Archbishop Wester: ‘The Pope’s Visit Has a Great Deal of Potential for Good'

Pope Francis greets Archbishop Wester after Mass marking feast of Sts. Peter and Paul at Vatican.

“I believe the pope’s visit has the potential to help us continue to pursue what makes this country great: a concern for others, a willingness to help others and a commitment to tackle tough problems.” That is what the new archbishop of Santa Fe, John Wester, said when I asked him how he viewed Pope Francis’ forthcoming visit to the United States. 

He said he hopes Francis “challenges us to achieve comprehensive immigration reform” and “continues to raise our awareness of the plight of the poor in our country and in the world.” He hopes too that the pope “can help us to make greater strides in race relations” and he would also like to see him “address issues related to violence, including gun control and the death penalty.” 

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A San Francisco native, Wester was pastor of the diocese of Salt Lake, Utah, when Pope Francis appointed him on April 27 to lead the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the largest diocese in New Mexico with some 300,000 Catholics. He was installed as its archbishop on June 4 and flew to Rome to concelebrate Mass with the pope in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 29 and will be given the pallium in private.

In this interview, conducted sometime after that, I asked him about his first meeting with Francis since his appointment, the challenges he faces in his new diocese and how he views the pope’s visit to the United States, Sept. 22-27.

You were installed as archbishop of Santa Fe not long ago, and now you have met for the first time the pope that appointed you to that diocese. What memory or impression of him will you take back home to New Mexico?

While the Mass on June 29 was my first time being with Pope Francis as Archbishop of Santa Fe, I have been with him on two previous occasions when the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People met in Rome. I have been on the Council for several years now and enjoyed being with the Holy Father for an audience we had with him on those occasions. As in the past, I was impressed with the pope’s simplicity and kindness. I was not so much taken by the white cassock as by the man. In other words, I was first aware of him and not his office, although I have a deep and profound respect for both.

What were your feelings as you concelebrated Mass with him, and met him afterwards?

This was my first time concelebrating with the pope and as I saw him processing through the Basilica of St. Peter it struck me that he is a man who is truly at peace with himself, with God and with all those he meets. He is authentic and he lives the present moment. I was struck with the intensity with which he celebrates Mass and yet he gathers us all in with him. He is approachable and open. Even the way he incenses the altar and the crucifix is captivating for me: he pauses between incensations and exudes a sense of peace and prayerfulness. When we talked afterwards, he asked me to pray for him, something he asks often. Of course, this was in keeping with the readings of the day which reflected on St. Peter’s miraculous release from prison when the church prayed for him. Nonetheless, Pope Francis always asks for prayer. This is a very humble gesture and he reminds us that our strength comes from Christ, not from ourselves. Pope Francis is not afraid of being himself and he is not afraid of letting people know that he needs prayer and support and strength like any other human being.

What will you tell the people back home about your experience here, what message will you give them?

The main message I am giving people here in Santa Fe is captured above but also I would add the theme of unity. The pallium expresses this unity, the pope with the metropolitans throughout the world. I was only installed last June 4 so I am still very new to the archdiocese. My focus has been on leaving Salt Lake City, grieving that loss, and joining a new local church. Yet, my Rome experience reminded me yet again that my transition is part of a larger picture. There is constancy in my life because I am one with the pope and the universal church. In other words, while much has changed in my life, much has stayed the same because of my connection to the whole church, the whole Body of Christ. I believe that this is an important theme that will emerge from Pope Francis’ visit to the United States later this year. The concerns of Pope Francis are our concerns in the U.S. Catholic Church and our concerns are his. I believe that we can be much insulated here in the U.S. and I look forward to the ways that Pope Francis will broaden our perspective. Of course, he will have a tough job of doing that without seeming to be reprimanding or judgmental. I think his broad smile and kind demeanor will continue to touch our hearts. I am pleased that he will be given this opportunity to bring his message, Christ’s message, to our country in such a personal way.

When will you receive the pallium?

I will receive the pallium on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. We will be having a Mass to honor lay leaders in our parishes that day and will include the reception of the pallium at the Mass. The nuncio has just confirmed his presence for the event and we look forward to hosting him again. I think he really enjoyed his time here during my installation and he is truly looking forward to returning (it seems to me!) 

Much has changed in your life in recent years. Benedict XVI was pope when you were last here, and you were then in Salt Lake City. What has been the most significant change for you in this period?

For me, a significant change in the last few years has been the way that the pope has reached the hearts of people both within and without the Catholic Church. People are listening to Pope Francis. A few may not like what they hear but even they, for the most part I believe, are touched by his genuineness and his compassion. I remember a professor in Rome telling us priests during our sabbatical that the longest distance to travel is from the head to the heart. I think Pope Francis has helped us, as a church, to traverse that distance quite well. Our teachings and pronouncements and letters are all important and have their place but at times it seemed that we were not in touch with other aspects of life—our feelings, our fears, our hopes, our sorrows, our dreams—that are essential to hearing the Gospel. Francis seems to have a knack for getting to our hearts and I think that is a very positive contribution for our church and our world.

What are the two or three most significant challenges that you face in your new diocese?

My first challenge is starting all over again in a new diocese! I have a lot of listening to do, names to learn, places to visit, people to meet. I am an extravert but it is still a daunting task. I am aware that there is a great deal of poverty in New Mexico and some areas are still reeling from the economic challenges which began in 2008 and continue for many into the present. Another challenge is one faced by most all dioceses and that is cultural integration. How does our church become what it already is? We are the face of Christ but do we see that face clearly enough when we look in the mirror? We are blessed in this archdiocese with many cultures, including a large number of Native Americans, those whose families have been here for many generations and those who are newcomers. I can see already that people work together very well here but there is always more work to be done. This is always the work of the church—welcoming the stranger in our midst and remembering that at one time or another, in one way or another, we are all strangers. To be a Catholic means that we are always on the way, which means we are always either welcoming or being welcomed. It is a great joy and yet a great challenge as well.

Pope Francis will soon visit the United States. How do you see that visit? What do you think it means for the country? And how do you think Americans will receive him?

As I mentioned, I think the pope’s visit will be very much welcomed by many. He is quite popular and he will no doubt make even more friends as a result of his visit. At the same time, there are those who do not agree with him or who are not well disposed to the Catholic faith. Many who disagree with our teaching, especially in the realm of marriage and family, will not be as enthusiastic about his visit. Still, I think Pope Francis is seen as a good man, an honest man and a fair man. Therefore, even those who have difficulties with the church as a whole will be willing, I believe, to give Pope Francis a hearing. 

I think the visit has a great deal of potential for good since the U.S. is such an important player on the world stage. I hope he challenges us to achieve comprehensive immigration reform and to help the undocumented in our country to come out of the shadows. I also hope he continues to raise our awareness of the plight of the poor in our country and in the world. While the U.S. does a lot to help people throughout the world, there is much more we could do but do not. For example, I do not believe that we have lived up to our .7 percent Millennium Project commitments.

I also think he can help us to make greater strides in race relations. I would like to see him address issues related to violence, including gun control and the death penalty. So, I believe the pope’s visit has the potential to help up continue to pursue what makes this country great: a concern for others, a willingness to help others and a commitment to tackle tough problems. I do not envy him his task! Speaking to the joint houses of Congress will be especially delicate. I am praying hard for him!

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