The Rev. John C. Wester may be distracted when he takes his seat as the ninth bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City on March 14.
Though the San Francisco born-and- bred
Wester had been to Utah only a couple of times before Monday, he said he is dazzled by the region's beauty. And the new spiritual leader to Utah's 200,000 Catholics loves to hike.
"It will be tough to stop looking at the mountains and keep the focus on my work," Wester said at a news conference to announce his appointment to fill the vacancy left when Utah's former bishop, the Rev. George H. Niederauer, became the Archbishop of San Francisco last February.
Utah's distractions may be a relief to the 56-year-old Wester, who was the point man on the clergy sexual abuse for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which had about 175 lawsuits filed against it since 2002. Salt Lake City has had only one.
"He spent hours and hours of time with victims . . .he's an excellent listener," said Monsignor Harry Schlitt, another San Francisco priest who has known Wester since 1976.
Wester also had the "unhappy job" of breaking the news to accused priests, many of whom were much older than he, saying, "take your collars off. You're finished."
Fulfilling such assignments takes "great courage," which Wester has in abundance, Schlitt said.
But dealing with abuse was only one of Wester's myriad duties since being named an auxiliary bishop of San Francisco in 1998. He also served on the Catholic bishops commission to study immigration issues. In that role, he took a fact-finding trip to Asia in 2004 to study the plight of people who have been driven from their homelands by hunger, war and repression, which he later noted as "a moving spiritual experience," according to a biographical note of the St. Vincent De Paul Society of San Francisco.
When asked Monday about his views on immigration, Wester replied: "All of us are children of God. We have to be open to people who come to our shores. We have to welcome the strangers in our midst. We benefit from immigrants. It is important to have sound immigration policies . . . It is important to keep families united."
Wester also has worked in Catholic high schools in Kentfield and San Rafael, Calif., was assistant superintendent of high schools for the archdiocese, and is currently on the board of trustees for St. Patrick Seminary and University in Menlo Park.
He has spent time reaching out to younger people by going to local bars with "Theology on Tap" discussions, a national program in the Catholic Church to discuss points of belief.
Upon becoming a bishop, Wester took up the study of Spanish, no mean feat for a man in his 50s, but urgently important in a church serving Latino members. He still has found time to visit his mother, brother and two sisters, all of whom live in the Bay Area. He plays bridge and racquetball, goes to the opera and enjoys classical music.
And he never forgets a name, Schlitt said.
Ten days ago, Wester officiated at a funeral in St. Mary's Cathedral for a police officer shot in the line of duty. His sermon was masterful and compassionate, but he also knew the names of all the children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces.
"That's one of his great strengths," Schlitt said. "When he shakes your hand, you'll know it. He looks you in the eyes and you know he's present, not looking for the next guy in the crowd."
Learning everyone's name will be much easier in Utah's diocese, which has fewer than half as many members as the San Francisco diocese.
"We congratulate all Utah Catholics on receiving such a gifted, generous and zealous pastor and shepherd," Niederauer said in a statement. "The Catholic Church in San Francisco will certainly miss Bishop Wester and his fruitful ministry here."
On Monday, Wester seemed ready, even eager, for the unique challenges of Utah. After he is formally installed at a special March 14 Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, he will concentrate on several priorities, including good preaching, working closely with the priests, increasing vocations and working with ethnic minorities, particularly Latinos. He delivered some of his remarks in Spanish.
He hopes to continue Niederauer's efforts at "promoting beautiful liturgies, sound faith education programs, loving and compassionate service to the poor, prudent stewardship of our resources, and parishes that flourish throughout the diocese."
Wester also plans to continue his predecessor's ecumenical activities, reaching out to other religious leaders, including those in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He will definitely miss San Francisco, his family's home for four generations, he said, "but the warm welcome I've received here tells me God's already at work on this point. . .You and I are beginning an exciting journey of faith together."
* PEGGY FLETCHER STACK can be contacted at email@example.com or 801-257-8725.
Rev. John C. Wester
* Birthplace: San Francisco.
* Ordained to the priesthood: May 15, 1976.
* Ordained as auxiliary bishop of Archdiocese of San Francisco: Sept. 18, 1998.
* Education: Bachelor of arts, Saint Patrick College, Mountain View, Calif.; master of divinity, Saint Patrick Seminary, Menlo Park, Calif.; master of art and science, University of San Francisco; master of art, Holy Names College, Oakland, Calif.
* Ministry: Vicar for clergy, 1997 to present; also has served as a parish priest, campus ministry director and teacher.
* Administration: Archdiocese of San Francisco apostolic administrator, August 2005 to February 2006; auxiliary bishop, 1998 to present; administrative assistant to Archbishop John R. Quinn, 1988-1993; assistant superintendent for high schools, 1985-1988.
* National responsibilities: St. Patrick Seminary board of trustees; Roman Catholic Welfare Corp. board; Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership board; Episcopal Advisory Council Region XI representative.
Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City
* 200,000 Utah Catholics
* 73 parishes, missions and stations
* 69 priests
* 3 high schools
* 11 elementary schools
* 5,615 students
Former Utah Catholic leaders
* George Niederauer, 1994-2006
* William Weigand, 1980-1994
* Joseph Federal, 1960-1980; auxiliary bishop, 1951-1959
* Leo Steck, auxiliary bishop, 1948-1950
* Duane Hunt, 1937-1960
* James Kearney, 1932-1937
* John Mitty, 1926-1932
* Joseph Glass, 1915-1926
* Lawrence Scanlan, 1891-1915