Santa Fe's new archbishop reflects on role of bishops in the Francis era

Bishop John Wester (CNS/Bob Roller)

Pope Francis is setting an example of leadership that Catholics in the U.S. expect their bishops to follow in their lives and ministry, the new archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M., said in an interview with NCR on Wednesday.

Archbishop-designate John Wester said the pope is also challenging people around the world to "radically change" their understanding of the causes of poverty and to ask sometimes difficult questions about their personal, political and economic lives.

"The pope is making a real impression on all of our hearts, including mine," said Wester, who was the bishop of Salt Lake City before Francis appointed him Monday to lead the Southwestern archdiocese.

"He's attacking and looking at some of the systemic reasons why there is poverty in our world and what we need to do to change that, to radically change that -- to be able to recognize when we become inured to poverty, and to say that that's wrong," the archbishop said.

"We have to start looking at some of these hard questions," Wester said. "He's challenging us."

Wester, 64, has served in Salt Lake City since 2007. He will succeed Archbishop Michael Sheehan as Santa Fe archbishop at an installation Mass June 4.

Describing himself as a pastor and "a fellow pilgrim" to those he serves, Wester said he appreciates St. Augustine's simple description of episcopal ministry: "For you, I'm a bishop, and with you, I'm a Christian."

A San Francisco native, Wester had previously served as auxiliary bishop and vicar general in that archdiocese and has also served as the head of the U.S. bishops' conference's communications committee.

Among topics the archbishop discussed in the 30-minute NCR interview:

  • The need for prudence in a bishop's governing of his diocese and to consult all Catholics, to facilitate "hearing how the Holy Spirit is working within others within the local church."
  • The importance of flexibility in pastoral work. "The Spirit blows where he wills," Wester said. "There are all kinds of things going on. And you have your plans, and God has his, and the parish has theirs. So you have to be flexible."
  • How the two Synods of Bishops on the family are affecting Catholics: "People are hurting. People are wondering what to do. They want to be good Catholics. They're struggling sometimes with the annulment process and other processes that can sometimes become difficult."
  • What he called the "necessity and imperative" of comprehensive immigration reform and how a recent compromise in Utah mixing passage of anti-discrimination laws for LGBT people with religious liberty protections show that "we can be respectful of each other" while having disagreements.

Wester spoke to NCR by phone from his office in Salt Lake City. Following is the full interview, edited for context.

NCR: I understood from watching your press conference that you were a bit surprised by your appointment to Santa Fe, that it wasn't something you were expecting. What have been your feelings in the past days since you've learned of your new role?

Wester: Archbishop [Carlo Maria] Vigano called me Saturday, so I've had time to kind of absorb it a bit. I was numb at first. Yes, I was not at all expecting it. I'm very happy here in Salt Lake, of course. And that's, I think, what the Holy Father wants. He wants the bishops to be happy where they are, pastors first and foremost and to be with our people.

Obviously, I think it goes without saying, I am going to miss it very much here. We have a wonderful diocese and a wonderful church here in the diocese of Salt Lake City. But I am very much looking forward to the archdiocese of Santa Fe.

I was there Monday, as you know, and there's wonderful people -- wonderful priests, deacons, religious. It's just a very alive church, as it is here. So I'm very pleased, grateful, and humbled by the whole thing. The emotions, they kind of -- it's like being on a little bit of an emotional roller coaster. It varies from moment to moment.

I know you're from California and that you've spent the last eight years in Utah, but you have also traveled extensively further into the Southwest as part of the bishops' migration committee. What does it mean for you now to take on the role of a pastor, as an archbishop, in that wider region?

With my work with the migration committee of the USCCB, I've been all over the world, actually -- Southeast Asia, particularly, and Africa -- visiting refugees and forced migrants.

But here in our own country, I have gone down to the border several times -- Tijuana, Nogales, El Paso, and those areas. To me, it just heightens an awareness of the importance of passing comprehensive immigration reform -- that it's such a huge necessity and imperative in our country right now.

I'll be in a border state. And, of course, Las Cruces, the diocese south of us, actually borders Mexico. So I'm looking forward to working with my brother bishops in that part of the country and to heightening an awareness of the needs of our immigrants and the way we can provide for them, especially advocate for them.

How do you speak with Catholics who maybe aren't so engaged in immigration reform or maybe aren't so interested in that issue?

One of the points that's very important to me is that the issue, immigration, has a lot of facets to it. It's a complex issue. But above all, it's a human issue. It's a moral and ethical issue.

And so I believe that it's important to engage people at that level -- to touch their hearts, to [emphasize] their care for another human being, a fellow human being, regardless of what a given person might think about immigration. Whether they might lean toward a reform that's heavy on enforcement or that's heavier on humane provisions, or hopefully a combination of both.

Whatever that is, the point is that these are human beings who are suffering. They're not getting proper medical attention, education, housing, employment. They're suffering because of unscrupulous employers. They're living in the shadows. I like to think that all citizens of this great country would be concerned about that and recognize that we have to do something.

What that something is is going to have to be hammered out. But the point is that they should be engaged and prompting their elected officials to do something about the terrible mess we're in right now.

I noticed at your press conference that you spoke in Spanish and mentioned a particular Mexican saying you loved: "Tell me who you run with, and I'll tell you who you are." For the people in Santa Fe about to be running with you, how do you introduce yourself? How do people know you?

I think, first and foremost, I seek to be a pastor, to be a shepherd -- to use that imagery that the pope uses so beautifully. I'm a fellow pilgrim with them. I also have to find my path to holiness, my call to holiness, and it's through the instrumentality of the church and by serving as shepherd, as servant, in this archdiocese of Santa Fe.

That's important to me, to listen to people. It's going to be very important to me. And just to be a brother to all in the archdiocese, and for me to get to know them, and together to be the church of Santa Fe. It's one thing to talk about it. It's another beautiful thing to live it. I'm looking forward to that.

I'll have many hats to wear, so to speak. But in terms of teaching, sanctifying and governing, there are different functions I need to fulfill.

I just love that beautiful thought of Augustine -- that for you, I'm a bishop, and with you, I'm a Christian. I think that's a nice blend. And that's true of all of the People of God. Each of us has a role to play, called by the Spirit through our baptisms. We all have a function, a part to play, in the church and in the establishing of Christ's kingdom on this Earth.

My role is well laid out, and I will listen to others who will help me in that.

You mentioned your multilayered Franciscan connections -- the archdiocese of San Francisco, the confirmation name of Francis, and now being appointed by Pope Francis. How is Pope Francis influencing you as a priest and a bishop? How does he impact your understanding of your ministry?

Like so many others around the world, he's really captured my imagination. He's inspired me. I think [of] his evident holiness, peacefulness. I've had the honor and privilege of being with him twice when I was in Rome for the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples.

At the end of both the meetings, as we did with Pope Benedict, we met with Pope Francis, and he gave this exhortation, and we have a chance to talk with him a bit. He's just a wonderful, wonderful man.

And I think [of] his clear vision to bring the compassion of Christ, especially to the poor and to those living on the edges of our society. I think he's really captivated me and reminded me of the importance [of that.]

It's funny, I had a rather large residence when I came here. And for a variety of reasons, I decided about five or six years ago to move out, and I live [now] in the cathedral rectory.

One of the parishioners said to me, "Did you leave your mansion because of Pope Francis?" And I kind of pulled her leg: "No, I did it long before the pope came around. He's following my good example."

She looked at me and said, "Oh, really?" I said, "No, not really! He doesn't even know that I exist."

But it was so cute because it just shows you that everybody knows the pope's message. They get it. They understand what he's saying. He's leading by example. And it also says to me that she expected me to follow the example, too. She was kind of implying, "Had you not moved out, why hadn't you? Why do you still live like that?"

The pope is making a real impression on all of our hearts, including mine. And it's not just kind of a simplistic way of living. He walks the talk, but the pope also is very nuanced in his approach and, I think, quite founded in very good thinking.

He's attacking and looking at some of the systemic reasons why there is poverty in our world. And what we need to do to change that, to radically change that -- and to be able to recognize when we become inured to poverty, and to say that that's wrong.

I sense in some people there is a certain uncomfortableness. Does that mean we have to look at the way we do business as countries, and in the stock market, and in the financial world? The way we have countries that are paying off these burdensome debts and keeping people in poverty?

We have to start looking at some of these hard questions. And I admire him for that. He's challenging us. He's speaking for the poor. Thanks be to God, they have a voice like his.

Is that something you see in terms of a national conversation with bishops around the country to engage that issue? Is that something the U.S. bishops might want to do in a more concerted way?

In my experience, I think you could say that the conference of bishops has been advocating for the poor in a variety of ways. For example, in 2008, when there was such a crisis and so many people out of work, the bishops were very concerned about that and expressed their concern.

Having said that, I do think that Pope Francis has challenged us to continue that and even to be more intense about it. And I've noticed that since he's been elected as pope that we -- in our plenary sessions, and in our committee meetings, and in our executive sessions -- have woven those themes of the Holy Father into our outlines, into our plans.

And you'll hear it again and again -- a bishop chairman will say, "We need to look at what Pope Francis is saying. How are we reflecting the pope's vision?"

It's already having an effect, I think.

You've been in Salt Lake City for eight years. But you also served in diocesan-level ministry in San Francisco, both with Archbishop John Quinn and Cardinal William Levada. Looking back now, what lessons have you learned most about the ministry of being a bishop? How do you see them influencing as you go forward in the new role?

I was very blessed, along with my brother priests in my hometown of San Francisco, to have such wonderful shepherds and pastors in the men you just mentioned. I also served with Archbishop [George] Niederauer for about a year or so before I came to Salt Lake.

I had three very wonderful examples and role models and brothers with whom to work with and for, and I learned a lot from them.

I learned the importance of the gift of prudence, which as some would say is the charioteer of the virtues. I think Bishop [Robert] McElroy was quoted in America magazine once saying that. The gift of prudence in governing is so important.

There are so many good things going on in our world today, so many pulls and tugs. The Spirit's gift of prudence is really an important one to make sound decisions. You can't be right 100 percent of the time, but to really do your best to be prudent in your decisions.

The importance of consulting, getting consultation, hearing how the Holy Spirit is working within others within the local church. The importance of listening, and therefore to be a good listener. The importance of being flexible.

I often say that to the parish priests. One of the most important traits of the parish priest is that of flexibility.

The Spirit blows where he wills. And, you know, people are coming at you and there are all kinds of things going on. And you have your plans, and God has his, and the parish has theirs. So you have to be flexible.

I was very blessed, there's no doubt about it -- blessed along the way to have been working with and for such splendid bishops.

One thing the pope has been doing is hosting the two synods on the family. I know the synod is something Archbishop Quinn has written and spoken about. In your role as a diocesan bishop, how do you see the synod affecting your ministry or the lives of people in your diocese?

Certainly, a lot of us are watching the synods with great interest. We understand the importance of the family in our church and in our society and our lives. To nourish it, to support it, to build it up is very, very important.

We're really hoping and praying that these synods, as well as the meeting in Philadelphia coming up at the end of September, will be helpful for the families. Because they are having so many pressures -- economic pressures and stresses and pulled and tugged from so many directions.

Of course, too, we're looking at ways that the church can be practically helpful to families. For example, I think in a lot of ways as we over the years have worked on our marriage preparation, we've really helped people for the sacrament of marriage. And the priests and deacons and lay leaders who work with couples preparing for marriage can really be a help to them.

I think we can do the same with families, and the church can offer assistance in very practical ways to help families. I'm hoping that we can be a real help in that. Our diocese in Salt Lake participated in responding to the questions that the Vatican asked us to respond to on both occasions.

And you can see, looking over those responses, that people are hurting. People are wondering what to do. They want to be good Catholics. They're struggling sometimes with the annulment process and other processes that can sometimes become difficult. They're very important processes, but are there ways we can look at to help people even more through them?

These are all possible avenues that we're looking to to be able to support people. I'm sure we're going to be very greatly blessed by the results of those synods.

Do you think this idea of the synod process does something in terms of allowing you to bring the concerns of the local church to Rome or to open up those conversations?

Most definitely. I think the way it was chosen this time, it just blew open the number of people involved. I think it really speaks about the importance of listening to the Holy Spirit at work throughout the whole church.

I think that was a wonderful idea. And I think the pope's call for transparency, for people to speak from their heart and to say what the Spirit is prompting them to say while assisting the synod fathers in discerning the Spirit at work in our church in coming up with a document or an approach in all these matters is going to be helpful to families and couples and people. I'm very optimistic about it. I think it's going to be very positive.

These things take time. I'm not anticipating these radical, huge changes -- there's not that kind of a process, it doesn't seem to me. But I think it's going to be a very diligent and far-reaching attempt to make some changes that need to be made and to move forward. And we'll see what happens in the year ahead.

But I think it's going to be the beginning of some really wonderful changes in all these areas that the synod is looking at.

I wanted to ask also about the recent compromise in Utah that saw passage of anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people alongside provisions for religious liberty. Do you think that might be some sort of model for Catholics who have concerns about the balance of those two issues or in how we've seen that issue come to prominence nationally?

I'm hesitant to say that it could be a model. Every diocese is different, and every state is different. And they're going to have different realities on the ground that they have to address. But what I think can be helpful going forward for all of us is what I saw happen in our legislature in that anti-discrimination bill.

And that is this: There was a real coming together of people of different beliefs and different ideas, and clearly who disagree on many issues. But they came together in goodwill, respecting one another, and they were able to forge a bill that respected religious liberty as well that would prevent persons in the LGBT community from being discriminated against in matters of housing or employment.

I thought that was a good sign. We don't have to be involved in vitriolic and constantly attacking one another. We can be respectful of each other, albeit we do disagree -- clearly, and without any doubt, on certain issues. There's no ambiguity in the disagreements, but we were still able to put this forward.

We were very pleased to see that, and of course our Catholic diocese understands there are certain things that every human being has a right to: employment, housing, medical care, education, freedom of worship. These are basic inalienable rights that people have and that no state can take away.

We were pleased that we were able to see our religious liberties preserved as well as the rights of others protected at the same time. It was a good exercise, I think, in coming together for the common good.

Is there something we haven't touched upon that you would like to speak about, or perhaps any hopes you have going forward as you get ready to go to Santa Fe?  

I think I would just say I feel very grateful to the people of the diocese of Salt Lake City and to the people of Utah. Utah is known for its hospitality, and I know that firsthand now over eight years here. I'm very, very grateful, and that's why it's so doggone hard to leave. It's been a wonderful time.

And I'm very grateful to Archbishop Sheehan and to the people of Santa Fe for their warm, warm welcome of me. I must say what a blessing, thanks be to God, for such a warm welcome. They don't even know me yet, and they're just so open and welcoming. It's very encouraging to me and I hope to be able to serve them as well as I can.

And I hope the people of Utah know how much I love them and how much I'm going to miss them.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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