Things That Matter

The Youngest Bishop in the US Is a 45-Year-Old Dominican Rapper

When most people think of bishops in the Catholic Church, their minds conjure images of wise, older men who might just be a little out-of-touch with the younger members of their congregations. That’s why Father Joseph Espaillat, a 45-year-old bishop from the Bronx who was ordained in March of this year, is a breath of fresh air.

Espaillat, who is also Dominican, has been able to bridge the gap in many ways, connecting with his younger followers through mediums that resonate with them.

Between his penchant for rapping and his podcast “Sainthood in the City,” Espaillat has made quite the impression as a younger leader in the Catholic Church who’s more attuned to the needs of his community. An interview with TODAY reveals:

“Espaillat recalled what it was like to receive a call from the Vatican telling him that he was going to serve as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York alongside Bishop John Bonnici, who was also recently appointed. Espaillat said that when the phone rang the first time, he decided not to pick up because he thought it wasn’t important.

‘Four times, this call from Washington, D.C. And I was just like, I’m not picking this up. I don’t owe anybody money,’ he joked.”

Six phone calls later, Espaillat finally picked up. Today, he focuses on working to find new and innovative ways to connect with people who might not otherwise find themselves drawn to the church. Espaillat wants them to know he’s not much different than they are. “They think a saint can’t be hip,” he said. “A saint can’t be cool, a saint, you know, can’t wear hoodies, you know, a saint can’t wear Jordans. We just said, let’s just go out there and, let’s do it.”

Espaillat’s journey to the church began with what he describes as a “great priest” from his high school, one who encouraged his path to Christ. “He said ‘Jo, I think God might be calling you to become a priest,'” he explained. But that wasn’t all. Espaillat spent an “intense spirituality year” in Pennsylvania after graduating from Fordham University, eventually becoming ordained as a priest in 2003, when he was just 26 years old.

From there, Espaillat developed many of the techniques he uses today, including his now-popular technique of rapping parts of his sermons.

“There was a talent show at this parish, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs,” he explained to Al Roker during his interview with TODAY. “And a couple of the young boys wanted to rap, but you know these secular songs and they had a lot of bad words in them. And I said, ‘I bet you money, I could come up with a rap song’ … and they were like, ‘Oh no, Father, you can’t rap,’ and I was like, ‘Watch.’ I was like, challenge is on, so I took the challenge.”

To those who may not approve of Espaillat’s unorthodox techniques, he maintains the idea that he’s following in Jesus’ footsteps. He explained, “Jesus preached to his people, in his day, using their language, using their images, using their culture.”

Today, Espaillat is an invaluable member of his community and an inspiration to Latinos everywhere. He thinks of it this way: “It’s a nod to the people of color, of minority, in saying, we see you. And you are important.”

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