SALT LAKE CITY — On Wednesday, when Roman Catholics around the world resonated to the words “habemus papam” spoken from a Vatican balcony, the Most Reverend John C. Wester, Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City, was in Baltimore participating in administrative meetings with Catholic Relief Services.
As chairman of the organization’s Overseas Operating Committee, he was about to convene a scheduled committee meeting when he received a text informing him that the Vatican chimney was billowing white smoke, the sign to the huge crowd gathered on Vatican Square that a new pope had been selected.
“At that point I completely lost the attention of my committee members,” Bishop Wester told Salt Lake media Friday morning during a press conference at the Salt Lake City Diocese Pastoral Center. “To be honest, I didn’t want to be in that meeting any more than any of them did. I told them, ‘This is history being made.’ So we just skipped the meeting and watched the events from the Vatican on TV along with everyone else.”
Bishop Wester said his first thought upon hearing the identity of the new pope was conveyed in a feeling of urgency. “I felt like I should be back in my diocese, not 2,000 miles away,” he said.
Although he said he had no knowledge or familiarity with the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he was announced as Pope Francis, he knew immediately that the selection of a Spanish-speaking pope from Latin America would be a major moment for members of his diocese, 70-80 percent of whom are Spanish-speaking.
“The Catholic Church is at once universal and local,” Bishop Wester observed. “Most Catholics experience the church through their local parish, or through experiences at Catholic hospitals. At the same time, however, there is a universal element to the church, and I think this election brings the universal and the local together in an unique way.
“To have a Spanish-speaking pope will be an extraordinary thing to many people here,” he continued. “It is a connection that people can have with the Holy Father in a meaningful way. People like to have this affinity with their leaders. They are delighted.”
Like many others, Bishop Wester has been scouring the Internet trying to learn everything he can about the new pontiff. He has watched carefully as the media has reported on the first two days of the administration of Pope Francis, and he sees clues that suggest the kind of pope he is going to be.
“We human beings live by sign and symbol, and simple things can be very profound,” Bishop Wester said. “Pope Francis is communicating through these signs and symbols — what he wears, asking for the prayers of the people, praying simple and familiar prayers, getting in the bus to go to dinner with the cardinals instead of taking a special car, paying his hotel bill personally, talking to people individually.
“These are little gestures but they say a lot,” the bishop said. “People pick up on them immediately.”
Bishop Wester refused to categorize Pope Francis as either conservative or liberal since, he said, “I’m very leery of labels.”
“If ‘conservative’ means to conserve or hold onto cherished truths, he will certainly preserve the truths of the church,” he said. “At the same time, his past suggests he will be very focused on the poor and needy. Some will call that a liberal mindset, but I don’t think that’s liberal or conservative. I think that’s just what Jesus did.”
As far as Bishop Wester is concerned, “the cardinals have noticed the witness that Cardinal Bergoglio made with his life, and they think this is what the church needs right now.”
“He has been very much in touch with the poor, very strong on social justice issues,” he said. “Every pope is going to have his set of priorities. It’s clear social justice will be one of his.”
Regardless of the positions he takes, Bishop Wester said “Pope Francis has a very difficult job.”
“There are many different tensions in the world today,” he said. “He’s going to have to lead us through these stormy waters.”
And so, he added, “we pray for Pope Francis.”
The bishop will conduct a special mass on Tuesday in conjunction with the installation mass for the new pope that will be held at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican that day.
“We’re all one in the Eucharist,” he said, although the precise time the service will be held has not yet been determined. “But it’s not like he becomes pope at the mass. He’s already the pope. He became the pope the moment he said ‘yes.’”
Another series of administrative meetings will take Bishop Wester to Rome in late May.
“Typically on those occasions, we will have an audience with the Holy Father,” he said. “You never know for sure. But if it happens, it will be exciting to meet him, and to wish him well.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company