From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Twenty-five years a bishop, 42 years a priest: ‘I never dreamed what a rich experience it would be’

by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register

(From the May 2, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

  • William Skylstad, Josephinum seminarian, reads a copy of his home diocese's Catholic newspaper, 1956.
  • The new Bishop of Yakima blesses the people at the end of the Mass in which he was ordained a bishop.
  • The Bishop of Yakima enjoys lunch on the lawn during the national Tekakwitha Conference held in Spokane in the early 1980s.
  • Bishop Skylstad addressed the media at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Spokane on April 26.


    Many adjectives are used to describe Bishop Skylstad – on the occasion of his 25th anniversary of being ordained a bishop, but throughout his life and ministry.

    Intelligent. Patient. Present. Even handy.

    Perhaps Bishop Skylstad himself would use the word “surprising.”

    Think about it. From the northern reaches of the diocese, living on an apple farm 16 miles from Twisp and 23 miles from Brewster, in an area which, in those days, was largely unchurched. A family he describes as “very religious,” but not a Catholic community by any means.

    And yet, as a ninth grader, traveling off by train to study at the Pontifical Seminary Josephinum in Ohio. And from there, literally, the world.

    “I never dreamed what a rich experience it would be,” Bishop Skylstad reflected in a recent interview in his office. Over the years, he said, “I found my ministry was a ministry of tremendous surprises,” beginning with his vocation, living in an area where there were very few children his age in the parish communities. He terms that very strong movement of the Spirit in his heart “the first surprise of my life.”

    The Josephinum was a seminary which trained students from all over the United States. Because of the exposure to Church culture from around the country, combined with the fact that he was so far from home for the entire course of the school year – there was no returning for breaks – seminary formation was “a rapidly maturing experience,” he said.

    He had planned to be a parish priest, was looking forward to that. Spokane’s Bishop Bernard Topel, however, had other plans for him. After his ordination on May 12, 1960, he spent “a brief stint” at the parishes in Newport and Usk before he went to Pullman, where he was assistant pastor at Sacred Heart Parish (“a very rich experience in its own way”) and attended classes at Washington State University, preparatory to an assignment to Bishop White Seminary as a teacher. Two years at Bishop White were followed by 11 at Mater Cleri, the diocese’s high school seminary, located at that time in Colbert.

    In time he became rector of Mater Cleri – in a way, unlikely, because he was perhaps unlike any other rector the school had experienced. According to Father Terence Tully, a retired priest of the diocese, Bishop Skylstad gained a reputation in those years as “the best boiler man in the diocese.”

    Others concur. Msgr. John Steiner, vicar general of the Spokane Diocese and pastor of St. Thomas More Parish, Spokane, taught at Mater Cleri himself in those years. Bishop Skylstad “would take on more scutt work than anyone else on the staff,” Msgr. Steiner said. “He cleaned bathrooms, he fixed the swimming pool, he crawled under the building to take out the circulating pumps and fix them. The place would not have lasted as long as it did without all the maintenance he took on with his own two hands. He finds unbelievable fun in that kind of service.

    “His response to any need and any crisis, any challenge, was to be personally involved and to do his part in a very quiet, unassuming way. He would not ask anybody to do anything that he himself would not do.”

    Father Tom Caswell, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Cheney and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the diocese, also taught at Mater Cleri for part of that time. “I remember him as always being a good person,” said Father Caswell. “Calm. You could tell him the end of the world was happening, and he wouldn’t overreact.”

    “Those were tough times in seminaries,” Bishop Skylstad said.

    Part of the joy of his ministry at Mater Cleri was the opportunity to serve the growing parish community there. Another was the chance to visit almost every parish of the Spokane Diocese, either as a substitute priest, or making vocations visits, or preaching about vocations – “a shadow of what a bishop does in pastoral visits,” he said.

    When Mater Cleri closed in 1974 he had the opportunity to work in parish ministry full-time, at Assumption in Spokane. Then came another surprise: He was called to the Chancery Building to be the diocese’s chancellor.

    That was “a hard surprise,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to come.”

    He lived in one of the houses belonging to Bishop White Seminary, was a spiritual director at BWS, and taught more than one seminarian and priest how to change the oil in a car. In February of 1977 Bishop Topel called: Father Skylstad had been named Bishop of Yakima. Bishop Topel insisted he make a 30-day retreat at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center.

    He was ordained a bishop May 12, 1977.

    “When I first became a bishop, bishops were, for me, pretty mysterious people,” he said. “The only ones I knew very well were my own bishop – Bishop Topel – and Bishop Tom Connolly,” now the retired bishop of Baker, Ore., and Bishop Skylstad’s spiritual director, then and now. They were “a mysterious lot for me – a lot I looked on with a great deal of awe, and admiration, too. Moving into that forum was a dramatic change for me.”

    Dramatic, and also surprising. “What really astonished me was that about 80 percent of the bishops in the United States wrote to offer me congratulations. It was awesome, it really was.”

    The initial episcopal assignment to the Yakima Diocese stirred “a certain amount of trepidation,” he said. The diocese was facing severe financial challenges; the people had experienced rapid changes in leadership – neither of his immediate predecessors had served as much as five years in the post. On the positive side, however, he knew the area – growing up in the Methow as he had, “Wenatchee, for us, was the big city. I knew the community, in a sense, already.”

    Overall, the time in Yakima was “a rich experience,” he said. The size of the diocese was ideal – 40 parishes at that time, making it relatively easy to make a pastoral visit to each of the parish communities at least once a year, he said. The diocese’s rich cultural diversity was also a blessing, he said, with wonderful people to work with and a beautiful land that was also richly diverse, from the desert to Lake Chelan and everywhere in between. “Fifteen minutes from downtown Yakima, you could be face-to-face with a herd of elk at a winter feeding station,” he said.

    Bishops are responsible for their local areas, but also have a responsibility to the church nationally as well, and even internationally. While bishop in Yakima he became active in a number of committees for the bishops’ conference – Hispanic Affairs, the Campaign for Human Development.

    Since 1994 Maryellen Gaffney-Brown has been chair of the Spokane Diocese’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development Advisory Committee. A large delegation from the Spokane Diocese attended CCHD’s national meeting a couple of years ago.

    “People would look at my name tag. ‘You’re from Spokane! You’re so lucky to have that bishop!’ they would say.

    “We had the largest delegation of any diocese in the country for the Jubilee for Justice Conference in Los Angeles, and that’s because (Bishop Skylstad) set it as a priority. He met with us during the conference; we had breakfast together as a group. And when the contingents from the Northwest met, he’s the one who led the prayer. He understands and promotes CCHD from the heart.”

    Msgr. Steiner calls that kind of national involvement in social ministry “prophetic,” in the sense of calling the Church to living the Gospel.

    Working on national and international committees, “You learn a lot. And quickly,” said Bishop Skylstad. That included the bishop’s committee on the permanent deaconate and serving on the board of Catholic Relief Services. That position took him into the field, visiting various CRS projects around – literally – the world.

    “The bishop’s life has become much more complex,” Bishop Skylstad said. “The demands on one’s time are considerable.” The CRS trips, in particular, meant two visits a year to CRS projects. “You don’t go down the beaten tourist paths; you go where the projects are, where the poor are,” he said. “To see the poor with a deep sense of faith and joy is something you never forget.

    “I don’t mind traveling. I really don’t,” he said. “For a vacation, I don’t have a great yearning to travel,” he said, smiling. “For me, a vacation is to be home.”

    When he first came to Yakima, people were “most welcoming. The two most frequent questions I heard were, ‘Do you like us?’ and “How long do you think you’re going to stay?’ My response was, ‘Yes, I love the area and the people, and I hope to stay until I die.’

    “That didn’t work out.”

    In 1989 Bishop Skylstad was asked to return to the Spokane Diocese as apostolic administrator sede plene, a Latin phrase meaning “the See is full,” since Bishop Welsh, his predecessor, had not yet resigned. That meant double duty, Yakima and Spokane, “sometimes twice a week,” he said.

    When he became Bishop of Spokane on April 27, 1990, it was, in a sense, painful.

    “I really loved the people (of the Yakima Diocese),” he said. “It was a very painful thing, to leave, and one of the more difficult things of my priesthood and my life as a bishop, to leave that diocese. It was almost a grieving.”

    Nevertheless, he returned to his home diocese. He continued to work with and for the other bishops nationally, including time as the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Bishops’ Life and Ministry, Domestic Policy, Social Development and World Peace, and the bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

    He meets regularly, and informally, for breakfast with local leaders of other denominations – “the Octet” – when he is in town. “I think he’s very good “with the other denominational heads),” said Father Caswell, the diocese’s Ecumenical Relations Officer. “He empathizes with them, and they with him. He knows what’s going on in the other churches. The last few years he’s also been head of the Methodist-Catholic dialogue. I think it’s (all) broadened his vision greatly.”

    Things change. People change. During an April 26 press conference at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Spokane, Bishop Skylstad discussed his recent meetings in Rome regarding the sexual abuse issues facing the Church, especially in the United States. He admits that “I would never handle things now as I did 20, 25 years ago.”

    And yet, fundamentally, “He’s still the same priest he was when I knew him at the seminary in 1969,” said Msgr. Steiner. “Probably the most unbelievable thing was, as a leader of a ministerial team, at the seminary, he was clearly the one identified as the leader. He does not use a strength of personality or any kind of violence from his own personhood to ever try to interact with people. He always does it from a gentleness, a deep respect for others, whether a priest or student or another bishop. It doesn’t make any difference.”

    Part of that approach must arise from his conviction about the common good. In pastoral situations, one of the first questions he asks is, “What’s for the common good? What’s for the good of the Church, the help of the Church? How can my decisions build it up, and not tear it down, or weaken it?”

    He admits he’s always “kind of liked meetings” – Msgr. Steiner smiles as he points out that the bishop has never met a meeting “he didn’t like” – but that’s perhaps because he feels “very strongly about the collaborative process. No bishop has all the wisdom. I love to process things with other people, and then glean the best. My strongest feeling is that the bishop needs to listen to the wisdom from as broad a perspective as possible, and then ultimately must be the one to make the decision, and own the decision.”

    Where does his personal strength come from?

    “I don’t think a lot of folks realize what a prayerful man he is,” said Msgr. Steiner. “This is a man who is committed to a daily time of prayer, an hour of prayer a day. He is faithful to his own inner spirituality, by taking care of his own physical health, and to keep his spiritual health up by a life of prayer. He sees that as Gospel – an invitation from the Lord. He has a healthy spirituality that shows in his preaching, the way he presides at liturgy, the way he deals with people respectfully.”

    “When we hosted the national Catholic Charities USA meeting in Spokane in 1994, he was present for the entire conference,” said Donna Hanson, Diocesan Director of Catholic Charities and Bishop’s Secretary for Social Ministries. “His ministry of presence was astonishing. People continue to reminisce about that national meeting. The thing they most recall about that meeting is the liturgies,” one on the floating stage at Riverfront Park and one at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes. “Nobody remembers the speakers, but they remember the celebrant.”

    His “ministry of presence” is confirmed not only on committees and councils, with national groups and advisory boards, but also in parishes. He calls celebrating the sacraments and visiting parishes “life-giving.”

    He’s “appreciative of all of the communities of faith, not just ours,” said Linda Kobe-Smith, pastoral administrator of St. Ann Parish in Spokane. “He’s a bishop who nurtures a diversity of communities, and not begrudgingly.

    “When he comes to the community to celebrate Mass, the people truly have his attention,” she said. “He really is able to be present to the people he’s with. You wouldn’t know that his schedule is so jam-packed. He’s truly present with the community he’s come to spend time with.”

    “I’ve always believed that a priest or a bishop is not only a pastoral leader forming people, but is formed by them,” said Bishop Skylstad. “People don’t realize the holiness of lay people has an impact on pastoral ministers and upon me.”

    His own impact continues to widen. Last November he was elected vice-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (“I was shocked, really shocked, at being elected,” he said.) In three years, in all likelihood, he will become president of that group.

    Initially, he had anticipated that the new job would involve less travel – he would have to step down from some of his committees, to devote time to the Conference business – but another surprise was down the road.

    Twice in the last month alone he has traveled to Rome for meetings. He has appeared on countless local and national television news programs, and has been written up on the front page of the New York Times. The end is nowhere in site.

    At the April press conference, he pointed out that the problems of sexual abuse didn’t happen overnight, and won’t be solved overnight. The process of healing and reconciling is just that – a process.

    A journey. An unlikely journey. An unlikely journey of surprises.

    “I’m extremely grateful for what people have given to me over these past 25 years as a bishop, and 42 years as a priest,” Bishop Skylstad said. “I’m grateful to my mother and father and family, I’m grateful to the parishes in which I’ve served, I’m grateful to the two dioceses, and the larger church which has touched us as well.

    “In all my years of priesthood, I wouldn’t hesitate now, looking back over these 42 years, to do it all over again,” he said. “It’s been a great ride for me, and joyful, challenging and difficult.”

    “While he’s a man of the Church, he’s a man of growing, hopeful, faith-filled Church that is on journey,” said Msgr. Steiner. “He’s not afraid of the journey; he doesn’t look back, he looks forward. The Gospel is an ongoing challenge that is not going to have a lot of pre-determined limits. The Spirit will blow where it blows, and he’s got enough patience, an unbelievable amount of patience to say, ‘in time it’s going to go where it goes, and I can wait until that happens, in God’s good time.’”

    As Bishop Skylstad himself says, “The mystery and surprise of life continues.”

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