What I've learned from him is what it means to be a person who reflects Christ's own presence and community, and it begins with his heart. —Pastor the Rev. Steve Klemz
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.
"God, through divine revelation, through scriptures, through Jesus Christ and sacred tradition, has revealed certain truths that have great standing and sacredness and foundation that cannot be even compared to, you know, someone comes along and says, 'Well now this is true and then that's true.'"
It is because of revelation and traditions that Bishop Wester said he feels compelled to defend his religion's moral stance in support of traditional marriage.
“We love everybody. God loves everybody. Not just some people or those who agree with the Catholic Church. God loves everybody and we believe that firmly," he said. “But we believe that there are truths that must be upheld."
The church's stance is based on love, he said. While some have made accusations of bigotry toward those who do not support gay marriage, he has worked to create a balance in which he can acknowledge each person's worth and share the message of God's love while staying faithful to his church's teachings.
“You have to form your conscience properly. We believe that as a church we have an obligation to help people to do that," he said. "But, if they disagree, if they’ve considered it and they just don’t agree with us, that’s their prerogative. We don’t hate them because of it. We don’t treat them as less a human being because of it," he said.
"We try to work with them as best we can and try to stand shoulder to shoulder and do what we can — find common ground and work with people, and keep presenting them Christ’s love and God’s love and God’s compassion."
Easing the suffering
A significant portion of Bishop Wester's ministry has been involved in promoting immigration reform, both locally and nationally. He sees immigration reform as a means of easing the suffering of immigrant families and as "an optimist by nature" is hopeful that reform will come this summer.
"I think there is a desire on both sides of the aisle to fix a broken system, because I think both sides recognize it as broken, so I believe that there would be a possibility," he said.
According to local activist Tony Yapias, Bishop Wester's optimism is not unfounded. He expects change of some form to come this summer, if not through Congress then through executive order.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama released his plans to move forward with executive orders on immigration reform, after House Speaker John Boehner continued to say the House would not vote on immigration reform this year without changes by Obama.
In Bishop Wester's conversations with religious and civic leaders regarding immigration reform, the bishop has shown an ability to "speak the truth in love" according to Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church Pastor the Rev. Steve Klemz.
The two have worked together on immigration reform since Bishop Wester's appointment. While the Rev. Klemz and Bishop Wester do not agree on matters such as women clergy and gay marriage, they have more similarities than differences, Klemz said.
"What I've learned from him is what it means to be a person who reflects Christ's own presence and community, and it begins with his heart," he said. "I think that's what I value most with Bishop Wester is the way that he speaks the truth with love."
The formative years
Born in 1950, the young boy Wester attended public school until fourth grade before moving to a Catholic School. He "had a solid Catholic upbringing," he said, saying the rosary daily and attending Mass even while on vacation. He began attending Mass daily in the sixth grade.
His parents took on the traditional roles of the wife as homemaker and husband as the breadwinner.
"Mom and Dad were a team, and we knew that we could not play one against the other," he said. "The greatest gift Mom and Dad gave us was their love for each other."
This year marks Bishop Wester's 50th anniversary of entering the ministry. At the age of 13, he enrolled at a high school seminary with the intention of becoming a priest.
”Of course, his father and I, we thought he was young but he seemed determined,” his mother, Helen Wester, said in a phone interview from the San Francisco Bay Area. “With prayer we decided, well if that’s what he wants, that’s what we should do.”
His parents encouraged him, and his father, who died in 1999, told him he could come home if the ministry was not a good fit.
Wester visits his family several times a year in San Francisco and calls his mother daily. God seems to have blessed Bishop Wester with the gifts of composure and working toward the common good, his mother said.
"I'm just happy that he's happy in his ministry. I leave the rest of it in the hands of God," Helen Wester said.
At times he considered being a doctor and thought about getting married and raising a family — "I probably spared some poor woman a miserable life," he quipped — but felt "Christ's call to be a priest was always reaffirmed." He said he relishes the chance to pray with others, to bring individuals closer to Christ through sacraments and to bless others' lives.
"I realized it's a sacrifice. It's not going to be easy, and there may be moments of loneliness, especially as I get older, you know, I'm not going to have grandkids or whatever," he said.
He has been able to reconcile this by realizing, he says, that he will be giving and receiving something greater.
“Instead of having four or five kids, I’ll have 5,000, depending on the size of the parish now diocese,” he said. "I just realized that I was very happy serving people, being with people and particularly bringing Christ to them and God’s peace and God’s compassion and God’s consolation and God’s presence."
Bishop Wester developed a liking for baseball as a child. He and hiis father would wash cars together on the weekends while listening to Bay Area announcers Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges announce the Giants games.
"Bye Bye, baby," he remembers Hodges saying when Willie Mays hit a home run.
While he likes baseball, he loves golf.
This year he will continue a friendly tournament with four friends he calls "The Catholics versus the Mormons." He and fellow Catholic Dominic Albo compete against Elder Ballard and Ellis Ivory, founder of Ivory Homes.
"We'll beat 'em, you know. We've got the Lord on our side," Albo joked.
You can tell the bishop grew up playing the game but does not get to play very often, Albo said. Though according to Elder Ballard, the bishop's game is improving.
"That's a problem for us," Elder Ballard said.
Albo describes his friend as being "with the people and about people." He takes care of his health, enjoys restaurants and cooking when he has time, and will clear the table and put the dishes away if he eats at others' homes. With urging from others, he will also play classical music on the piano.
Although the two met nearly seven years ago, Albo has been struck by his friend's concern for the well-being of others.
"He has become one of my best friends that I've ever had because of just that reason," Albo said.
Bishop Wester seems wired to give.
This is reflected in his schedule, full of civic meetings, confirmations, fundraisers, in addition to other diocesan responsibilities. He serves on five committees for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and as a member of the international Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, among others. He is also known to make time for visits to elementary school classrooms.
"I don't think he would say he's giving a piece of him. I think he would say he is giving a piece of Christ to that person because he is diminishing so that Christ can increase in him so that he has more of Christ to give," said Colleen Gudreau, communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
"It's almost as if he's becoming transparent and John Wester's disappearing and Jesus Christ is there, right behind his skin."2 comments on this story
Elder Ballard and Bishop Wester serve together on the Alliance for Unity Community that looks for ways to bring Utahns together. Elder Ballard said he has noticed that the bishop does not put himself above others.
"He's a very human, warm, sensitive, loving person," Elder Ballard said. "We just need to hope that he has a very long tenure here in Utah."