Bishop Soto reflects on past year and future plans
Bishop Jaime Soto, center, and retired Bishop William K. Weigand stand outside the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento after a Mass of thanksgiving Nov. 30. At the end of the Mass, Bishop Soto, 52, received his crosier from Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco as the ninth bishop of Sacramento. His episcopal motto is “Gozo y Esperanza” (“Joy and Hope”). Luis Gris Elizarraras/Herald photo
Bishop Jaime Soto assumed leadership of the Diocese of Sacramento on Nov. 29, the day the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of Bishop William K. Weigand. Julie Sly, Herald editor, interviewed Bishop Soto at the Diocesan Pastoral Center on Nov. 21 about his year as coadjutor bishop and his plans for the future. Following are excerpts of the interview.
Q: You’ve spent a great deal of time over the past year visiting parishes, schools and organizations throughout the 20 counties of the diocese. What are your impressions of the diocese so far?
A: I guess it’s hard to be in the Diocese of Sacramento and not be impressed by its size, and that has been a dramatic experience for one who came from a single county diocese (Orange).
Another aside, quite frankly, is that I constantly am amazed when I run into bodies of water – rivers and lakes. Again, coming from Southern California there isn’t that. Now having traveled around almost all four seasons, it’s very picturesque and dramatic vistas in all different parts of the diocese.
For me, learning the history of the Diocese of Sacramento has been interesting, particularly going into the Gold Rush areas of the diocese and seeing how persevering priests, religious and laypeople have been in Sacramento, under what we would consider today very harsh and unfavorable circumstances.
People have been very warm and welcoming to me, not only here in Sacramento, but in going out to some of the more rural or isolated areas. It has been a surprise for me to see the pervasiveness of the Latino community in these outlying areas. In almost any hamlet, parish, chapel or mission, there is a Hispanic community, struggling to hold onto their faith.
I would say I’ve probably crossed the halfway mark in visiting the parishes in the diocese. At this point, I don’t think there’s a county I haven’t visited. The rural nature of Sacramento is still something that I’m trying to understand and appreciate more.
To that extent – probably more up here than in Southern California – the rhythm of the seasons has an impact on people’s lives because of the rural nature of the society and the economy. Sacramento is really an anomaly to the nature of what the rest of the diocese is, with the exception of the southern part of the diocese.
Q: Is there anything that has surprised you?
A: I am surprised that when I’ve been out to places such as Tulelake, Dorris or Alturas, that there is the pervasiveness of the Hispanic immigrant community. There’s obviously large numbers here in Sacramento – that’s no surprise – but to see folks from very rural parts of Mexico make it all the way up to Tulelale or Dorris. And it’s not only just their presence there, but that there is a certain cohesiveness that they’ve been able to come together and support each other and faith is very important to that. That to me is not only surprising but very admirable, that they have overcome many obstacles to develop a life for themselves and their families.
Another thing is that our Catholic school system is an old system. It has a long history in the Diocese of Sacramento. One of the things that has been surprising to me is the age of many of the facilities – many of the facilities are very old and I mean not just built in the 1950s. I’m concerned about the many resources our Catholic school system will need and the resources that will be necessary to upgrade the infrastructure could be enormous.
Another pleasant surprise for me has been the presence of youth here who are engaged in the church. Both Bishop Weigand and I were delighted by the turnout of young adults to the diocesan assembly on Oct. 13. In the planning of this, there was concern that we would not be able to identify enough young adults to come to the assembly. The presence of a significant number was both surprising and gratifying to see.
Besides their presence, the candor with which they spoke to me and diocesan and parish leaders was very startling, yet also welcomed. The candor with which they spoke reflected their trust in us and their hope that the church can respond more adequately to their needs. That was a hopeful sign for me.
Q: Given the size of the diocese, I assume you will be requesting an auxiliary bishop to help you. How will that proceed?
A: Oh yes, that’s a given. I will be able to make the request and I’ve already expressed my concern to the papal nuncio and he has asked me to apply for an auxiliary bishop shortly after I take over.
Q: Will you draw on Bishop Weigand to help with some things?
A: I am counting on him being around and helping me with many things. A diocese this size and this active requires the presence of a bishop for many activities and events and I physically can’t be everywhere – I missed that class on bilocation at the seminary. And so I will need Bishop Weigand to help me with these things.
The Diocese of Sacramento is not a machine or a piece of software that you can consult a manual about how it works. It’s made up of people with lots of stories, and many of those stories are locked in Bishop Weigand’s head. So I’ll still need him to tell me those stories. When something happens that’s unexplainable, usually there’s a story behind it, so I hope Bishop Weigand will be around to give me the background.
I do expect Bishop Weigand to pray for me. He more than anyone else will know the kind of prayers I’ll need.
Q: You have drawn some media attention since you came to the diocese about your views on immigration concerns and same-sex marriage, among other issues. Sometimes the reaction is not always favorable. Does that bother you?
A: I like to think I have a thick skin, but people’s negative comments or anger do weigh on me. I make many of the statements that I do, aware that they might not always be welcomed, but still with the conviction that as a pastor and teacher I must guide and teach.
Even in moments of a lot of criticism or controversy, God has always been true to his word and has always offered me consolation, either through prayer or through the random acts of kindness that people often give.
Media attention brings its own problems. People start sending you letters and the number of invitations goes up and everyone wants to pitch their good idea to you. Even good media attention is not always welcomed.
Q: Parishioners might wonder how things will change in the diocese and in their parish now that you are in charge. Will Catholics in the diocese notice any changes in the near future?
A: I don’t expect that people will see dramatic changes starting out. I’m very grateful for the sound structures that Bishop Weigand has created. There will be changes, some of them perhaps due to my own style, but others because the diocese itself is changing, so we will require looking at different ways of doing the mission that Christ left us.
Q: What do you see as your priorities for the diocese for the next few years?
A: I think resonating with the work of the diocesan synod, I am concerned about preserving and advancing the Catholic schools in the diocese. There are steps that we need to take to ensure that the schools continue to offer quality Catholic education that is accessible to the Catholic community. We have a great legacy and that legacy challenges us to build on it.
Catholic schools are not the only way to pass on the faith, but they are the most proven way that we have to pass on the faith. We have to look at other avenues, but Catholic schools have historically served the church in the United States very well. My own faith is the product of very devout Catholic parents, but also the opportunity to attend Catholic schools.
The other issue that is important for me is that I am excited about the diocesan assembly with youth and young adults we had on Oct. 13. I hope that as a fruit from the assembly that we will be able to take practical steps in creating a more active ministry to youth and young adults.
And this is not just my concern. I think it is a palpable concern in the Catholic community everywhere. I’m hopeful that we will be able to develop a more robust technological outreach to youth and young adults. I still have in my head the image of watching the young people at World Youth Day in Australia. Everyone was texting messages, taking pictures or videos and e-mailing them to their friends across the world and that image made World Youth Day a global experience for people.
Given the broad expanse of the Diocese of Sacramento, I do think that technology can help us. The Internet is the social network of youth and young adults and we will be left on the margins if we are not in that arena.
The good youth ministry that we have in the diocese needs to be more pervasive. That will take more resources, both human and financial, to make that happen. In this arena, Catholic youth ministry is playing catch-up with other Christian denominations who do already do spend the resources to cement their relationship with youth and young adults.
Q: There are many challenges facing the diocese, such as the economic crisis, the influx of immigrants, a possible shortage of priests and the growing senior population. What issues do you think pose the greatest challenges right now?
A: Sacramento is the capital for the state of California and as a Catholic community we have the opportunity and the responsibility to be actively engaged in advocating for a stronger California based on the Gospel vision and values.
My sense is that we need to do that job better. That will require more organization from our part so that we can make our voice heard on many of these issues on behalf of the unborn, mothers and children, immigrants and the elderly, the unemployed and veterans returning home from the war.
The state is in a major fiscal crisis. Among the many things that will be needed, hope is the most essential source of energy and as a Catholic community we have a message of hope.
Q: You have some very passionate views about the importance of Catholic education. What are the challenges ahead for Catholic schools in the diocese?
A: In January, I will be presenting to the Catholic community in the diocese my vision for Catholic schools and where I hope to go and some of the steps that we need to take in the short term. There may be some difficult decisions in the short term, but I want to make those decisions with a view to what we want to build for the future.
Q: Do you foresee that there will be enough priests in the diocese in the coming years to staff all of the parishes?
A: Our diocese is doing well on the question of vocations but we need to do better. A good number of our more senior and experienced priests are approaching retirement and that will present me with some challenges on how to properly staff parishes.
Q: We have some parishes led by parish stewards. Is that an option you will keep in mind if there are not enough priests to pastor every parish?
A: There are many dioceses that have a much greater shortage of priests than we do and have come up with some creative ways of managing the shortage of clergy. I will have to begin to look into what the options might be.
Q: What will be your strategy for recruiting new seminarians for the priesthood?
A: One of the reasons that I am eager to have youth and young adults engage the church is because they are the ones who will assume leadership in the church now and in the future. I look to them for not only strong lay leadership, but hopefully that a good number of them will respond to assume roles of service in the priesthood, religious life and the permanent diaconate.
I do believe that a dynamic youth ministry program nourishes the church with committed families and adult leaders, and clergy and religious. Youth and young adult ministries and recruiting vocations are not competing priorities, they are very complimentary.