On Thursday the day before he was scheduled to offer a prayer in Utah's Senate chamber Bishop John C. Wester mused for a moment about what he might include in his plea to God for state legislators.
He joked about using the occasion as a platform to urge compassion on the immigration bill, which has been one of this year's most volatile topics at the Capitol. While he chuckled about the prospects, the issue is clearly top-of-mind for a man who is now at the forefront of discussion about immigration policy in America. In November, he was named chairman of the Committee on Migration of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
While it was not a post he anticipated a year ago when he was preparing to move to Salt Lake City from San Francisco to serve as Utah's ninth Catholic bishop he didn't shrink from the appointment.
Some 70 percent of Utah Catholics are Spanish-speaking, and the percentages nationally are rising as well.
"That doesn't mean we open the doors (of the church) because the Anglos are being gracious," he said. "That's who we are."
In the past three months, he's talked with both federal and state lawmakers about the necessity of immigration reform, the particulars of how Christ would treat people and the intricacies of pending legislation that will have a dramatic impact on millions of homes and businesses. He's given two public lectures on the topic and is scheduled to participate in a roundtable discussion next week at the University of Utah.
With a full load of administrative duties, visits to Utah's far-flung parishes and pastoral care work to balance in the mix, he's scarcely had time to catch his breath since being installed as bishop on March 14, 2007.
Friends who said farewell in San Francisco predicted Bishop Wester would be a "full-speed" and "hands-on" leader, determined to immerse himself in the issues unique to his office. He admits he hasn't had time to do to much else, other than squeeze in occasional days off to clear his head.
"I've taken up snowshoeing," he said, citing a recent trip up Mill Creek Canyon. "But I don't ski. I subscribe to Erma Bombeck's philosophy: I don't like to participate in a sport where there's an ambulance nearby."
He's been impressed by Utahns in general, he said, and their ready support for religious devotion, family and strong moral values. "It's a very hospitable place, and the people are very gracious," whether it comes from an early history of religious persecution or whether it's simply "in the air."
One exception: Utah drivers. "They are really fast and assertive. I feel like an old grandpa, and I'm only 57. I don't know what I was expecting. Maybe a more laid-back, rural type of approach, with the wide-open spaces. Maybe that's why they're used to going fast."
While he had heard good things about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from his predecessor now-Archbishop George Niederauer Bishop Wester said he wondered exactly what his relationship with the faith's leaders would be like: "a big tug of war, or how will it play out," he recalls.
"Actually it's been a very gracious and cordial relationship," he said. For example, the day LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson was named to lead the church,
a group of newly minted priests was conversing with Bishop Wester at the Little America Hotel when President Monson approached Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, his long-time friend, asking, "Terry, what are you doing here?"
"That illustrates the mutual respect religious leaders have for each other here," he said, adding he's a bit embarrassed that he hasn't been out to meet as many as he would like to. "I need to get out and see more of them."
He's been well-received by Utahns generally and has found a ready ear for religious perspectives on issues among Utah lawmakers, who seem to genuinely value such input. "We can have disagreements on issues, but we're still friends at the end of the day. ... I value and appreciate that."
He's talked individually with several in recent weeks about immigration in particular, he said, and is "pleased to see there are some areas of congruence" with Catholic bishops about consideration for family life, human dignity and the societal contributions of many who have come to Utah seeking a better life, particularly in agriculture, service industries and construction.
"From my perspective, I'm hearing voices of reason and compassion in the debate. ... I think I'm hearing that we respect immigrants as people that they are not as easily demonized here" as in other parts of the country. "I think there is a deep understanding of the importance of family unification, that we do not split families up. These are things the bishops would call for in general ways."
Yet there are also "areas of divergence," he said, noting that "one dominant voice I'm hearing in the conversation is that they have broken the law and they should go home. As a (Catholic) Conference, we would be in favor of having immigrants make restitution or pay a penalty for breaking the law" something of "an atonement," he said. "But then be allowed to walk the path to citizenship. We're not for amnesty in the true sense of that word."
Bishop Wester said he believes statistics breaking down categories of immigrants show "the majority of illegal immigrants are those who have overstayed their visas. They're not just hoards of people running across the desert."
He said state lawmakers are in a tough position, trying to deal with an issue that ultimately is a federal responsibility, since citizenship is not granted by individual states.
Yet issues that are being debated locally like in-state tuition for undocumented students, driver privilege cards and regulation on businesses that hire illegal workers have the potential to become punitive in ways that opponents may not fully understand, he said. Some of the most vocal opponents of immigration likely never have dealt personally with anyone who is actually in the country illegally, he said.
"I think there are many stands that people would agree with us on, but they are just not vocal about it," he said, noting there is often a silent majority on controversial issues that doesn't speak out, leaving the debate for people on the extreme sides of the issue. "That's the impression I have here in Utah. I think the anti-immigration voice is louder than the pro-immigration voice."
He said he doesn't believe those opposed to immigration "hate or loathe immigrants, but there is fear in their heart that the law has been broken and they should not be allowed in. It's hard to know what label to give all of us in this, but I sense the majority of Utahns would be in favor of immigration reform and laws that would allow the vast majority of to stay and have legal citizenship," provided they "paid their dues" to society.
"I think most recognize the rich legacy of immigration in our nation. Not too many of us have to go too far back in our heritage to find immigrants in our families."
As a strong advocate for compassionate reform, Bishop Wester acknowledged that he has become a target for many who oppose the bishops' views on the topic. "I get letters from people saying 'butt out' on this. They are both Catholic and non-Catholic, outside the diocese.
"I don't read the blogs, because they are depressing," he said, noting they seem to attract extremists who want to attack with the convenient veil of anonymity. "People who don't have to identify themselves, many of them take cheap shots. I don't feel I should honor that by reading it."
Conversely, he tries to respond to those who take a civil tone and share their views through letters, he said.
Interestingly, some of the most strident voices he hears are from those who were once immigrants themselves and have now become citizens, he said. "Maybe it's, 'We did it right. Why can't they do it right?' But times have changed."
Catholic bishops generally see the issue from an international perspective, he said, rather than simply a local one, noting the church's work worldwide over the centuries with immigrants of every kind. He said understanding and compassion for a person's intent are key to dealing with the issue in a morally acceptable way. Most who are come aren't here "to launder money or run drugs." They're striving to provide a better life for their families than they otherwise would have.
"To the church, the immigration issue is primarily a humanitarian one," he told an audience recently. "Because it affects the human rights, human dignity and the lives of millions of human beings, it has moral implications and must be viewed through a moral lens."He knows "a lot of stands we take are in the minority opinion," but that's been the role of religion historically to provide a voice some don't want to hear.
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