Coadjutor bishop reflects on his role, the journey ahead
Interview by Julie Sly, Herald editor
Several days after his appointment as coadjutor bishop of Sacramento, Bishop Jaime Soto spoke with The Catholic Herald about his role, his thoughts about the upcoming months and issues facing the local church today. The text of the interview follows.
Q: What was your reaction when you first learned that you were named coadjutor bishop?
A: Like most auxiliary bishops I knew the call from the nuncio might come some time, but when it finally came I swallowed hard and said yes, unsure about what was to come. What made the moment was when Bishop Weigand and I first talked about it after we had both spoken with the nuncio. His welcoming manner and excitement gave me a sense of anticipation about this new pastoral adventure.
Q: What are you most excited about in this appointment?
A: Coming in as the coadjutor bishop gives me a chance to become acquainted with the people of the Sacramento Diocese as well as for the clergy, laity and religious to get to know me.
Q: What do you see as some of your first tasks or priorities as coadjutor bishop? What initiatives do you think you will be most interested in?
A: I am very interested in the pastoral plan that was approved at the synod. The major themes resonate with many of my abiding concerns for the church. I am eager to see how I can contribute to moving the plan forward.
Q: What do you see as the expectations of a bishop today?
A: I believe people expect us, first and foremost, to know the Lord Jesus. The people of God always look for a pastor, one who can preach the Word and point people to Christ and the kingdom. They look for someone who prays with and for them.
Q: What qualities do you bring to the role?
A: You might be better off asking around on this one. I have always seen my work as being a broker. With every challenge the question is how to create a hopeful vision and then bring the resources and people together to build that vision.
Q: What do you think will be the most difficult part of this job?
A: The church's social teachings regarding the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person are very countercultural. Even members of our church find elements of the Gospel hard to take. A pastor of a parish or of a diocese has to discern his way carefully so that he speaks with integrity and clarity. It is not enough to be prophetic. One must also be persuasive. That's not an easy task. It never has been.
Q: How would you describe your leadership or management style?
A: Start from where you are. Do what you can. Work with what you have.
Q: How do you intend to go about getting to know the people of the diocese?
A: Initially there will be regional celebrations. I am looking forward to the youth rally and I hope to celebrate Mass in one of the prisons.
Q: The clergy of our diocese are of various ages and are also very ethnically diverse. How do you see yourself getting to know them and supporting their pastoral ministry?
A: It was very providential that on the day of the announcement Bishop Weigand took me to spend an evening with the clergy during their annual convocation. They were very welcoming and supportive. After meeting them, I slept much easier. The priestly fraternity is very important for any bishop. I look forward to becoming a fellow coworker with them, learning from them and praying with them.
Q: Over the years in the Diocese of Orange you were very involved with the programs of Catholic Charities. How do you see yourself continuing to promote Catholic Charities’ efforts?
A: The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, in his recent encyclical highlighted the sacramental character of the church's charitable works. The work of Catholic Charities, as well as other Catholic social services, are vital to the life of any church.
Q: Earlier this year you asked Catholics in the Diocese of Orange to support immigration reform through fasting and prayer, hoping that this will lead to a change in people’s hearts. What are your thoughts about how the Catholic community can show solidarity with immigrants in the diocese?
A: I am still hopeful that in future years we will be able to achieve a comprehensive immigration reform program. Like everyone, I share the concern that the current immigration system is not working. The U.S. bishops have supported a reasonable approach to reforming immigration so that it can make America stronger and safer. We believe this because we can see the vitality and strength of our own parish communities when we commit ourselves to the vision of Pentecost. So even in the face of very strong anti-immigrant sentiment, our steadfast commitment to create welcoming communities of faith will remain a steadfast sign of solidarity and hope.
Q: You have said in the past that Hispanic youths and youth in general need moral guidance from the church since societal ethics and cultural influences often distort the meaning of human sexuality. Can you elaborate on these thoughts and what outreach you might have with youths in the diocese?
A: We have a very positive, hopeful message about human sexuality. The moral vision of the church can help young people see themselves and one another with respect and dignity.
Unfortunately we — pastors and parents — remain quiet, silent on the topic of sexuality. There are many cultural forces that are only too quick to fill the vacuum we leave. Our silence contributes to many of the problems of adolescent pregnancy, AIDS, and the rise of other sexually-transmitted diseases.
We do not have to resort to "scare tactics" in teaching the youth. We have a beautiful tradition that begins with recognizing that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.
Q: Who inspires you? Were there particular people who influenced you as heroes growing up or at present?
A: My parents and siblings have always inspired me and supported me. I was very fortunate as a young priest to have a good first pastor who has become a great friend.
Q: Many Catholics today have different views of the church and what its vision or priorities should be. What’s your vision for the future in terms of how you see Vatican II playing out in the next several years?
A: The church is always being renewed and reformed. That is our nature. The Holy Spirit gives us a restless spirit for whom only communion with God will give rest. We are constantly called to evangelize as well as be evangelized. If there is one particular dynamism in the present time of the church, it is the growth and vitality of the laity.
This is not to diminish in any way the work of the ordained and religious. When we foster the commitment and fervor of all the baptized then we are all renewed. This has obviously created new challenges and tensions in the church. In many ways it's a nice problem to have. It’s much better than running a museum. I could see signs of this in the pastoral plan promulgated after the diocesan synod.
Q: Are there ways to unite these Catholics who have differing views about church issues?
A: We pray to be a people of one mind and one heart. The Eucharist is our binding force. The Eucharist always attracts us towards conversion, communion and solidarity.
Q: Do you have any particular thoughts about the role of women in the church today?
A: This continues to be one of the knotty concerns for many people, including Catholics. In part, the lingering questions reflect a misunderstanding of the male priesthood. Oftentimes folks are using inappropriate models drawn from business and politics.
In the United States, Catholic women, especially religious women, have demonstrated tremendous courage and leadership in education, health care and social services. Returning to the words of Pope Benedict in “Deus Caritas Est,” these are essential evangelical, sacramental tasks, bringing the Word into the world.
We have achieved so much in the Diocese of Sacramento and the whole United States because of the contribution of women. I am certain that will continue in perhaps new and different ways, but then that is the nature of the church, to always renew and reform herself so that Christ can be the same yesterday, today and forever.
Q: What advice would you give to young people who are considering a religious vocation? What would you say to parents about this?
A: My invitation is for them to get involved with their church now. I encourage parishes to make sure that young people have a significant role in the life of the parish. When that happens you will draw them into leadership roles, including the priesthood and religious life. Most parents want their children to be involved in the church and are often concerned that there is little room for them in many of our parishes.
Q: How important have family and friends been in your life as a priest?
A: I recently celebrated my 25th anniversary of priestly ordination. I would not have been able to do that without family and friends.
Q: How do you spend some of your free time?
A: Free time — what’s that? When I can, I enjoy an evening of jazz. I like to lose myself in an art museum.
Q: What will you miss most about the Diocese of Orange?
A: I was a priest in Orange during some of the most dramatic demographic shifts, both for the church in Orange as well as Orange County. What we achieved was not the accident of numbers. We made choices to see our diversity as a blessing.
I was able to see immigrant families grow, prosper and become leaders in the community. There was the thrill of our religious processions for Guadalupe, Posadas and Palm Sunday. I have received the blessing of seeing children I baptized get married and raise a new family. I had the privilege of walking into the church on Sunday to see it alive and brimming with people I knew and loved.
I will miss also on a summer's evening to sit on the patio with family and friends savoring the cool ocean breeze coming in from the Pacific.