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Filipino Catholic Oscar Azarcon Solis was comfortable as an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He had been there for 13 years and expected to retire in that warm climate and booming, diverse metropolis.
Then "the clouds of heaven were swept open," Solis quipped Tuesday at a news conference introducing him as bishop-elect for the Salt Lake City Diocese, "and a voice said, 'You fool.' "
When the U.S. papal nuncio phoned to tell Solis that Pope Francis wanted him to serve as the Beehive State's 10th bishop, the 63-year-old native of San Jose City, Philippines, was "shocked and surprised."
"Your Excellency," a stunned Solis asked, "am I in trouble?"
After all, Solis had never visited Utah and the only Mormons he knew were young missionaries proselytizing on the streets ("I admire their hearts and dedication"). Nor did he know much about the vast diocese that serves 300,0000-plus Catholics spread across the state and is so different from the massive urban environments he has known best.
That call "completely changed my life," the bishop-elect told a room in the pastoral center packed with reporters, photographers, priests and staffers near the Cathedral of the Madeleine. "I thought that the world stopped turning around. I felt afraid of the uncertainties ... but now my feeling is gratitude. ... I thank the Holy Father for his confidence and the nuncio who got me to say yes."
Those were among the sentiments Solis offered in his brief opening speech, which he gave in English and Spanish. He also is fluent in Tagalog and Creole. He punctuated his remarks with self-deprecating humor ("my head looks big but my mind is small I need to work collaboratively") and wry wit ("I am drinking water, not alcohol") coupled with deep devotion to the church and admiration for those who had nurtured him in the faith as well as the Utah Catholics who had managed the diocese during the past 20 months.
"I feel God's presence in all of you," he said.
He comes to his new assignment with "some trepidation," he said, "but looks forward to [his] sacred responsibility" as a pastor and shepherd.
Solis, who will be formally installed March 7, praised the Utah diocese's outreach to refugees, immigrants, the homeless and the poor, its efforts to produce an excellent Catholic education, particularly at the Madeleine Choir School, and its joint efforts with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other faiths "for the common good of the people of Utah."
"You may be a small diocese," he said, "but you are big in spirit."
He then opened up the news conference for questions, strolling easily among the throng, answering in Spanish as well as English and later posing for selfies with priests and staffers.
Solis' appointment is historic. He becomes the first Asian to lead a U.S. diocese and already stands as the first Filipino-American bishop ordained in this country.
He responded to queries about immigration ("ours is an immigrant church, I am an immigrant ... and this great nation welcomed me. ... We do not see anyone as minorities, but brothers and sisters"), ecumenism ("we are all in God's family; rather than focusing on differences, we should see so many things we share") and global Catholicism's dwindling numbers ("Youth are not the future of the church; they are the church now we take seriously our ministry to them").
When queried about possible ordination of women, Solis said he loves women ("don't take that literally"), values their gifts and believes this pope has opened "the doors of the church wider for participation of women in the mission of the church."
The future Utah bishop said he stands behind what the pontiff teaches.
"We are open to change," Solis said. "If God wills it so, let it be, let it be."
As the questions wrapped up, the Rev. Reynato Rodillas, Filipino priest at St. Olaf Parish in Bountiful, addressed the incoming bishop in Tagalog. Solis' face lit up with delight as he rushed to embrace the man. The two conversed in their common language for a few minutes, and then Rodillas said in English he was overjoyed by the selection of a leader from his home country.
Solis told the audience the first thing the Filipino priest had said was "Bishop, watch out," later adding, "for the love of the people."
"I feel so happy now," Solis said. "I know where to go to eat rice."
The event ended with the bishop saying, "From now on, this is my home and you are my family," and then leading those gathered in prayer.
Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, who turned 80 last year, has been a leader in the diocese for decades. He was delighted by the choice of Solis.
The new bishop has "such a reputation for pastoral love, and it's not just words," Fitzgerald said. "He'll be a real blessing to this diocese and the people of L.A. will be in mourning."
Solis seems like a "servant bishop," the kind Francis has asked for, the monsignor said. "He 'smells like his sheep.' "
Monsignor Colin Bircumshaw, who has served as the diocese's interim administrator, added an amen to Fitzgerald's observations.
"He's joy-filled, talented and honest," Bircumshaw said. "He comes with no agenda but to know, serve and love the people of this diocese."
Coming to Utah, Solis will be the "envy of all the other U.S. bishops," said Monsignor Bob Bussen, who oversees a parish in Cedar City. "And the diocese will be happy."
About Bishop Oscar A. Solis
Born • Oct. 13, 1953, in San Jose City, Philippines
Education • Divine Word Seminary, Tagaytay City, Philippines; University of Santo Tomas, Manila
Ordained a priest • April 28, 1979, in the Archdiocese of Manila
Assignments • Diocese of Cabanatuan, Philippines; Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.; Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana
Ordained auxiliary bishop • Feb. 10, 2004, for Archdiocese of Los Angeles
Bishop installation • March 7, 2017, Cathedral of the Madeleine, Salt Lake City