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Bishop on a mission: Wester aims to maintain community cooperation

Published: Saturday, July 11 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

John Clark, Deseret News

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Honored earlier this year by the Sutherland Institute for helping build bridges among Utah's faith communities, the Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese, says his initial effort has merely been to maintain existing foundations and reciprocate to those who have been reaching out to him.

And, of course, to teach through word and deed that bridges among those of different faiths are based in simple friendship and understanding.

Saying he's been "traveling on bridges that had already been built" prior to his 2007 arrival, Wester added, "It's not like I came in and saw all these islands and built bridges between them — I'm building upon that which has already been done, and I'm grateful for that."

He's a little embarrassed by the "bridge-builder" title, though he says without sustaining the efforts and communication, "those bridges would collapse."

Bishop Wester said he's merely returning the warmth he has received in Salt Lake City. He lists newfound friendships with various religious and civic leaders including President Thomas S. Monson and Elder M. Russell Ballard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, Sen. Orrin Hatch and former U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, to name a few.

His experiences have underscored the information given him by his Salt Lake predecessor, Archbishop George H. Niederauer of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. And while Bishop Wester arrived in Utah with no preconceived notions, he was aware of predominant perceptions.

"People have the idea, at least it's my impression, that Utah is an insulated, isolated kind of place not in touch with other groups or the rest of the country," he said. "I would say after two years here, quite the opposite is true — Utah is a place where religious leaders, civic leaders of all stripes and business leaders work together in a wonderful, cooperative way.

"Clearly, Utah defies the stereotypes and proves by its own actions that those stereotypes are wrong."

For Bishop Wester, building bridges means building a friendship.

"The foundation of a bridge is, 'Let's get to know one another, let's try to establish a relationship and then see where that takes us,' " he said. "And if you do it honestly, I think in most cases then you start to talk about issues that do matter, and the next tier is to focus on those values we share in common."

And he has found quite a few of those shared values while serving in Utah, values such as family, self-sacrifice, missionary zeal, prayer, spirituality, honesty, hard work, charity and concern for the poor.

"There are all kinds of values that we cherish together and so much we can do together," he said, adding that while doctrinal differences may exist, "you work on what is common."

Religious tolerance and cooperation locally can be tempered by sparks and friction, often the result of carelessness or unintentional acts. But Bishop Wester said that from what he gathers from historical readings and experience, Utah has witnessed great growth in relationships between faiths and between church and civic groups.

"I think we're on a good trajectory," he added.

Bishop Wester recalls a personal experience earlier this year when he was a member of the diocese's 25-person contingent invited by the LDS Church for a special open-house tour of its new Draper Utah Temple.

"Here we were, Roman Catholics, walking through an LDS temple and learning," said Bishop Wester of his first visit to a Mormon temple, "very in awe of the great attention paid to giving glory to God and the rites of baptism and marriage."

He also remembers people giving a noticeable double-take when they saw his white Roman collar.

Calling it "a moment of grace," Bishop Wester explained "You can either set your heels in and say to yourself, 'Well, I'm just going to put up all my defense shields and be nice,' or say, 'This is an opportunity to get to know people, to appreciate the beauty of their faith, their religion and to see how God is being given glory through all this.' "

Both instances confirmed to Bishop Wester "We have unity through diversity and not unity through conformity." It resulted in a memorable, positive experience.

"It's proof positive to me," he said, "that our different cultures — religious and otherwise — can come together. We can work together, respect each other and develop friendships that are great gifts from God."

e-mail: taylor@desnews.com

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