Bishop Oscar Azarcon Solis greeted members of the media like old friends Tuesday, although he'd only briefly met them during a press conference that morning. He had a few more questions to answer (and a few more jokes to crack) before his busy introduction day would draw to a close.
Bishop Solis, 63, is used to being a newcomer. Since moving to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1984, he's worked in New Jersey, Louisiana and, most recently, Los Angeles. He knows how to make friends quickly and to start hunting for good food almost as soon as he's introduced.
Almost everything about the Diocese of Salt Lake City will be new to its 10th bishop, who said he's impressed by what he's heard about its charitable efforts and interfaith relationships. The diocese has spent more than 125 years building up and sustaining the Catholic presence in Utah. It boasts 16 religious schools, more than 300,000 members and monthly masses in Vietnamese, Polish and other non-English languages.
Bishop Solis, the first Filipino-American bishop ordained in the U.S., will be installed in early March. He inherits a diocese celebrated for its outreach to the homeless, immigrants and other people in need, but also faced with unique challenges.
Geographically, the Diocese of Salt Lake City is one of the largest in the U.S., containing nearly 85,000 square miles. Bishop Solis will have to balance the needs of dozens of parishes, from small congregations in rural towns to large churches in bustling cities.
He'll also need to navigate a religious landscape dominated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The two faith groups are strong allies on issues like religious freedom and refugee rights, but it can be hard for smaller religious groups to spark legislative action on topics that don't have traction within the Mormon community.
Bishop Solis said he hasn't had opportunities to work with LDS leaders before, but he is used to adjusting to new and strange environments. He celebrates diversity and champions Catholics from minority populations. His first posting in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was as the vicar for ethnic ministry and he's served as the episcopal adviser to the National Association of Filipino Priests since 2011.
Bishop Solis spoke with the Deseret News this week about what he's observed about religious practice in the U.S. and why immigration and diversity issues are central to his ministry. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: What was your early life like in the Philippines? What inspired you to become a priest?
Bishop Oscar Solis: My vocation was planted and nourished by my parents. My mom was a driving force in my occupation, and my dad put me through school and paid for everything, like my tuition for seminary.
My whole family, my sisters and brothers, were very supportive of me all my life. It was a perfect environment for my vocation to thrive and to grow.
DN: You've worked in the U.S. since 1984. What are the key strengths of the Catholic Church here?
OS: The key strength of the Catholic Church is the gospel. It is nothing new; it's the same. It's the message of the gospel: Christ and the message of love and salvation.
In season and out of season, (the gospel) is always relevant. It's always meaningful and significant. It never changes.
God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The message we preach is the same: the love of God.
However, the Catholic Church today is immersed in a different kind of circumstance. Cultural changes are happening. We're trying to see how the message of the gospel is being integrated into these changing times. The message of the gospel gets shared anew, even though it's the same.
DN: Are there unique challenges posed by American culture?
OS: The challenge is one that most bishops share. There is so much orientation toward commercialism, materialism and relativism.
It seems like there's a growing indifference toward religiosity and toward faith. And lately, it's becoming hostile.
There's no such thing anymore as neutral tolerance. We're pitted against the culture. We are considered bigots or something like that. This is the change I'm noticing.
To some, there is no such thing as neutrality. Either you are against them or for them when you make your positions.
But this is a democratic country, a land of free expression. We're a country that respects people of faith. It seems like something is going on and even some growing aggression toward religious freedom. That's one of the challenges encroaching into our way of life and worship.
DN: Another increasingly contentious issue in the U.S. is immigration. How have you addressed this topic through your ministry?
OS: Immigration is an important ministry to the church, because part of our Catholic tradition involves welcoming the stranger. From Old Testament times on, you welcomed the stranger, you opened your house to the stranger.
This message rings a note in my life because I'm an immigrant. I benefited from this wonderful, welcoming nation.
Sometimes people have short memories. I want them to understand that everyone has been an immigrant in this nation. You are given an opportunity to spread hospitality, and we have the responsibility to share with those who come in.
(Immigrants) are not here to be troublemakers. They're not here to become liabilities. They are here for opportunities and to better their lives with the best that America can give.
DN: Here in Utah, you'll have the chance to partner with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Have you worked with members of the LDS Church before?
OS: I'm excited. As I've spoken with some of the key leaders of our diocese, they've made me aware of the common mission we share. We have a heart for immigrants, refugees and the homeless.
We both do all kinds of charitable outreach to the marginalized members of our society, and that is something beautiful that can be the foundation of our working relationship. If you're always working for the common good, you won't go wrong.
We can live together, we can work together, we can extend our hands together and walk together if we do what we are asked to do: to make better the world we live in.
DN: How will you embrace the diversity of the Utah Catholic community?
OS: I'm used to diversity. I'm one of the diverse. Did you notice my accent? My color?
I'm a living testimony of diversity in America and in our Catholic Church. It's so beautiful, because the church is universal. It is a wonderful celebration of the Pentecost spirit, and people of every nation, of every culture, of every language will gather around the table without seeing the color of your skin or the status of your life.
Instead, they'll see you as a brother or sister in God's family. That is heaven happening on earth. In the midst of diversity, we have unity. We have a family.
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