In times of action, not one to retreat

By Julie Johnson / The Bulletin

Published Dec 16, 2007 at 04:00AM

Bishop Robert Vasa, the Catholic leader who oversees parishes and missions in the 66,000-square-mile Diocese of Baker, understands the paradox of how people view him.

Is he a heartless ogre who pursues his conservative agenda with no regard to its effect on others, Vasa asked rhetorically, or is he “a humble, generous, kindhearted servant of God?”

Vasa, 56, is the spiritual leader for Catholics in the diocese, which covers all of Central and Eastern Oregon and is headquartered in Bend. He acknowledges that his decisions in the diocese since his ordination as bishop in 2000 have stirred controversy. He has been a tireless voice on the pro-life front, both religiously and politically. He has denounced groups such as Call To Action, which wants to reform the Catholic church to allow female clergy, let local parishes have a voice in appointing bishops and revise the church’s teachings on sexuality, among other changes. And, Vasa has required church leaders in his diocese to affirm certain tenets of the Catholic doctrine, or they are not allowed to hold their leadership positions.

“Really, the only way to avoid criticism or contention is to do absolutely nothing,” he said.

But that’s not in his nature, he said. “I have a bias for action.”

Vasa’s actions during the past seven years have led to some families stepping away from the Catholic Church and some former church leaders stepping down from their roles as cantors, ministers of Holy Communion or liturgical readers. But they have also earned him praise from hundreds of supportive Catholics in his diocese and across the country.

Vasa is unapologetic about his traditional stance on Catholic doctrine.

“I as a teacher have an obligation to say these are not opinion, they are our teachings and are part and parcel of the Catholic Church,” he said. “These are things which stem directly from God himself.”

Vasa’s path

Born in 1951 near Lincoln, Neb., Vasa (pronounced VA-sha), is the grandson of Czech immigrants and a lifelong Catholic. He grew up on a farm where his parents raised alfalfa, oats, soybeans, corn and kids, he said. He has four brothers and two sisters, one of whom is a religious sister in a Catholic order in St. Louis. His eldest and youngest brothers still run the family farm.

Vasa said he knew since the third grade that he would pursue a religious life.

“It’s a grace, certainly,” he said.

He credits the good examples of his parish priests for inspiring him to enter the priesthood, and the examples of the saints he learned about in Catholic school.

“I took to heart the examples of the saints and their witness to Christ and their witness to virtue,” he said. Today, Vasa’s pectoral cross, the large cross bishops and others wear on a chain around the neck, opens to reveal relics — bones — from a dozen or so saints.

“Even through high school, there was an awareness that even though I would go to dances and prom and social activities, I always had in the back of my mind that I would do something different,” he said.

Catholic school, he said, was an important part of his upbringing.

“Children who go to Catholic school are formed in Catholic beliefs,” he said. For him, that meant that while children in a secular math class might be enamored of pi, children in Catholic school would recognize the Creator in the perfection of pi.

“From a Catholic standpoint, it broadens the focus,” Vasa said.

That way of seeing Catholicism or spirituality in all things has affected the way Vasa views other parts of science, too.

“Is thought only the random activity of molecules in the brain?” he said. “I don’t think that does honor to the human purpose.” Instead, he sees intelligent design and divinity in creation, he said.

Vasa said that several years ago, he would have called himself a mitigated evolutionist, believing that evolution took place, but that God must have devised it as the method for creating man.

But now, Vasa said, he thinks that view is based on faulty science, namely that the Earth is billions of years old, for which he said there is little scientific evidence. Instead, he espouses a “young Earth” theory that can account for divine creation as described in the Bible and the geological evidence that exists on Earth.

“I am more and more of the opinion that God’s direct creation of the world as a young universe has very definite scientific validity,” Vasa said, citing evidence of massive floods that could duplicate in a few short years the presumed work of millions of years of geological transformation. “But science won’t acknowledge the possibility that scientific presumptions aren’t founded in scientific reality.”

After high school, Vasa attended St. Thomas seminary in Denver for four years. He then went to Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas, Texas, for four years of theology study. He was ordained a priest in 1976. Vasa went to Rome for two years of postgraduate work, earning a degree in church law, then returned to his home diocese of Lincoln in 1981. He held a number of positions, including chancellor, pastor of small and large parishes, and vicar general and chief financial officer. He worked closely with the bishop in the diocese, Fabian Bruskewitz.

Indeed, Vasa was vicar general — after the bishop, the highest official of a diocese — to Bruskewitz in 1996, when Bruskewitz excommunicated those members of Call To Action who didn’t repudiate their allegiance to the organization. Ten years later, when Bruskewitz’s actions were upheld by the Vatican, Vasa was embroiled in his own conflict with Call To Action.

Bishop in Oregon

Vasa was surprised to learn in 1999 that he’d been appointed to be the bishop of the Diocese of Baker, he told The Bulletin at the time. Bruskewitz and retiring Bishop of Baker Thomas Connelly helped install him in the position in a traditional ceremony in 2000.

Vasa led quietly for several years. But in 2002, he caused a stir in some circles when he incorporated individual parishes in the diocese and transferred millions of dollars worth of church property and money from the diocese to the individual parishes. An attorney for 18 men who said they were sexually abused in the 1950s and 1960s in Burns and Klamath Falls by the late Rev. David Hazen petitioned for a restraining order to stop the transfer, alleging that Vasa was trying to defraud his clients of diocese money in the event of a ruling against the diocese in sex-abuse lawsuits seeking nearly $70 million.

Vasa testified in Deschutes County Circuit Court in 2003 that the transfer was not meant to defraud the plaintiffs but to follow church law. Circuit Judge Michael Adler ruled to allow the transfers. The lawsuits were later settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Then, in 2004, Vasa made headlines across the country with an unorthodox move that put him at odds with Call To Action and other so-called progressive Catholics. He issued a statement called “Giving Testimony to the Truth” and in it asked lay ministers in the diocese to agree with the Catholic Church’s positions against abortion, homosexual relationships, contraception and extramarital sex, among other teachings, or step down from their positions in the church.

Bend Catholic Wilma Hens and several others chose to quit their posts in the church as singers, liturgical readers, teachers of the catechism and other leadership roles because they couldn’t in good conscience swear to the 10-part “affirmation of personal faith” required by Vasa in his document. His affirmation limited freedom of belief, Hens said.

“He leaves no space for conscience,” she said.

But, Vasa said, the affirmation of personal faith outlines standard and widely accepted church doctrine. Among other things, it asks lay ministers to affirm that they believe the church’s teachings about the sinfulness of contraception, the evil of homosexual acts, the rejection of abortion and euthanasia, obedience to the church and the literal presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist (the wine and bread, or blood and body, of Communion).

“The list (in the affirmation) is taken in some circles as the church’s suggestions,” Vasa said. “Whether we feel it’s right or not, the church holds these up as the standard we ought to hold and strive for.”

Vasa decries the culture of tolerance at any cost that has developed in modern America.

“We live in an age where the only acceptable virtue is tolerance,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s a popular mantra that you must not only tolerate what that person does, but you must positively accept it. But to live with integrity, we must not go there.”

The conflict over “Giving Testimony to the Truth” prompted Hens and others to form a Bend chapter of Call To Action.

Tom Dolezal, a lifelong Catholic who lives in Bend, said he considers Vasa a friend but disagrees wholeheartedly with some of his views on the church.

Before Dolezal retired to Bend, he had never heard of Vasa. But the two soon discovered they shared a Midwestern farm-boy upbringing and a love of the church. Before long, they visited monthly in Vasa’s office, Dolezal said, and talked about Nebraska football, the church, farming and other topics.

But after Vasa issued his “Giving Testimony to the Truth” document, Dolezal found himself at odds with his bishop. A 15-year member of Call To Action, Dolezal refused to swear to the affirmation Vasa demanded, and soon found himself ousted from his positions as lector, teacher and Communion minister in the parish, he said.

“I have been my entire life in service to my church and to my God; I’ve tried to be,” Dolezal said. “But since I came to this diocese, I’ve been excluded from public ministry.”

Yet Dolezal said he’d like to still consider Vasa his friend. He admires the bishop’s devotion and faith.

“He’s tenacious as hell, and very bright. Courageous,” Dolezal said. “But he’s wrong.”

More-conservative Catholics, though, believe Vasa is standing up for true Catholics everywhere, and in Catholic blogs, newspapers and living rooms, Vasa is lauded as a protector of the faith. Richard Thorne, a retired obstetrician in Redmond, said hundreds of Catholics throughout the diocese support him and the stand he’s taken in theology and politics, including a 2004 statement that he would deny Communion to pro-choice politicians.

Thorne said he knows the bishop very well through their work on pro-life issues.

“I think he’s been an excellent shepherd,” Thorne said. “He has stood up to non-truths, and I think that’s what a good shepherd does in times of apostasy and when things are muddled.”

Thorne believes Vasa was on the right track when he issued “Giving Testimony to the Truth” because the document upholds the basic tenets of Catholicism.

“He stands his ground,” Thorne said. “It’s hard to continue saying there are absolutes in a world that is taught there’s no such thing as absolutes. I wish more bishops had the spiritual testosterone that he has displayed.”

Thorne went on to describe Vasa as accessible and responsive. His home phone number is listed in the phone book, Thorne said, and his office door is always open.

Thorne recalled an incident over Easter weekend of this year when he was working on a political issue. He needed the bishop’s help and contacted him in Baker City on the Saturday before Easter, a holy time for Catholics. The bishop not only responded, he helped devise a strategy to oppose the gay-rights bill coming up in the Oregon Legislature that week, and by Monday morning, he had written a letter and e-mailed it to the legislative representatives.

“That is a testimony of someone who believes strongly in his faith, demonstrates and teaches that faith to his people and is willing to make a public stand by stating his beliefs to the secular community,” Thorne said. “Wow.”

Catholic future

On a chilly day in early December, Vasa wore his bishop’s robes, black with a magenta sash, out to greet newcomers to the bit of Powell Butte farmland he calls the Catholic Center. It’s his dream: to establish a retreat, conference center, chapel diocesan offices and other buildings on a 40-acre parcel just below the shoulders of the Powell Buttes and facing a full seven-mountain view of the Cascades.

The property doesn’t have much now, just a run-down, unused farmhouse and a horse barn with attached living quarters.

But Vasa has high hopes for it. The diocese bought the property a year ago and has already held a youth retreat, priests’ retreat and other small events there. He wants the facility to be a focal point for Catholics all over the diocese.

“This business of being a Catholic is bigger than whatever little parish they’re in,” he said. “It’s important to have a facility focused on that.”

And so on this day, Vasa played host to about 20 parishioners from The Dalles who had come to tour the property and see the plans. Vasa prayed with them and ate chili and shook hands. He posed for a photo for a 12-year-old girl and went over and over the architect’s sketches for the Catholic Center property.

It could be a tough sell. With a price tag of $5 million to $7 million, the center is not inexpensive. And the number of Catholics in the diocese is shrinking. The Diocese of Baker contained 36,553 Catholics in 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available, down from 38,390 in 2004 and a high of 39,853 in 2000.

But Vasa is confident.

Earlier, in his modest office in an industrial area of east Bend, he talked of the center and what it would mean to the isolated Catholics of Central and Eastern Oregon. The Diocese of Baker is not the largest diocese in area, nor the smallest in population, but when those two descriptors are combined, it means the diocese is one of the most sparsely populated in the country.

“If we’re going to be really catholic — universal — (we) have to be looking out,” he said before launching into a parable about the Dead Sea: With an inlet but no outlet, the sea is almost devoid of life. In contrast, the Sea of Galilee, with both an inlet and an outlet, is teeming with life.

“Our parishes, our communities, can be like that,” Vasa said. “Where is the flourishing life?”

But Vasa admits that even he is subject to the sort of spiritual myopia that can be a result of focusing too much on the secular or the immediacy of today. The Powell Butte property, he says, occupies an inordinate amount of his time and energy.

“I have to remind myself this is a means to an end, not an end unto itself,” he said. “When we make the here and now an end unto itself, a goal becomes a kind of god … It can cost personal relationships, our relationship with God.”

On the walls of his office are many crosses. Some were gifts. Some he collected. A few he made himself. He is a woodworking hobbyist, and has even made a few crèches, or nativity scenes, for auction at St. Francis Catholic School fundraisers. He’s also a bit of a handyman, and when the time came to demolish horse stalls in the barn at Powell Butte so the building could be used as a gathering place, he took up the hammer himself.

Vasa also enjoys the occasional bird hunt or fishing trip. He has taught an ongoing catechism class for the St. Francis parish. And he prays.

“I pray for everything,” he said. “I pray that I do what God wants me to do and I stay out of God’s way. Being given a bias for action can be a dangerous thing because it can tend to displace God. Hopefully, I’ve found a kind of holy boldness.”

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