SAN FRANCISCO Used to living simply in one room with his bed and books inside an urban rectory, the idea of three bedrooms and two baths is almost more than Bishop John Wester can fathom.
After a tour of his new address on Salt Lake City's east side recently, he employed what friends say is his characteristic sense of humor, along with a wide smile: "Well, I'm not sure it's quite large enough."
Wester, 56, will be installed Wednesday as Utah's new Catholic bishop and knows he will soon find himself surrounded by more open space than he's ever known both physically and emotionally, at least in the beginning. Coming from the only place he's ever lived, the bishop is leaving his heart in the frenetic pace of San Francisco.
But those who know him best say his affections will catch up with him quickly, as he embraces not only the wide open spaces he's heard so much about, but hundreds of thousands of Catholics here who've been waiting more than a year for a new shepherd.
"His world has been the Bay Area," said Sister Glenn Ann McPhee, chancellor of Oakland and a longtime friend. "It's going to be really hard for him to leave home, but in terms of embracing Salt Lake City, it will be like everything else in his life with arms open and with joy."
That kind of embrace is built into his DNA, according to Sister Rosemary Everett, a colleague of 28 years and one of many friends coming to Utah for his installation. "He doesn't know what it is to be bored. He has so many interests. He'll find out all he can about Utah."
In fact, he's been doing just that. Wester told the Deseret Morning News he's been reading travel books and looks forward to enjoying the outdoors during his long drives to distant parishes throughout the Beehive State. "I know I have about 85,000 square miles to cover," with 48 widespread parishes.
For a man so used to juggling myriad responsibilities, free time has been virtually unknown, his friends say. "He's really worn three hats here," said Sister Rosemary: vicar general, or second in command to the archbishop, as well as vicar of clergy and auxiliary bishop. "With the amount of responsibility he has shouldered in the last 10 years, he's extremely well prepared."
Even with the pace he's used to, ministering to a large portion of California's 10 million Catholics, Wester is not worried about being bored. "If I run out of things to do at the office, I'll run out and meet some of those 200,000 Catholics and those 2.4 million Utahns," he said.
And it won't take him long to do so, according to Barbara Elordi, who has worked with Wester in ministering to victims of clergy sexual abuse. "He'll be very, very present, and he will become hands-on in Salt Lake City. If you have a soup kitchen, he'll be there," and not as an observer.
In fact, ministering personally to the disenfranchised of any stripe has been such a large part of his ministry that friends wonder how he has found time to be such an able administrator. "He's an extrovert, and he has the gift of not letting himself get totally lost in the administration of things," Elordi said. "He'll continue to get out there. That's just who he is."
"He has some unique talent in the sense that he is very pastoral and very administrative," at the same time, said the Rev. John Hardin, executive of St. Anthony Foundation for the homeless. It's not unusual to see Wester show up at the St. Anthony dining room, don an apron and begin serving food to the homeless, he said.
Rather than simply smile, he engages the people he serves in conversation. "There's a fine line between being very intelligent and crazy. Watching John interact with people who ask him these deep theological questions it's startling when it first happens to you. They know scripture, and he is very good about trying to be respectful of the person, and it gets him thinking. It's kind of like the tables get turned" as he ponders their comments, Hardin said.
He has "no ego in the bad sense of the word. He's a man who likes himself and is comfortable with himself, but he has no need to have any sense of importance," said Monsignor Robert McElroy, pastor at St. Gregory's Church in San Mateo and a former diocesan administrator.
"John is humility in the best sense of the word. Presenting yourself without pretense, and that's John. He leads in an open, collaborative way. He listens, and what people say makes a difference in his thinking. Not that he always rolls over, but he takes what is said into account," McElroy said.
He cautions that the new bishop will have to watch himself in a couple of ways. "He tends to get very personally involved, in the good sense of that word, with people's problems. There is a cost to that there's no rubber stamp. The costs are the level of energy and involvement he can continue to maintain, particularly when dealing with problems that are insoluble."
Though Wester is highly regarded, Hardin said, "He's not impressed with his position. ... His sense of authenticity and his integrity go together. What you see is what you get."
In addition to being deeply prayerful, faith-filled and pastoral in the sense of reaching out as Christ did, Sister Glenn Ann said the bishop was always widely popular with students particularly the high school girls that used to take his religion classes when he began teaching at Marin Catholic High School in the late '70s.
Noting his personal charisma and good looks and the fact that he was committed to lifelong celibacy as a priest, "most of the young women in the high school community in the San Francisco area called him 'Father What-A-Waste,'" she said, noting he didn't seem to mind, but it didn't go to his head.
That charisma has come into play in some settings others may tend to avoid, friends said, including not only his ministry to the homeless, but to victims of clergy sexual abuse and their abusers, as well as to prisoners at San Quentin.
Elordi said when the sexual abuse scandal first began making headlines a few years back, a national group of victim advocates showed up unannounced one day in front of the diocesan offices and began protesting. He asked them to come inside, sat down and talked with them.
"They often all talk about that. Some of them have shared how traumatic it was just in entering this as a church building. Since that day he's been like that with everything." As he got to know them and their stories, his compassion allowed them to feel some dignity, she said.
Later, a few victims whose lawsuits were not settled out of court went to trial, and the bishop "would take off in the middle of the day, go down and sit in the courtroom and listen to what was happening," even when he was not part of the deposition process. "It brought some healing for some of them just to know that he cared and was there."
Several victims wanted to attend his farewell Mass last month, but none was able to go inside the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, where the service was held, she said. "It was just too traumatic. So we decided to just have a little get-together tonight for anyone who wanted to come.
"He was always willing to meet with them. He will squeeze them in, and that is rare, very rare," Elordi said, noting that he has also shown genuine love and compassion in dealing with the priests who were found guilty of sexually abusing victims. "He sees them as sick people."
Stories abound of his serving meals to the elderly and ministering to their needs, both in life and in death. But one of the tributes that touched people in his archdiocese the most was a letter from Leonard Rubio, an inmate at San Quentin, whose remarks were read at his farewell Mass in San Francisco.
"Bishop Wester's presence behind these walls with the Catholic Studies Institute classes, the Interfaith Restorative Justice Roundtable, and especially at our Easter Vigils baptizing, confirming and freeing from the shackles of sin our imprisoned brothers has been an inspirational example of our Lord's call to visit and care for the least in God's kingdom.
"We should all follow Bishop Wester's example of sharing our faith and love with everyone we encounter while sharing Christ's message of redemption and hope. ... Our hope is that you will also bring God's message to all of our brothers imprisoned in Utah, as well.
E-mail: [email protected]