Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
As the newly appointed bishop of Salt Lake City in 2007, John C. Wester found himself leading 300,000 Utah Catholics, about 80 percent of whom were Spanish speakers.
Wester decided to get busy learning Spanish.
“When I came here, I got a tutor and started working in earnest,” said Wester, who on April 27 was named the archbishop-elect of Santa Fe. “I love the language. For me, it’s not a chore.”
Today, Wester can carry on a basic conversation and celebrate Mass in Spanish, said Martin Alcocer, who publishes a Spanish-language magazine in Salt Lake City.
“He uses Spanish to communicate with the Latino community,” Alcocer said.
Wester’s language studies and strong support for immigrant families in Utah have helped endear him to the state’s diverse minority groups, Alcocer said.
“He has done many different things to open the doors of the Catholic Church wide,” he said.
Among them, Wester requires that seminarians study Spanish and achieve basic fluency before they are ordained as priests.
“He is a really humble, very human person,” Alcocer said. “That is why Catholics and non-Catholics are going to miss him.”
A native of San Francisco, Wester will be installed June 4 as the 12th archbishop of Santa Fe at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe. He succeeds Archbishop Michael Sheehan, who will step down after 22 years in the post.
Wester knew he wanted to become a priest from an early age. At age 13, he left his parents and three siblings to attend a youth seminary and boarding school that he remembers as “very regimented.”
“We went to school from Monday to Saturday, study hall seven nights a week,” he said. “You went to bed by a bell, got up by a bell.”
Leadership positions came quickly for Wester after he was ordained in 1976 as a priest in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
As auxiliary bishop from 1998 to 2007, he took a leading role in dealing with the clerical sex abuse scandal in which the Archdiocese of San Francisco settled 101 abuse claims and paid $68 million in settlements from 2003 to 2011, according to news reports.
Wester met regularly with sexual abuse victims and participated in the 2002 meeting in Dallas when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops drafted a zero-tolerance charter to protect children from sexual abuse by priests.
Active in world issues
In Wester, New Mexico Catholics can expect an archbishop who is active in church leadership, and engaged in national and world issues.
In recent years, he has chaired several committees for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He has routinely issued public statements on a wide range of issues from the Iraq War and the plight of refugees to immigration and net neutrality.
Wester plays down his role in church leadership.
“I’m not one of the big players,” he said. “I do pipe in. I like to stand on the sidelines and call a play or two from time to time.”
In his role as chairman of the bishops’ communications committee, Wester will speak to U.S. bishops in June about developments in digital media and the planned release of a new Catholic mobile app.
Catholics will be able to download the app to help stay informed about church news and events, he said. The app should be available this summer.
“It will give you everything from the Mass times at the parish near you to what Pope Francis is saying about climate change,” Wester said.
In February, Wester issued a statement urging the Federal Communications Commission to preserve net neutrality, which requires Internet service providers to treat all data on the Internet equally.
“We felt that churches and not-for-profits could be squeezed out of the marketplace,” Wester said. “We wouldn’t be able to afford the higher prices you would have to pay for the higher speeds to get our message out.”
He advocates the church’s use of social media as a way of reaching young Catholics – a view he expresses on a Twitter account created in 2012.
Wester has generated the most headlines as a longtime member of the Migration and Refugee Services Committee, in which he served as chairman from 2007 to 2010.
Voice for immigration
Wester became a voice for immigration reform in the U.S., and an advocate for refugees and displaced persons around the world.
His leadership in comprehensive immigration reform has earned him praise among Utah leaders.
“The bishop was very open about having conversations about immigration,” said Utah Sen. Luz Escamilla, a Salt Lake City Democrat.
She and Wester participated in countless panel discussions on immigration reform, and Wester was “never shy” about voicing opinions about state legislation and federal laws, Escamilla said.
Wester signed and helped draft the 2010 Utah Compromise – a statement of principles to help lawmakers draft legislation affecting immigrants – which has served as a model in other conservative states.
“We always had as a partner and as a sound voice of common sense the Bishop Wester,” she said.
Wester came out publicly in support of President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration issued last November, which protects millions of immigrants in the country illegally from deportation, saying at the time it was “high time something was done.” He also adheres to the church’s teachings against gay marriage and abortion, praising those who turned out for a National Day of Remembrance for Aborted Children in Salt Lake City last summer for coming forward “to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
Wester has expressed a strong affinity for Pope Francis’ emphasis on the church’s service to the poor.
“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,” Wester recently told the National Catholic Reporter.
As bishop, and in his leadership roles in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Wester has often weighed in on issues at the state and national levels.
In 2010, Wester co-authored a letter to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcoming President Barack Obama’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, but urging a “moral transition” that included the resettlement of millions of Iraqi refugees and displaced persons.
“The withdrawal of U.S. combat forces means the U.S. needs to help enable the Iraqi government to promote security within Iraq, especially for vulnerable minority communities like Christians,” the letter said.
Earlier this year, Wester chastised Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for signing a bill that authorized the use of firing squads as a method of execution in Utah if drugs used for lethal injection are not available.
“It seems as if our government leaders have substituted state legislation for the law of God,” Wester said March 24 in a written statement.
And in a sharply worded letter published last year in a church newspaper, Wester accused state political leaders of “frittering away” the chance to expand Medicaid in Utah.
“Utah cannot proclaim itself a pro-life state so long as it refuses to provide access to basic health care” to its citizens, he wrote.
Bishops are often hard-pressed to find a balance between “concern for the whole church” and pastoral responsibilities at home, Wester said.
He plans to avoid any chairmanships after his term as chair of the communications committee expires in November, he said.
“First and foremost, I’m a pastor,” he said. “That’s my principal function, to be a pastor in New Mexico and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. That’s my No. 1 priority.”