, the words seemed to jump off the packaging to speak directly to him.
“This was really the start of my own personal, spiritual journey,” said Rojas, now 38. “I was living in this world, but I was longing for something more. I was looking for something that would help me feel less empty and wanting more.”
The phrase didn’t leave his mind and forced him to think about his own path.
“I wanted to do something I could do the rest of my life and not just make money, but be happy and fulfilled with it,” he said. “Because of that movie I kept asking myself, what’s going to be that thing that I do with the rest of my life so that I live life to the fullest? Little by little, I landed on priesthood.”
He’d grown up in a Catholic household in Puerto Rico. His father was a deacon at their church and he attended Mass on a regular basis.
“So I was raised in a Catholic environment,” he said. “It was very sheltered in many ways.”
At 15, his family relocated to Tampa and he was enrolled at Chamberlain High School. This was an eye-opening experience for Rojas.
“I came to the United States from this little island and things were huge to me,” he said. “I was learning about different cultures and people for the first time.”
He graduated from high school in the mid-1990s and attended the University of South Florida.
But he was uncertain about what he wanted to do with this life, and switched majors several times.
He loved the social aspect of college though. He joined the fraternity Sigma Lambda Beta, becoming president of the group, and also became involved with student government on campus.
In the evenings he taught Latin dance in Ybor City, merengue and salsa, enjoying the nightlife as many of the local college students do.
During college, Rojas also rarely went to Mass. “If I went five times that would be a lot,” he said.
He added, “It’s not the typical setting for a guy who was called to priesthood. But it was during my college years that I felt the Lord calling me. Through his gentle persistence, he eventually reached me.”
In 1998, he began attending St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami.
“I felt the calling,” he said.
There he finished his bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Because of the credits he’d already accrued at USF, he could have finished the degree in just under two years. But he enjoyed the environment so much that he dragged it out an extra year to write a 50-page thesis about Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.”
It wasn’t all about academics for him, the pull was about spiritual fellowship as well.
“It’s a place where men come together wanting to learn how to serve God,” Rojas said.
From there he headed to St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. There he earned two masters degrees, one in divinity, the other in the arts.
On May 20, 2006, he was ordained a priest.
His first assignment was to St. Clement Catholic Church in Plant City. Its members were predominantly Mexican migrant farm workers.
“It was a whole different world,” he said. “I learned about their life and the injustices they suffer.” He even spent two weeks living in a migrant camp.
“I tried to pick strawberries,” Rojas said. “I lasted 35 minutes. I’m pretty athletic and I don’t know how they do it. I guess they do it out of the love they have for their families and their willingness to make sacrifices for them.”
He remained at St. Clement for four years. During that time, he helped to transform the church’s annual celebration of the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe into a large-scale community event.
He was instrumental in moving the festival from the church to the Plant City Stadium, where they held a 5 a.m. mass on the feast day, Dec. 12, with a full mariachi band, and also brought in vendors and carnival rides.
Nearly 5,000 people attended the event that first year.
“It had a pretty powerful impact on the people,” Rojas said.
He spent a year at Our Lady of the Rosary in Land O’Lakes before being called up to serve Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon, the largest church in the diocese, where he spent two years.
From there, he was abruptly called up to serve the migrant community again, this time at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Wimauma.
He was brought in not long after the pastor, who had previously served the church, was injured in a Sun City bicycling accident.
“He went flying over the handles,” Rojas said. “He hit the concrete head first. It was a mess.”
The priest survived, which Rojas “attribute[s] to the prayers of the people. But he was in no position to lead the mission and do the work a pastor needs to do.”
So Rojas took over the church leadership. During the Lenten season, he led a campaign where parishioners spruced up the church – painting the building, installing new signage, planting flowers and foliage.
“It looks so beautiful now,” he said. “It was quite the masterpiece.”
By then, he’d become known as “the troubleshooter of the diocese.”
So one year ago, he was called in to lead St. Joseph Catholic Church in West Tampa.
Rojas had his work cut out for him. He was called to take over for Father Vladimir Dziadek, who hanged himself last May after being confronted about embezzling church funds.
It would be a tough job. “To be a parish and to have gone through the scandals and challenges they have gone through, of course their spirit was broken,” he said.
He organized a similar program to the one he spearheaded in Wimauma and rallied parishioners during the Lenten season to clean up the church grounds.
But he looked for other ways to bring the parish community together. From the beginning, he noted the diverse cultures represented at St. Joseph. When a group asked to celebrate the feast day for Our Lady Madonna de la Rocha – the patron saint of Italians, he agreed.
Rojas added, “It was a hit. It was just amazing. There were a lot of Italians who hadn’t been to church in a long time who came out to church that day.”
It snowballed from there.
Since then, aside from the Easter season and the Feast of St. Joseph, each month the church has recognized a feast day celebrated by a different cultural or ethnic group – Cubans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans.
Even during its annual March Feast, these different groups set up booths serving their native foods and celebrating their cultures.
“We have a place where cultures and religion are celebrated and supported,” Rojas said. “[The March carnival] highlighted not just the beauty of each culture, but our unity as a community.”
On July 19, the Colombian culture will be celebrated at the 11:30 a.m. Spanish Mass. Costa Ricans will celebrate their patron saint on Aug. 2, while Bolivians get center stage on Aug. 3.
Incredibly, because of this, he’s watched his parishioners rally together to overcome “their grief, sorrow and pain.”
“We’re good,” Rojas said. “We’re moving forward. Christ has not abandoned us.”