Three weeks ago, Father Carlos José Rojas stepped up to the pulpit in St. Joseph Catholic Church with a message of hope.
Not to hope would be to despair, he wrote in a text.
Rojas should know. For the second time in a year, he has been asked to take over a church touched by tragedy.
First it was Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Wimauma, where he replaced Father Demetrio Lorden, who was hit by a car while riding his bike home from church. He was in a coma for a week and is recovering in Spain.
Now Rojas has been selected to take over at St. Joseph, where Father Vladimir Dziadek, 56, hanged himself May 12 after Diocese of St. Petersburg officials confronted him about embezzling $165,000 in church funds that he lost gambling at a local casino.
It took Bishop Robert Lynch, who leads Tampa Bay-area Catholics, just one day to settle on Rojas.
"You need me there?" Rojas, 38, said he asked the bishop. "I'll go."
He promptly flushed the system of his 30-foot-long trailer and drove it to the grounds of St. Joseph, where he parked and stowed his kayak underneath.
"It's a doll house," he said from a chair inside, his bicycle wedged behind him. He points out a Eucharist with a red lantern next to it, the light signifying the presence of God. His fishing poles are stashed over a table. "It's so tiny, but it's all I need."
When Rojas was tapped for the Wimauma church, parishioners were still grieving, he said, "feeling disoriented and shepherdless."
Now they are thriving, he said. Rojas' own father, a retired Air Force colonel, stayed on with the church as a deacon.
Rojas said people everywhere are hungry for the love of a father.
He reminds those who seek him out of their beauty as children of God. They tell him things they can't even tell their spouses. These intimate conversations feed his soul, he said, and allow him to make clear his imperfections. His flaws don't take away from him, he tells them. They just show humanity's need for God.
"In the midst of an imperfect father, who in his imperfection caused great wounds in this community, it reminds them that no man is perfect," he said of Dziadek's suicide. "If we put our hope in man, we will be disappointed."
The parish filled the pews for Dziadek's funeral, latecomers standing in the back. Dziadek suffered from depression, Lynch wrote in his blog days after the funeral, yet he had ministered well to his parishioners.
Funeral Masses were forbidden for deaths by suicide less than 50 years ago, and priests were not allowed to even pray over their caskets. But the church reconsidered what was once decried a very serious sin and now recognizes that mental illness can cause unexplainable acts.
Lynch introduced Rojas in his blog as "an energetic young priest of our diocese with a passionate heart for ministry."
He starts every day in a chair in his trailer with a cup of coffee. His iPhone holds the list of those who need prayer and a journal full of sketches and entries. He ponders any struggles in his heart.
Rojas was born in Boston but grew up in Caguas, Puerto Rico, until at age 15 he moved to Tampa. At the University of South Florida, he was the president of Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity and he spent evenings in Ybor City nightclubs teaching salsa and merengue.
He began to question his life's meaning, which led him to the church.
He taught introduction to world religions at Hillsborough Community College, alternating lectures with field trips to mosques, synagogues and churches.
He considers himself a philosopher, a theologian, an intellectual, an artist, a singer and a lover of life. He competes in triathlons and goes on pilgrimages, including one planned for October to Italy, where he will meet Pope Francis.
Most of all, he considers himself an instrument of God.
His first sermon: Hope, a state of being that rises from the darkness.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.