Written by: Ken Fallon
The Most Rev. John G. Vlazny, who served as archbishop of the Portland, Ore. Catholic diocese for 15 turbulent years, finally got the answer he’s been waiting to hear on Wednesday.
A year after Vlazny submitted his retirement letter, Pope Benedict XVI approved the retirement request and installed the Most Rev. Alexander K. Sample as his replacement.
The 52-year-old Sample, a bishop from Michigan’s upper peninsula, became the youngest archbishop in the United States. He tweeted Tuesday morning that “As of 6:00 a.m. EST I have gone from being the Bishop of Marquette to the Archbishop-Designate of Portland in OR. Please pray for me!”
Vlazny became archbishop in October 1997, jumping from Minnesota into the heart of a priest sex-abuse scandal only beginning to gain exposure. By 2007, the Portland archdiocese had completed a bankruptcy reorganization plan, agreeing to pay almost 180 abuse victims some $70 million and to release thousands of documents that spelled out the extent of the abuse.
“It is my sincere prayer that our ability to compensate the many victims will assist them in their efforts to achieve personal healing and peace of heart,” Vlazny said at a press conference when the bankruptcy was approved. “I pray for them daily and I know that the Catholic people of Oregon join me in asking God to bless them.”
Vlazny, now 75, was never implicated in the scandal, but the subsequent release of internal documents made it clear that the archdiocese covered up the scandal in the years since the abuses happened in the mid-20th century.
Sample comes to Oregon with a reputation for social media savvy – in addition to Twitter, he has a Facebook page, and uses podcasts and YouTube – and high expectations from church leadership. Noted Catholic blogger Rocco Palmo observed the impressive turnout for his Michigan ordination in 2006 and called him someone who is “going places” within the church.
He’ll need every bit of that savvy as he leads western Oregon’s 415,000 Catholics. The Northwest is considered one of the nation’s most “unchurched” regions, with one in four residents claiming no religious identification; about half that percentage claim membership in Oregon Catholic churches.
But at a press conference Wednesday in Portland, Sample was undeterred.
“To me, some might look at the small percentage and say, ‘Boy, that’s a tough area to go into to be the Catholic archbishop.’ I kind of see it as the opposite. I see this as rich, fertile ground for the planting of the seeds of the New Evangelization,” he said, referring to a Catholic initiative to reach out to those who have experienced a “crisis of faith” and to non-believers. “What I would hope to do is help people who are of a very spiritual nature but maybe who don’t profess any particular religious belief, connect that longing in their heart…with who I believe is the answer to that longing, and that is the Lord Jesus.”
Like his predecessor, Sample adheres to Catholic doctrine on controversial social issues. His Facebook page shows many photos from the March for Life, a pro-life gathering that was held Jan. 25 in Washington, D.C. to mark the 40th Anniversary of the Roe v. Wade court decision that legalized abortion.
In Wednesday’s press conference, he said he stands by the church’s position regarding same-sex marriage, “but that should never take away from the dignity of the human person.”
That same day, he was quoted on LifeSiteNews.com as saying he would do whatever he could to oppose the Obama administration’s health-care mandates regarding birth control. “I would be willing to go to jail in defense of religious liberty,” he said.
In 2009, he spoke out against a decision by the University of Notre Dame to invite President Obama to give the commencement speech, citing the president’s support for embryonic stem-cell research and abortion.