Thursday, October 11, 2007

It's Official: It's Jaimetime

(In the interests of full disclosure given the warning bells, California's capital of Sacramento is located in the Golden State's Central Valley... and is home to basketball's Kings.)

Not just because a "Do or Die" Fund Drive is still on, it's worth reminding that Bishop Jaime Soto has long been marked out on these pages as not just as a rising star, but a rocketing one.

On 2007's fourth day, after all, the first floater was dropped here that the Orange auxiliary with an Ivy League pedigree, CNN face-time, a keen policy savvy and press-lauds for "tackling taboo topics" might just end up as coadjutor in the California capital, eventually becoming the church's prime legate to the government of the nation's largest state.

And... well.... per usual, don't say you weren't told.

This morning, Pope Benedict named 51 year-old Soto as successor-in-waiting to Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento, joining the 70 year-old ordinary at the helm of the diocese of 550,000. As Weigand's top lieutenant, Soto succeeds Bishop Richard Garcia, the former auxiliary of the capital see who was named to the bishopric of "Paradise" (i.e. Monterey) in mid-December 2006.

A Hispanic cleric with crossover cred, Soto was born in Inglewood -- then, as now, part of the neighboring archdiocese of Los Angeles -- but moved across the lines as a seminarian when the OC was made its own diocese in 1976. Ordained in 1982, it wasn't long before he was sent to New York, where he picked up a Master's in Social Work from Columbia University, then returned to Orange to oversee the Immigrant Services wing of the diocese's Catholic Charities.

By the time he was 35, Soto had been tapped to oversee Hispanic Ministry in the local church of a million-plus members, with chief responsibility for Catholic Charities eventually added to his portfolio. He was named auxiliary in March 2000, not long after his 44th birthday.

Already viewed as a standout talent by his confreres in the American hierarchy, the young prelate's call to an even higher profile was first signaled by his designation to deliver one of the English-speaking catecheses at 2005's World Youth Day in Cologne alongside four cardinals (and the archbishop of Milwaukee); then, as now, the coadjutor-elect was chair of the USCCB's committee for Youth and Young Adults. The following November, by a significant margin, Soto bested no less than the archbishop of Boston in a head-to-head to win the chairmanship of the bishops' point-group on the church in Latin America, a post which yielded him a coveted appointment as one of the States' three episcopal delegates to last spring's decennial plenary meeting of the Latin American bishops at Aparecida in Brazil.

And then, there was immigration. Soto's combination of public savvy and experience on the issue transformed him into a key player as the bishops' drive for "comprehensive, just, humane" immigration reform legislation pushed the US church's policy operation into the limelight to a degree unseen in years. In December, the bishop entered the crosshairs of the charged national debate, going onto one of the mass media's most unfriendly quarters for pro-immigrant forces -- CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" -- to joust.

Suffice it to say, the appearance was well-noted... especially given the program's frequent targeting of the bishops' chief spokesman on immigration, Los Angeles' Cardinal Roger Mahony.

While Bishop Weigand -- who underwent a liver transplant in 2005 -- has already set the machinery of a transition in place in the capital, what looms further ahead for his successor looks bigger still. Already comfortable in the limelight, and at an age when most of his contemporaries are still bishops-to-be, with the LA cardinal less than four years off the mandatory retirement age of 75 and Soto's star only gaining speed along the fast-track, it'd be a wise bet that the archdiocese which birthed him might just end up getting him back.

That answer can and must wait, of course. But in the meantime, here's an easier question to settle: does he still read Mother Jones?

SVILUPPO: Mass of Welcome -- the coadjutor's equivalent of an installation -- slated for 19 November in Sacto's restored Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament; Jaimetalk already running in local paper, the Bee:
Soto said Wednesday that he is the oldest of seven children in what he described as a traditional Mexican American Catholic family. He said he knew he wanted to be a priest since second grade.

"When the teacher asked, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' the answer for me, was simple. I wanted to be a priest."

There are 25 active Latino bishops in the United States, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Soto has been an outspoken advocate for immigration reform and AIDS awareness, according to various Southern California newspaper stories.

Latinos make up the fastest-growing segment of the church. In Sacramento, 45 percent of Catholics are Latino, according to diocesan officials.

"I think it's a recognition of this growth and what the Latino community is giving to the Catholic Church in California," Soto told The Bee. "In the future, I think we'll see different members take roles of leadership."

The grandson of Mexican immigrants who knew little Spanish until he was ordained, Soto has had his bishop's coat of arms engraved with the Spanish words "Gozo y Esperanza," -- "Joy and Hope."

In that spirit, Soto said he plans to work closely with members of all ethnic communities.

"It's incumbent on us in leadership to actively engage the whole church," he said.

His former bishop praised Soto.

"Those of us who know him, especially family members and friends, will miss Bishop Soto greatly," Orange County Bishop Tod D. Brown said in a statement Wednesday.

Soto said he is unfamiliar with the Sacramento area and has only been to the state capital a few times. "I hate to say it, but I'm a bit parochial. I've spent most of my life in Southern California," he said....

Soto said he spends most of his time working but when he's not, he enjoys visiting museums and listening to jazz. "On occasions, when I have time, I've been known to go to jazz clubs," he said.
SVILUPPO 2: Diocesan appointment page up and running.... More Jaimetalk:
The City of Sacramento serves as an important part of the life of California but no one in leadership should come here focused only on the frantic frenzy of the Capitol because what matters most to California is the rhythm and rituals of the our diverse homes and neighborhoods, the hum and whirl of our commerce and industry, the fruitfulness and freshness of our fields, the laughter and exuberance of our playgrounds, the ambitions of our youth, the hymns and harmonies sung in our Churches and temples, the sweat and sacrifices of all Californians whose hopes and aspirations are boundless. This is what matters most. It is where the faith, hope and charity of the Catholic people of this Diocese as well as all peoples of good will endeavor to lay the foundation stones of the Kingdom that is to come.

It is an exhilarating joy for me to cross the threshold of this magnificent Cathedral dedicated to el Santísimo Sacramento, the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. The Chalice blazoned on the diocesan crest calls our attention to the core of our creed, the God whose love knows no bounds, whose outstretched arms reach out from the cross to embrace every sorrow and anguish, hope and aspiration that tremors in the souls and minds of his children. This Bread of Life and Cup of Joy are raised in every Catholic Mass as the measure and meter of our lives. We are reminded to love because we are loved. He has loved us first. There can be no other consequence to our lives greater than returning his enduring affection by our charity towards one another and our ceaseless praise of his goodness....

As I prepare to pass through the portals of this new adventure, my thoughts still linger on the family and friends in the Diocese of Orange who have carried me, caressed me, pushed me, and prepared me for this juncture of the journey when I would take the treasure of knowledge and friendship that has been so freely given to me and share this wealth with the Church in Sacramento. Saying hello to Sacramento will be much easier than the good-byes I must still make to family and friends back in Orange.

Yet as hard as this may be, I am mindful of a nephew of mine, Keith McNulty, who in these days embarks on a much more difficult journey. He leaves this Monday to serve his country in the Marines. He and his family as well as the families of the many men and women in the Armed Services deserve our prayers and support for the sacrifices they are making.
Weigand: succession will take place "in due course" -- no explicit timetable given.

PHOTO: Mark Rightmire/Orange County Register