Monday, November 19, 2007

In Cali Capital, Jaimetime Dawns

Several years ago, when Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento was seeking an auxiliary, among the candidates he reportedly zeroed in on was a SoCal rising star whose rep for both administrative and pastoral effectiveness had spread statewide.

The choice fell to another of the bishop's preferences, one from closer by. But Weigand would eventually get his other pick, too.

In time, the Downstate cleric became an auxiliary in his home diocese of Orange. And today, it all comes full circle as Bishop Jaime Soto marks his arrival in California's capital see -- not as Weigand's auxiliary, but his successor.

As more than 40 bishops and a capacity crowd prepare to converge for today's Mass of Welcome, the local Bee profiled Sacto's ordinary-in-waiting:
Faith, Soto learned, is something that is acted upon.

"I had a very powerful Catholic role model," Soto says of his father, Oscar. "He never made a distinction between family. He led us all to believe that everyone had a place at the table."

It was a lesson that influenced Soto throughout his tenure as a priest and auxiliary bishop in Orange County. And one that will surely reflect how Soto approaches his position in Sacramento....

Coming from a single-county diocese, Soto is daunted by the size of the 20-county Sacramento Diocese, which stretches from Vacaville to the Oregon border and serves more than 500,000 Catholics.

He says he will need as much help as he can get.

"I'm in no hurry," Soto says about taking over. "I have a lot to learn."

Soto, a priest with a reputation as an activist, will begin his tenure in Sacramento by listening.

Over the next several months, he plans to visit several parishes and learn the concerns of Catholics in the area. He says he is particularly interested in hearing from farmworkers.

"I want to learn about their issues," Soto says.

One of the biggest challenges facing the diocese is how to better serve the area's booming Spanish-speaking population. Latinos make up the fastest-growing segment of the Catholic Church – including 45 percent to 50 percent of Catholics in Sacramento, according to diocesan officials.

Soto, one of 25 Latino bishops in the United States, says there is a "dire need" for more Spanish-speaking clergy members. He adds that Latinos should step up and play a bigger role in church ministries and take on more responsibilities.

"I encourage them to be greater protaganistas," says Soto, who learned Spanish as an adult. "I want them to have a sense of ownership of their church."...

The bishop says his views are biblically – not politically – based.

"I really do believe what I talk about is what the church teaches," Soto says. "I didn't invent social-justice issues. ... There are plenty of examples in the Gospel."

Soto also stresses that he is not pushing a personal agenda. In Orange County, he spoke out on immigration, AIDS awareness and sex education, a topic he is passionate about.

"Our silence is hurting our children," Soto says.

These issues were the concerns of Catholics in that diocese, he adds. It may be different here. The incoming bishop is interested in education and faith-formation issues.

Some wonder how Soto's outspokenness will mesh with the style of Weigand, who is seen as having a more conservative approach.

"Bishop Weigand is still the bishop of Sacramento, and my job is to support him," Soto says. "It's going to be a very productive partnership.

Soto's willingness to take on controversial topics doesn't surprise his family.

"People would tell me, 'Did you see your brother on TV?' " says Oscar Soto, a younger brother. "My first thought was always, 'Oh no, what did he say now?' But you know, that's the way he is. He's going to speak out on what he believes in."
Back home in Orange, Soto's final liturgy earlier this month made for an emotional farewell:
"It's a sad occasion," attendee Larry Lopez said. "People I talk with around the diocese have a fondness for him, and so for us, it's sad to see him go."

Soto, a 51-year-old Orange County native, said joining the priesthood was a "childhood dream," one he fulfilled – and then some – by attaining top diocese posts in which he presided over untold numbers of church services, weddings and funerals.

At the same time, he used finely honed oratory talents to advocate for immigrants in public forums and hundreds of newspaper articles. Over the years, he helped throngs of undocumented immigrants apply for amnesty and urged fasting as a show of support for those seeking citizenship.

Asked what accomplishments he most treasured, though, Soto pointed to less-prominent successes. He counseled Latinos diagnosed with AIDS, led monthly services for inmates at the Orange County Jail, and helped promote rituals and events important to Latinos, such as the Procession of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Day of the Dead.

All those deeds helped pack the house Saturday at St. Boniface, where Knights of Columbus crossed swords over the heads of priests and deacons who filed up the aisle.

"This ceremony ends kind of a love affair with the people of this diocese," Soto said in an interview before the 90-minute Mass. "I know it will continue, but it won't be the same."...

Soto offered a few personal words, calling the diverse communities of Orange County "dynamic" and solemnly speaking of "failings" that allowed sex scandals to buffet the Catholic Church.

When it seemed the ceremony would be a subdued goodbye, Bishop Tod Brown took his turn. He praised Soto's years of "selfless and dedicated service," rousing the crowd to applause.

"We are privileged … painful as it may be, to give to Sacramento one of our very, very best," Brown said, bringing the audience to its feet for a 60-second standing ovation.
Highly regarded by his confreres in the USCCB, Soto's term as chair of the conference's now-suppressed Subcommittee for Youth and Young Adult Ministry wrapped last week in Baltimore. As head of its committee for the church in Latin America, he continues to serve as the American hierarchy's point-man on affairs south of the border.

In his new charge -- a more progressive turf than famously-conservative Orange County -- the new arrival is expected to take on a significantly higher profile and show more of his "true colors," both as an activist and policy wonk.

PHOTO: Eugene Garcia/Orange County Register