SALT LAKE CITY — Bishop Oscar Azarcon Solis was shocked to learn that he would be the next leader of the Diocese of Salt Lake City.
"It was like a curveball coming from nowhere. I said, 'Salt Lake City? Am I in trouble?'" he recalled with a smile during a Tuesday press conference introducing the diocese's 10th bishop at the Diocesan Pastoral Center.
Since then, he's learned more about Utah Catholics, celebrating the diocese's ongoing outreach to refugees, immigrants and all people in need, as well as it's willingness to partner with other religious groups.
"I come with an open mind and open heart in order to learn what I need to do to become a good shepherd, a good father, a good pastor and to work collaboratively with other people," said Bishop Solis, 63.
Catholic leaders who've partnered with him in the past highlight his humility, kindness and sense of humor. Bishop Solis solicited many laughs from the crowd during Tuesday's press conference, mocking himself as a "fool" for assuming he would spend the rest of his ministry in Los Angeles.
Even as Bishop Solis has taken on new and higher positions, he's remained approachable, noted Father Esteban "Steve" DeLeon, who has worked with Bishop Solis for the past six years as part of the National Association of Filipino Priests.
"He can present the message of the love of God to people in a very human way," he said.
Focus on diversity
Bishop Solis was born and educated in the Philippines, home to around 76 million Catholics, according to Pew Research Center. He was ordained as a priest in 1979 and spent his early years in ministry leading local churches, serving as a Knights of Columbus chaplain and teaching at Catholic schools.
In 1984, Bishop Solis transferred to the U.S., where he's built a reputation as an advocate for minority populations in the Catholic Church and a champion of fellow Filipino faith leaders. In 2004, he became the first Filipino-American bishop ordained in the U.S., and he's been the episcopal adviser to the National Association of Filipino Priests since 2011.
"He's trying to promote our work to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He provides us with guidance and suggestions," Father DeLeon said.
Similarly, Father Edgar Brillantes, of the Diocese of Honolulu, said Bishop Solis has provided a meaningful support system to his fellow pastors.
"He made it clear to us that it was his intention to make the bishops of the U.S. and American Catholics at-large aware of the presence of Filipino priests serving in the U.S.," he said. "He wanted the NAFP to be a channel of support, be it moral, spiritual or material."
Over the past 13 years, Bishop Solis has had the opportunity to connect with a diverse population of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He first served as the vicar for ethnic ministry and then became the auxiliary bishop of the San Pedro Pastoral Region in 2009.
In this most recent role, Bishop Solis supervised 67 parishes and eight Catholic high schools in Long Beach and southern Los Angeles County. The Diocese of Salt Lake City includes 69 parishes, missions and stations, and three high schools.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has the largest Filipino Catholic population in the country. Bishop Solis recently helped lead the area's annual Simbang Gabi Mass, an event that weds Christmas traditions with Filipino culture.
Bishop Solis has also been involved in national outreach efforts to Filipino-American Catholics. Since 2006, he's served on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Subcommittee on Asian & Pacific Affairs.
"I fully expect that he will become the leading voice for the millions of Filipino Catholics in this country, who are a beautiful sign of growth and renewal in our church and in our country," said Archbishop José Gomez, of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in a statement.
He expressed gratitude for Bishop Solis' work on behalf of the archdiocese and wished him luck in his new role.
"Our loss will be a gift to the family of God in Salt Lake City. I know that Bishop Solis will be for them a model of prayer and compassion and a great bishop," Archbishop Gomez said.
Service in Salt Lake City
The newly named 10th bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City said he's excited to serve Utah Catholics and to visit "every corner of the Beehive State" in order to learn how to love and serve his flock.
People think of the Diocese of Salt Lake City as small, said Bishop Solis. "But it's big in the sense of its spirit, of its heart. It has a heart of a church that cares for everyone."
Although the Diocese of Salt Lake City is less demographically diverse than Los Angeles, it still brings opportunities for Bishop Solis to share his pastoral gifts. He said he's excited to participate in ongoing interfaith efforts and to work with the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City.
The diocese has a "history of ecumenism with other communities," he said.
The LDS Church issued a statement Tuesday welcoming Bishop Solis. "We warmly welcome Bishop Solis to Salt Lake City. The LDS Church has been blessed by the goodness and faithfulness of his predecessors, and we look forward to building a friendship and partnership with Bishop Solis as we work together to serve the people of Utah. Mabuhay, Bishop Solis!"
About 60 percent of Utah Catholics of Hispanic, 34 percent are white and 5 percent are Asian. Masses in Utah are celebrated in a variety of languages, including Vietnamese, Filipino, Polish and Korean, according to the diocese.
Bishop Solis said outreach to minority Catholics is not his unique mission. Instead, it's the whole Catholic Church's mission.
"This is the spirit of America, and this is the beautiful spirit of our church: to work with all people of every race, culture, language and every state of life," said Bishop Solis, who conducted part of Tuesday's press conference in Spanish. "I don't see (Latino or Filipino Catholics) as minorities. I see them as brothers and sisters in Christ."
Archbishop John C. Wester of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News that the selection of Bishop Solis should be celebrated by Utah Catholics.
"He's very kind. He's very pastoral. He really likes people a lot. He loves the church. He's a good leader," he said. "I think he'll fit in very nicely in Salt Lake City."
Father Brillantes shared a similar assessment.
"The bishop inspired us with his wisdom, wit, spirited leadership and fraternal concern. I'm sure he is ready and only too happy to share the same virtues" with Salt Lake City, he said.
Father DeLeon expressed confidence in Bishop Solis's abilities, while also noting that he was at first surprised that he would lead an area with relatively few Filipino worshippers.
"I was wondering why he was appointed bishop of Salt Lake. But I think he can be a leader for all Catholics. He can be and he will be a faithful, humble servant-leader of any group," he said.
"This historic choice by (the pope) acknowledges the diversity of the Diocese of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake City," tweeted Mayor Jackie Biskupski.
Bishop Solis echoed Pope Francis in asking the members of his new flock to pray for him as he prepares to lead the Diocese of Salt Lake City.
"Pray that God will give me the wisdom and the strength to be a responsible shepherd of the flock," he said.
Bishop Solis will be installed on Tuesday, March 7, at 2 p.m. during a ticketed event at the Cathedral of the Madeline. A public reception will be held that evening from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Marriott Downtown at City Creek, 75 S. West Temple.