Bishop Wester's gifts: Marking 50 years of service and devotion

Published: Saturday, July 5 2014 3:00 p.m. MDT

Bishop John Wester of the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese celebrates Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City Thursday, April 10, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As a Roman Catholic leader in San Francisco, John Wester learned early in his career how to disagree with others in a way that allowed them to still feel loved.

The diocese received funding from the city and county and, because of this, had to fight various battles, from a requirement for members of the Catholic Charities board to declare their sexual orientation to offering health insurance to both members of a domestic partnership.

But far from providing conflict and becoming adversarial, the devout Wester and the Catholic Church worked to build understanding with the city, helping the poor and founding The Gift of Love on Fulton Street, the first home for AIDS victims in the diocese there.

Those hard-earned experiences are now utilized in Salt Lake City, where cooperation stretches across various faiths and secular institutions, without compromising beliefs.

“We do see certainly trends in our culture that need to be confronted: secularism, materialism, consumerism, relativism, any '-ism' you want to look at, but these are things that need to be confronted and challenged,” Bishop Wester said. "We don’t want to hurt anybody. We want to respect everybody. People have a right to their conclusions, and we respect everybody and treat them with dignity.”

Ordained a priest in 1976, he served in various capacities in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, most recently as apostolic administrator between 2005 and 2006. Bishop Wester has presided over the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City for nearly seven years.

Those who know him say he expresses a concern for others that allows him to navigate the often contentious territory surrounding religious freedom, same-sex marriage and immigration reform with grace.

"He's very Christlike, which you'd expect the Catholic bishop of the diocese of Utah to be. But he is soft-spoken and yet loving. He's not afraid to take a stand, a moral stand, publicly as well as within the confines of his church," said Elder M. Russell Ballard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Bishop Wester leads a diocese that encompasses 85,000 square miles in Utah. Its nearly 300,000 adherents look to him and the leadership of 145 priests, deacons, brothers and women religious in the diocese for spiritual guidance at a time of contentious court rulings and divided opinions, and as a new pope seeks to reach out to both Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world.

Speaking the truth

On Monday the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious liberty in a 5-4 ruling that found that the employee health plans of for-profit companies do not have to cover all forms of federally approved contraception — which had been mandated by President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act — if company owners have religious objections.

"We’re behind the ACA in general. We think it’s a good thing to give people affordable health care, but we believe it’s important for religions to be able to define themselves," Bishop Wester said in an interview Monday following the ruling.

“In this particular case, I think it was a case of the owner of Hobby Lobby, in terms of respecting his well-formed conscience, and I think that was the issue.”

A properly formed conscience is something Bishop Wester says is necessary in determining truth from error. Everyone's truth does not hold equal weight, he said.

“Just because someone thinks something doesn’t make it true, and we all have an obligation to properly form our consciences by using the gifts that God gives us to do that," he said.

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