The bishop of Salt Lake City since 2007, Wester will become the leader of an estimated 300,000 Roman Catholics in New Mexico on June 4 when he is installed as the 12th Archbishop of Santa Fe at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe. He will succeed Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan, who will step down after 22 years in the post.
Hours after the appointment was announced, Wester spoke of the Catholic Church’s commitment to social justice and praised Pope Francis’ reorientation of the church toward poverty and social issues.
“I feel a real affinity and closeness with our Holy Father, Pope Francis,” Wester, 64, said at a news conference at the Archdiocese of Santa Fe offices in Albuquerque. “I think he’s leading us very beautifully. I’m very encouraged by the direction he has taken us.”
Wester, who has written and spoken publicly in support of comprehensive immigration reform, also spoke of his commitment to lifting up people who migrate to the U.S.
Current immigration policy fragments families, taking a heavy toll on children who may find themselves without a parent, he said.
“The dignity of the family and the human person figure heavily in our moral teaching,” said Wester, who served as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ migration committee from 2007 to 2010. He remains a member of the committee.
“I believe that we have to advocate strongly for immigration reform to alleviate the problem,” he said. “I think all of us can agree that the system is broken, that we need to fix it.”
Under church rules, Sheehan was required to submit his resignation to the Holy See when he turned 75 on July 9, 2014.
Wester said he was unprepared for his appointment as archbishop elect.
“I was not expecting it, to be honest with you,” he said. “I was surprised.”
Sheehan reminded Catholics that Wester is among the first bishops that Francis has appointed in the U.S.
“This appointment was a Pope-Francis kind of appointment, representing the values that the pope himself has,” Sheehan said of Wester. “There were choices. It could have been different.”
Wester was named bishop elect under circumstances that differ markedly from those Sheehan inherited in 1993, just months after then-Archbishop Robert Sanchez resigned amid allegations of sexual relations with women.
Lawsuits also were mounting against the archdiocese in the early years of the sex abuse scandal that would rock the Roman Catholic Church.
Sheehan on Monday alluded to the “challenging circumstances” that faced him when he was named archbishop.
Wester said that he remains committed to supporting the church’s zero-tolerance policy toward priests who sexually abuse children.
As auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Francisco from 1998 to 2005, Wester said he “worked very much in the forefront of that in dealing with the scandal” and meeting regularly with people who had been sexually abused by priests.
“It was a very painful moment for them, for all of us,” he said.
A San Francisco native, Wester was ordained a priest in 1976. After serving as auxiliary bishop, he served as apostolic administrator for the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 2005 and 2006.
He was appointed bishop of Salt Lake City on Jan. 8, 2007.
Today, Wester remains active in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he chairs the communications committee and serves as a member of the education committee.
Several New Mexico Catholics said Monday they were encouraged that Wester chaired the immigration committee for the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops.
Others said they had hoped that the church would tap a New Mexico Hispanic to lead the archdiocese.
“I hope that he knows about our culture,” said Regina Olivas, shortly before attending Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Albuquerque.
“I hope he has a background and knowledge not just of the Hispanic culture, but the Native culture,” she said.
Others said an archbishop’s ethnicity is less important than his spirituality.
“Let’s hope that he is a good selection and that he’s blessed by the holy spirit,” said Arturo Garcia, 64. “If he is truly a spiritual man, that’s the important thing, because we’re all brothers.”