Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester used his homily both to interpret the meaning of Easter and define his agenda at last week’s packed Palm Sunday Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.
And both centered on helping others in need.
“We’re called to have that sensitivity to others that makes us alert to their needs and to their struggles,” Wester told parishioners. The message of Easter, he said, is “reaching out to those who are struggling, with whatever it may be, addictions or poverty, people who are dealing with mental illness.”
Wester’s homily has similarities to the message often repeated by Pope Francis, who tapped Wester 11 months ago as the 12th archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
“He is a Pope Francis kind of bishop,” the Rev. Joel Garner, abbot of Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey in Albuquerque, said of Wester. “Pope Francis has called for the church to advocate for the marginalized,” and Wester is taking Francis at his word, he said.
Former Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan introduced his successor to New Mexicans on April 27, and Wester was installed June 3.
The former bishop of Salt Lake City said the first 10 months of his tenure have been a time to listen to New Mexicans and learn about his new home.
He has set a multiyear goal of visiting each of the 93 parishes and has met with each of the state’s eight deaneries, which are local administrative units composed of priests, deacons and lay leaders.
At a deanery meeting Garner attended in the Albuquerque area, Wester had microphones set up and encouraged a group of 50 or more lay Catholics to offer comments and ask questions.
“The archbishop didn’t just want the priests there,” Garner said. “He wanted broad representation of the deanery.” Wester took notes throughout the meeting, he said.
“I think he has come in to listen to this church,” Garner said. “We’re a very culturally diverse church here. He has an agenda I’m sure, but he needs people to buy in. I’m glad he’s not coming out with guns blasting on issues.”
Wester said he has come away from his visits around the state with a variety of impressions.
“From my perspective as a faith leader, the thing that has really impressed me has been the place of religion here in New Mexico,” he said in a recent interview. “I see that it does have a strong tradition here in the culture of this state.”
The archdiocese had 37 seminarians at the time he was installed on June 3 – an unusually large number given the archdiocese’s membership of about 300,000. “It must be something in the water here,” he said.
Not all of Wester’s impressions of the state are favorable.
“There is more poverty than I realized at first,” he said. “The people are struggling, not only with economic poverty. Addictions impoverish us.” He called the prevalence of addiction here “startling.”
New Mexico had the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2014, after only West Virginia. And more than one in five New Mexicans – 21.3 percent – had incomes below the poverty line, defined as $23,834 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only Mississippi had a higher rate.
Wester said an issue the archdiocese faces is the need to raise more money to support scholarships at its two Catholic high schools and 14 primary schools in order to maintain enrollment, which has slipped in recent years.
Another issue is the lawsuits filed against the archdiocese by Albuquerque attorney Brad Hall on behalf of alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests. Hall has filed 58 lawsuits since 2011, of which 37 have been settled and 21 remain active.
Wester said the archdiocese has in place a zero-tolerance policy for child abuse and systems for educating its employees.
“You do the best you can to bring justice to the victims, which they deserve, and do our best to help and support them,” Wester said of the victims of abuse cases, which first rocked the archdiocese in the 1990s.
“Vigilance is critically important,” he said. “You can have policies, but you need to remain vigilant and continue to have systems that reinforce themselves. These are all things designed to keep children safe.”
Many New Mexico Catholics who attended Wester’s Palm Sunday Mass and his earlier blessing of palm leaves at the Santa Fe Plaza say they still don’t know much about their archbishop and declined to offer observations.
Others have impressions based on Wester’s homilies, and visits to schools and parishes around the state. Many say they like his personable style and sense of humor.
“He’s just as human as we are and I find him very witty,” said Veronica Viarreal of Santa Fe, who heard Wester speak recently at Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Santa Fe.
Ty Sweeney of Albuquerque said Wester hosted a call-in radio program late last year and Sweeney decided to phone in.
“He was very personable, very welcoming,” said Sweeney, who moved to New Mexico from Texas a year ago. Wester welcomed Sweeney to New Mexico, as one newcomer to another.
“I’m also impressed with what he is saying about immigration, that we need to put the human side first,” Sweeney said.
In February, Wester held a symposium on the issue of immigration in which he publicly criticized the U.S. policy of detaining and deporting immigrants, and called on U.S. officials to enact comprehensive immigration reform.
The event, called Crossing Borders: A Symposium on Immigration, drew about 400 people in Albuquerque and came at a time when immigration had become a hot-button issue in presidential campaigns.
“Immigrants are the poorest of the poor; they don’t have anyone to speak for them,” Wester said of his decision to host the symposium. “The church needs to be a voice for the voiceless, and the church needs to speak up for them.”
Wester’s decision to sponsor a symposium on an issue of national discussion was both bold and unusual, Garner said.
“I think it was significant that it was done in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, when everybody is hardening their positions on a whole bunch of issues politically,” Garner said.
Pope Francis in December designated 2016 the Jubilee Year of Mercy, calling for forgiveness and reconciliation in the Catholic Church and in broader society.
A San Francisco native, Wester was ordained a priest in 1976. He served as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 2005-06 and as bishop of Salt Lake City from 2007 until his appointment to lead the Archdiocese of Sante Fe.
Wester has trimmed some of his responsibilities with the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. He will remain on the group’s migration committee until November, but has stepped down as chairman. He continues to serve on the cultural diversity committee.
“Being new to New Mexico, I’d like to spend more time here than on a plane,” he said.