In the silent moments of a Holy Hour last year, Father Joseph A. Espaillat, holding a monstrance, told 170 teenage faithful to “look at Jesus and allow Him to speak to you; we can’t be the light unless we receive the Light.”
In a recent in-person interview with Catholic New York, Father Espaillat, now New York Auxiliary Bishop Espaillat, 45, said his personal moments of seeing the Light of Christ first came “back in high school, when I entered the seminary there, and through the different retreats and Masses; we would go to daily Mass in high school (Cathedral Prep, Manhattan), which was a really neat thing…and I had the privilege of serving daily Mass for Cardinal O’Connor, because I was a (St. Patrick’s) cathedral server.”
After pondering further, he added, “The high school retreats were fine, but I had a real serious retreat, it was a deep encounter with God. It was when I entered college, at Fordham University. I got the opportunity to go to Auriesville, the shrine up in Auriesville, New York (Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine). It’s where the Jesuits are buried; these men were killed for their faith…It was an Ignatian-style retreat; it really impacted my life; to walk there, to pray there—that was a profound time.”
He spoke with CNY the afternoon of Feb. 11 at St. Anthony of Padua parish in the Bronx, where he has served as pastor since 2015.
He was ordained in 2003, having attended Cathedral Prep before studying at Fordham University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1998. While at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, Bishop Espaillat earned a Master of Divinity degree in theology and a Master of Arts degree in theology, specializing in Church history.
(Early in his teen years, he thought of becoming a scientist. He attended public elementary and middle schools. His father was a resident manager at buildings on the West Side).
“Going to Cathedral Prep was what marked and started that journey, on the path to the priesthood,” Bishop Espaillat said.
He has a background in performing arts, including singing faith-based rap songs that he has written. He has a 2015 album called “Messengers of Christ” (Apple Music).
“You have to meet them where they are,” Bishop Espaillat said, noting the significance of taking the Word of the Lord to the people, to the streets of the Bronx, Manhattan and beyond, with passion and dedication. “That’s what Jesus did. He met them where they were.”
Toward that end, Bishop Espaillat has a podcast called “Sainthood in the City.”
“I’m trying to reach those that don’t know God. I’m going for the lost sheep,” said Bishop Espaillat of the streetwise side of his ministry.
He considers it “to be on the frontlines, the theology of hanging out.” In his talks and presentations, his main mission amid youths and young adults is to help them “know who they are and whose they are; that they are loved by God the Father…I’m a city kid. I don’t fit the (priestly) mold.”
Bishop Espaillat, also since 2015, has served as spiritual director of the ever-growing archdiocesan Hispanic Charismatic Renewal, and spiritual director of Youth Ministry for the archdiocese. (The Charismatic Center is located on the grounds of his parish). Bishop Espaillat described the Charismatic Renewal movement as being deeply focused on “the love of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit; the Charismatic Renewal facilitates that personal encounter with God.”
He served as pastor of St. Peter’s, Yonkers, 2009-2012, where he earlier was administrator and parochial vicar, and director of Youth Ministry for the archdiocese, 2012-2015. His first priestly assignment was as parochial vicar of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Manhattan, 2003-2007.
Bishop Espaillat is the son of Jose and Mercedes Espaillat, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and he is fluent in Spanish. He has a younger sister, Tahimy, 37, who is a major in the U.S. Army. His father is a former lance corporal with the U.S. Marines. (The bishop was born in a Marine Corps base, Camp Pendleton, on the outskirts of San Diego; he was less than two years old when the family moved back to Manhattan.)
His primary, non-clergy mentors of the faith as a child and as a teenager were his mother and his paternal grandmother, Andrea. His mother, Mercedes, joined him when he was among the archdiocesan coordinators who traveled to Panama for World Youth Day 2019. He described Youth Ministry as being “vital to the life of the Church, and not only to the life of the Church, to the world.
“Because if we do not invest in our young people now, what kind of adults are they going to become?” the bishop said.
After his Jan. 25 appointment by Pope Francis to serve as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of New York, Bishop Espaillat told CNY that he felt a tad overwhelmed: “I’m waiting on the Lord to see what He has in store; throughout my whole ministry, He has surprised me. This is a big surprise.”
By the time of the interview at his parish, Bishop Espaillat had some time to let the appointment sink in. “First off, when I got ordained, I was sent to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church; that was my grandmother’s parish,” he said. “So I got to actually be with my grandmother for the last year of her life. That doesn’t happen, that’s not typical.
“After that, I got sent to St. Peter’s in Yonkers. I was told that I was going to be there for a year before going out to be a pastor elsewhere; guess what, I didn’t. I was there for five years as a pastor…”
And the Good Lord kept the surprises coming. And so young Joseph Armando Espaillat II from Manhattan is now Auxiliary Bishop Espaillat of the Archdiocese of New York. Among the many people delighted with the appointment of the new bishop is Father Antonio Almonte, a longtime friend who serves as chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.
“When I was newly ordained (in 1997), he (Bishop Espaillat) was a seminarian and we developed a friendship,” said Father Almonte in a Feb. 24 phone interview with CNY. “He was assigned to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, which was my home parish when I was growing up…He’s a zealous person, a very dedicated priest.
“He doesn’t give up on people; it doesn’t matter what happens, where they are, what’s going on, he doesn’t give up. He’s a great support.”
Before his assignment at Lenox Hill, Father Almonte served as pastor of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
Father Almonte, who is Manhattan-born of Dominican ancestry, added that Bishop Espaillat “always gives more, above and beyond. He’s got great talents. It is obviously a style for him (rap music) that has helped him evangelize, to preach the Gospel and take Jesus to people.”