SAN JUAN, RGV – Oratorian Father Mario Alberto Avilés, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Hidalgo, has been named auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Brownsville by Pope Francis.

In a welcome reception that doubled as a news conference, church leaders and members gathered at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in San Juan to congratulate Avilés as he moves into his new role next year. He was presented with a pectoral cross, worn over the breast, or pectus, by bishops, cardinals and the pope, and an amaranth zucchetto, or skullcap, worn by bishops.

The appointment marks a “historic trifecta” for the Rio Grande Valley’s Catholic community as Avilés will be the first priest in the diocese to be named a bishop, resulting in the first ordination of a bishop in the diocese, and he will be the first auxiliary bishop assigned to the Diocese of Brownsville.

As auxiliary bishop, Avilés will assist Diocese of Brownsville Bishop Daniel E. Flores in the pastoral governance of over a million Catholics in the Rio Grande Valley across 72 parishes and 43 mission churches. Of the 15 dioceses in Texas, only four – Austin, Galveston-Houston, Dallas and San Antonio – have an auxiliary bishop assigned to them currently. Avilés’ appointment indicates an acknowledgement by Pope Francis of the position’s necessity for the Valley’s growing population.

“I’m just so happy, and so grateful to the Holy Father for doing this for us as a sign of his really big concern about the growth and to help support the work of the church,” said Flores. “We have a lot of stuff to do.”

With Avilés on board, Flores said the church will be able to extend its reach in the community, tackling more projects than they could have previously.

“I don’t want people to think ‘well, now, the bishop just has half the work,’ Flores joked. “Because the idea of auxiliary bishop in this diocese is that we’re going to do double what we were able to do before … There’s so much good that can happen here in the Rio Grande Valley, and the church can be a catalyst for that. And, I’m very grateful that now we’ll be able to kind of like, as I would say, kick it up a notch, so to speak … We have so many challenges, but so many graces.”

While Avilés will be providing much-needed assistance to the bishop, Flores says he also brings with him great pastoral experience, nurturing and growing his church and guiding them as they build a new one, now under construction.

“The parish is in the midst of building a new, and much-needed larger church, and I look forward to the day when both Bishop Avilés and I, together with Bishop Peña, can together go dedicate that new place of worship in Hidalgo, Texas,” said Flores.

Avilés will be ordained on Feb. 22, 2018, leaving Sacred Heart Catholic Church just weeks before the new church is to be completed in March. Flores says it’s “providential,” a sign of new beginnings for Avilés and the community.

As Avilés accepts his position, he will have a new residence and will no longer be a pastor or a member of the Pharr Oratory where he has been since graduating high school in 1988. Father Leo-Francis Daniels, provost of the Pharr Oratory since 1974, said replacing Avilés will be tough, but he knows the “hard-working” bishop-elect will do great things.

“I love him very much, and it’s a mixed feeling,” said Daniels. “I’m so happy to see him grow up. It’s like somebody getting married, you know? You’re losing your son, but gaining what? A daughter-in-law.”

For Avilés, the thing he is looking forward to the most is getting to know the people in all the communities across the Valley and seeing where the church can help. His title will be different, but his dedication will stay the same.

“To my brother priests, … for the religious men and women, I ask for your prayers, for your support so we can continue working together for the people of the Rio Grande Valley,” said Avilés. “It’s just a little change in name and office, but we’re going to continue working together.”