Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Bishop Skylstad: after 50 years of priesthood, the challenges of Church ‘keep us humble, and make us trust more profoundly in Divine Providence’
Story and photo by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register
(From the June 10, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
Bishop William Sylstad (IR photo)
(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of interviews with Bishop Skylstad as he celebrates 50 years of priesthood.)
The life and ministry of a bishop is, in a word, complex. There is a unique challenge to give due attention to any number of issues within the local church, whether that be liturgy, personnel, staffing, or budgeting, or any number of other questions that require guidance.
But a bishop “is not only responsible for his own diocese, but to be in relationship with the larger Church as well,” Bishop Skylstad said in a recent interview in his office in the Catholic Pastoral Center in Spokane.
As a diocese, “We are part of the Church Universal,” he said. “We not only take care of ourselves, but we are in solidarity with the rest of the Church” throughout the region, the nation, and the globe. “I’ve always felt that role was very important.”
In fact, the Directory for Bishops, a recently-updated document from the Holy See, which gives guidance to the heads of dioceses, is quite clear that a bishop is responsible not only for his diocese, but has a responsibility as well to the larger Church.
There are a number of ways this plays out for a bishop. One way, Bishop Skylstad said, is through the national bishops’ conference – the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), where he served as both vice president and president, for a total of six years.
Through the USCCB, a number of service opportunities bring bishops into relationship with the church nationally and internationally.
It’s not unlike the relationship between parishes and dioceses. Just as parishes engage in support and ministry on a level beyond the parish itself – for instance, participation in the Annual Catholic Appeal – the Spokane Diocese takes up collections for the needs of the Church in the United States and the Church in the World.
Additionally, as a pastor might be part of a larger diocesan ministry – councils, committees, and so forth – bishops, too, serve the Church through ministries reaching beyond their own diocese.
For Bishop Skylstad, it began almost immediately after his ordination as a bishop in 1977, when he took the helm of the Yakima Diocese. He was invited to be part of the bishops’ Hispanic Affairs committee, which enabled him to be part of the National Encuentro in Washington D.C. that summer.
In many ways, Hispanic ministry was “just coming to the fore in this country” at the time. The Committee helped address the needs of Hispanic ministry and offered support for Hispanic ministry in various dioceses. “The presence of that committee has just exploded in the country. Thanks be to God for the work of that committee,” he said, which “laid the foundation for and encouraged Hispanic ministry.” It led to the establishment of regional offices for Hispanic ministry throughout the country, including one in the Northwest.
A local example of that work was the establishment of radio station KDNA, an all-Spanish-language radio station in the Yakima Valley. The station, he said, has had a “tremendous impact” on the Hispanic community of Central Washington, through education, information, and culture.
He was soon involved as well with the work of the Campaign for Human Development (now the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, or CCHD), the U.S. bishops’ attempt to combat poverty by funding self-help projects that helped eradicate poverty on the grass-roots level – “a hand up, not a handout.”
The Campaign “has had a spectacular success around the country,” he said. “In my judgment the bishops on that committee have really tried to make sure that funding is appropriate. If a particular project does not meet the standards of the Catholic Church in terms of social outreach, that project is not funded. In addition, any project in a particular diocese must be signed off on by the local bishop.”
There have been “lots of projects all over the country that I think were very successful,” he said, that helped people “get on their economic feet, so to speak. Like the old saying, ‘If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime.’ That’s the goal.
“One of the things about CCHD funding is that there is no long-term funding for projects. The project itself has to be on its feet before funding ceases. Probably now there have been thousands of projects all over the country that have been funded to help people move out of poverty.”
He also worked with the Committee for Priestly Life and Ministry, especially when it was headed by Bishop Thomas Murphy of the Great Falls-Billings Diocese (later archbishop of Seattle). Bishop Skylstad also became involved with the National Organization for the Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy, and as a result of that, he began conducting retreats for priests.
Ministry to the deacon community through the Permanent Deacon Committee included three years as the committee’s chairman, just before Pope John Paul II came to the United States. That gave him the opportunity to meet with the pope backstage before an address in Detroit to some 1,500 deacons of the United States and their wives.
He served as chairman of the ad hoc committee for Bishops Life and Ministry, as that group examined such issues as retirement, continuing formation for bishops, and formation programs for new bishops. A special program for new bishops was created to sort of introduce the new men to the work of the USCCB before their first general meeting, “to acquaint them with the work of the conference, the work of the Church in the United States. For a new bishop, it’s a steep learning curve,” trying to gain an understanding of the complexity of the Church in this country and how it works.
He also served as chairman of the Social Development and World Peace Committee, and continues at present as a member of the International Committee – “a very rich experience.” The issues addressed were national as well as global, meeting with officials of the federal government, explaining the Catholic Church’s “wonderful background on social teaching, the principles that provide a road map for us.”
Bishop Skysltad has often said that he actually likes meetings and welcomes what he calls “the wisdom of the group.” That’s probably a good thing.
But it hasn’t all been meetings and committees.
Service for six years on the board of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the U.S. bishops’ overseas emergency relief and development agency, literally took him around the globe. Each year saw a trip on behalf of CRS to a project sponsored by the agency somewhere in the world. He made trips to Morocco and Egypt, to Malawi and Zimbabwe, three trips to Central America, and one to South America. “I found those experiences very rich, especially visits to a country like Morocco or Egypt,” he said.
Morocco, for instance, was nearly “100 percent Muslim. The people were most welcoming of me, personally. I found the trip to Egypt to be remarkable from the standpoint of coming to know that culture a bit, to meet not only the Muslim community but the Christian community as well – visiting various projects, like beekeeping, which I found fascinating because of my own experience” as a beekeeper.
Prior to his election as president of the USCCB in November 2004, in November 2001 he was elected vice president, a term which saw the bishops’ historic Dallas meeting and the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. He served with Bishop (now Archbishop) Wilton Gregory, who was president at the time. “I will always admire his tremendous expertise, courage, and wisdom at a time when the Church was going through some difficult challenges,” said Bishop Skylstad.
At present, the Charter is “unique” to the United States as a guiding document. The Charter has proven to be of “tremendous assistance” to dioceses as they develop programs to assure the protection of children and youth, and also providing guidance for the handling of abuse cases.
“There was an urgent need,” he said.
A significant point of discussion was the “one strike, you’re out” provision – a “zero tolerance” policy in cases of priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.
That time also led to the creation of the National Review Board and development of strong local review boards as well, “though Spokane already had a review board in place” at the time of the implementation of the Charter.
The Charter has a strong focus on safe environment programs as well. All of this means a certain level of financial commitment. “But we’ve committed ourselves to doing that,” he said.
Challenges continue around the Charter. One is developing effective programs and a monitoring system for implementing the Charter.
As a vice president, working with Bishop Gregory was “a very good learning curve,” since Bishop Gregory himself had already served as vice president.
The role also brought more international relationships, as well as the national concerns. Bishop Skylstad took part in meetings of CELAM, the association of the 23 bishops’ conferences of Latin and North America.
“One of my more memorable moments was our meeting in Quebec City, when the temperature was 40 below zero. And the wind was blowing. I thought I had warm clothing. The bishops from the south really felt the cold.”
Each meeting took on a separate theme. “It was wonderful to listen to the common wisdom of the groups.”
He has been part of the ecumenism committee and was a member of the Catholic-Methodist dialogue. He stepped down from that when he took up his USCCB offices, but has returned to that work and now is co-chair.
As a USCCB officer, he made two trips to the Vatican each year, to share the work of the Church in the United States with the Holy See and to visit the various Vatican offices and share information.
Issues ranged from such topics as freedom of religion in various countries, such as Cuba, China, and Vietnam, or attempts at peace building in the Holy Land, as well as issues facing the United States specifically.
They also would meet with the Holy Father.
Earlier, however, he had the extremely rare experience as a bishop of meeting Pope John Paul I, during that pope’s very short tenure.
The encounter was “one of my great joys,” he said. The meeting took place in 1978 when Bishop Skylstad was in Rome for a month-long continuing education course for U.S. bishops. “Our arrival in Rome coincided with the election of John Paul I.” He was in one of only two groups who got to meet with Pope John Paul I, and was able to attend the pope’s installation.
That pope “had a very ready smile. I thought him a humble man. However, he was not fluent in English, so that was a bit of a barrier in conversation with him. Certainly his was a smile that brightened the world at that time.”
Bishop Skylstad also enjoyed many lunches with the successor, Pope John Paul II, in the papal apartment. “I found him always to be very affable, always eager to know what was going on in the Church here in the United States.
“I also admired tremendously his commitment to receiving people, to receiving us.”
Pope John Paul II’s world vision “was tremendous,” said Bishop Skylstad. The papal trips around the world “introduced a new aspect of the papacy, a respectful relationship with the rest of the world community.”
The pope lived in the midst of “times of tremendous change in the world community,” said the bishop. “Certainly he played a significant part in the collapse of Communism in Poland, and probably in Russia itself.”
It hasn’t all been globe-trotting, however.
He also has enjoyed relationships with his brother bishops of the Northwest over the years.
The region’s bishops were “forerunners for yearly retreats” for bishops of a region, an effort that was spearheaded by one of his Spokane predecessors, Bishop Bernard Topel. Each January the region’s bishops gather for a seven-day retreat, but also try to get together informally on a regular basis – for encouragement, companionship, and support, not unlike Jesus Caritas groups, which perform much the same sort of function for priests.
The bishops also have a tradition of getting together annually for three days or so of simple R&R after the Fourth of July, switching locations around – this year in Yakima.
It can be too easy for a bishop to become isolated, he said. The relationships with fellow bishops help alleviate that. Although local relationships are important – with priests of the diocese, with parish communities – interacting with brother bishops helps them do the work of the Church on a different level.
“Over the years you become special friends with certain bishops – because of your work on committees,” for instance. “You get to know a lot of the bishops when you go to meetings regularly, especially after 33 years, through our common work, our common role.”
A bishop “strives to be a sign of unity in his own diocese,” said Bishop Skylstad. A bishop “gives a sign of unity to the larger church – the universal church.” That’s become an “increasingly challenging role, given the polarity that’s developed. How can bishops pull a diocese together, with respect for one another?
“I’ve always felt relationships with parishes were very important,” said Bishop Skylstad. He tries to foster those relationships with regular visits to parishes. That’s helped by the celebrations of Confirmation/First Eucharist each year, which brings him to every corner of the Spokane Diocese.
When he became bishop of Yakima, he determined early on to visit every parish at least once a year, a weekend visit to each of the 42 parishes. It’s a bit more challenging with Spokane’s 82 parishes, but still a high priority for him.
As challenging as it can be at times, he finds pastoral ministry “very rewarding. I’m proud of the Church, despite our foibles and failings. I’ve found the ministry to be very fulfilling and joyful, even with all its challenges.”
In their own way, those challenges “keep us humble, and make us trust more profoundly in Divine Providence.”
The contact with laity, priests, deacons, and women Religious “have been a tremendous grace and inspiration to me.”
He “strongly believes” that “as we serve in the Church, we are touched very profoundly by the people whom we serve. You come into contact, all over, with some very holy people. But they’re all God’s children. We all have our struggles.
“I know some people are angry with me, because of episodes in the last few years,” he said. “But that does not allow me to judge them or write them off. Always they remain to me a brother or sister in Christ, as we work out our salvation together. We always need to be a very hopeful and joyful people. I hope I have radiated those qualities relatively well, though never perfectly.
“I find that the tremendous sense of support, and prayers, and love from people in general is really very humbling. The challenge of holiness of life is there for all of us on the faith journey.”