Abp. Sample on the liturgy, vocations, and Synod disappointments

In a wide-ranging interview on his 10th anniversary as a bishop, the archbishop of Portland discusses the centrality of the sacred liturgy, the challenges facing the family today, and more.

Archbishop Alexander Sample, 55, recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his ordination as bishop and will soon celebrate his third anniversary as archbishop of Portland, Oregon.

He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, in 1990, and became Marquette’s bishop in 2006. At the time of his episcopal ordination, he was the youngest Catholic bishop in the US, and the first to be born in the 1960s.

The Portland archdiocese is home to 425,000 Catholics, 331 priests (active and retired), 124 parishes, and 22 missions. In addition to three large metropolitan areas, the archdiocese’s 30,000 square miles includes vast forests, and the rural and coastal areas of western Oregon.

Archbishop Sample recently spoke with CWR on a number of subjects, including the particular challenges facing the Church in the Northwest, the importance of the sacred liturgy, and what disappointed him about last year’s Synod on the Family.

CWR: What are your thoughts as you reflect on your 10 years as a bishop?

Archbishop Alexander Sample: First off, I don’t know where the time went.  It’s gone by so fast. 

It’s been an incredible experience. I think I’ve settled into the role with more confidence than when I began.

When I was first ordained, I was the youngest bishop in the United States, but I’ve since shed that dubious distinction. Now I’m the youngest archbishop.

I’ve had a lot to learn. When you become a bishop, you have the final word on things, so it takes you to a whole new level. The decisions I make are consequential in peoples’ lives, and that’s a heavy burden to carry. It’s one thing to be an advisor to a bishop. You give your input and then step away, leaving the decision to him.

But when you are the bishop, your decisions affect peoples’ lives. That’s been one of the most difficult things, having a profound effect on the lives of people. It’s a heavy weight to bear, especially when we can be so weak and make mistakes. And when I make mistakes, it’s always bothersome to me.

But overall, it’s been a joy to be a successor to the apostles. I’m deeply aware of that; I really do understand my ministry as being a successor to the apostles. Christ entrusted this office to me. I feel a strong spiritual connection to that apostolic foundation, and that gives me confidence.

When I was first told I was going to be ordained a bishop, I went to my predecessor and told him I thought I was too young. He told me that there is a grace that comes with the office of bishop, and those were true words. The Lord sustains me.

CWR: How has it been getting to know and governing the Archdiocese of Portland?

Archbishop Sample: It’s a diverse Church, with lots of moving parts. First off, we have great cultural diversity. We have a large and growing Hispanic population. Ministering to them has been a great challenge, as we’re not sufficiently prepared linguistically or culturally.

We have large Vietnamese, Filipino, African-American, Mayan, Polish, and Indonesian communities. I recently participated in the celebration of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. As I was listening to them sing the responsorial psalm in their language, I was amazed. I never imagined that I’d be the shepherd of such a diverse flock.

The Pacific Northwest is an unchurched part of the country, and the Archdiocese of Portland is no stranger to that reality. Many who live here have never been exposed to organized religion, or have been and have rejected it. That has been a challenge. When we welcomed new Catholics into the Church during our two past Rites of Election, I was amazed that at least half had never been baptized. 

We Catholics are officially 12 percent of the population here, with the next largest population being the Mormons at 6 percent. But, as I said three years ago when I arrived, that just means we have fertile ground for the New Evangelization. With so many unchurched, it could mean that there is a greater openness toward religion, as they’re not carrying any baggage of past negative experiences with religion. It could translate into a greater openness to the message of the Gospel.

CWR: How are you doing for vocations to the priesthood?

Archbishop Sample: I have ordained 20 men to the priesthood since I came here. I will ordain four more men this year, so in the past five years Portland will have seen 34 men ordained to the priesthood. In the seminary, we have 25 men studying.

There is not a bishop in the country who won’t tell you that we couldn’t do better. As I mentioned, we have a particular need for priests who can minister to the Latino community.

When I speak to young men about the priesthood, I tell them that we’re called not to benefit ourselves but for our people. The priesthood is not about us, but serving Christ. We exist for the sake of the Church, to be of service. 

We need to shrug off any worldly notion of the priesthood. I bristle when I hear priests talking about “my priesthood,” as if it’s something that belongs to us. There is only one priest, Jesus Christ, and we are his humble servants. It’s not about us obtaining some level of status in the Church, but about having a heart of service for God’s holy people. That’s my constant theme about the priesthood.

We live in a culture of entitlement. It affects us all, myself included. I tell our young men that they must fight against this idea. We must instead form them with a sense of sacrifice.

CWR: Your successor in Marquette, Bishop John Doerfler, recently issued a letter titled Sing to the Lord, All the Earth!, which he said was building on your own pastoral letter from your time in Marquette, Rejoice in the Lord Always. Bishop Doerfler’s letter specifies that the people learn to chant parts of the Mass and that parishes adopt an approved diocesan hymnal. Do you have any plans to issue directives relating to sacred music in Portland as you did in Marquette?

Archbishop Sample: I have not yet seen Bishop Doerfler’s letter, but we both agree that sacred music is an important part of the liturgy. I’m pleased to see he’s building on what I tried to establish in Marquette.

Some have said that the sacred liturgy is my personal hang up, that I have an obsession with it. I reject that view, because it’s not merely my opinion that the liturgy be given the highest priority, but that of the Church.

The Church teaches us that the liturgy is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life [in Sacrosanctum Concilium]. There is nothing more important that the Church does. All our apostolic works flow from it. It is the heart of who we are as the body of Christ.

I had the pleasure of attending a general audience with Pope Benedict. As a bishop, I had the opportunity to greet him personally afterward. In the few moments I had with him, I told him I had a great admiration for what he’d done to renew the sacred liturgy and thanked him for his leadership. He responded, “If we don’t have the liturgy, what do we have?” I took that message to heart.

I want to do what the Church wants us to do in regards to liturgy. It is not my take, or my style, but what the Church is asking of us. I want to be faithful to what the Vatican II Council intended.

The liturgy is not the personal possession of any priest or liturgical commission, but belongs to Holy Mother Church. We must celebrate it according to the mind and heart of the Church.

Sacred music forms an important part of that liturgy. I hope, in time and with patience, to address this topic with our clergy and lay leaders.

CWR: You recently celebrated Mass in the Extraordinary Form during a conference at the Brigittine Monastery in your archdiocese.  What brought you to this conference and what interest do you have in the Old Mass?

Archbishop Sample: We have wonderful group of lay people in our archdiocese with an interest in Gregorian chant who put this conference together. They wanted to introduce Gregorian chant to the people in accordance with the mind of the Church. Vatican II, in fact, indicated that chant should enjoy “pride of place” in the liturgy [in Sacrosanctum Concilium].

The conference organizers wanted to experience Gregorian chant within the liturgy and asked me to celebrate the Mass there according to the Extraordinary Form. I had no hesitation to do so when I was asked.

I’m grateful to Pope Benedict for allowing the Extraordinary Form to flourish again in the Church. I have a great love and appreciation for the ancient liturgy. I wish every priest and seminarian would familiarize himself with the Extraordinary Form, which can help us to better understand the Ordinary Form.

CWR: Last year, you asked Catholics to pray the Rosary and Chaplet of Divine Mercy for the success of the Synod of Bishops, which met in October. What were your thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the two Synods on the Family?

Archbishop Sample: I speak as an outside observer and not a participant. What I know of the synods comes from the media and personal conversations I have had with other bishops. I will withhold a final opinion until the Holy Father comes out with a final synthesis of the synod, which is expected in March.

That said, two things disappointed me. First, so much attention was placed on disputes regarding the issues of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried and homosexuality and same-sex unions in the media. This distracted from the real focus of the synod, which is supporting family life in the Church and society today. 

How do we build up marriage? How do we help families live faithfully? How do we support families? How do we hold up the beauty and dignity of family life as a light to the world? We need to return our focus to strong, holy, faithful families.

I heard from many families who objected to the focus on the controversial issues, while not getting the affirmation for which they had hoped.

My second objection is that when I read the official documents, the beautiful teaching of St. John Paul II was not the centerpiece of the discussions at both synods. His teachings were put off to the side, perhaps referenced here or there. Pope John Paul II made a powerful contribution to the Church regarding the issues of marriage, family, and human sexuality. I was disappointed that they were not the starting point of the discussion.

CWR: You went to Washington, DC and Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and to participate in ceremonies with the Holy Father last September. What were some of the highlights of the trip?

Archbishop Sample: It was an exciting time for Pope Francis to visit the Church in the United States. The enthusiasm was palpable. Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention, bringing excitement to our shores. My interactions with the other bishops and the Holy Father were especially memorable.

On the Saturday evening before the final Mass, the Holy Father set aside his prepared text and spoke from the heart about marriage and family. He encouraged us to remember two special groups, children and grandparents. Children are the strength for the future, and grandparents have the memory of the past. A society that does not take care of its children and grandparents has no future. 

I was touched by his comments, and I have used them a number of times myself. Children are our future—and I would include unborn children in this—and we need to form them properly. We must also care for grandparents, and not develop a “throw away” culture for the elderly. 

I’m particularly sensitive to this in Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal. I myself can relate to families that care for elderly parents, as I live with and care for my own 87-year-old mother, who has faced health challenges. I cook dinner for us every night, except when my duties call me away. It is my great honor and joy to care for her.

CWR: In 2014, you consecrated the Church in western Oregon to the Immaculate Heart of Our Lady of Fatima. Do you have a personal interest in the Fatima apparitions and what are your thoughts as we approach their 100th anniversary?

Archbishop Sample: I have long had an interest in Fatima, even before I went to seminary. I was drawn to its basic message of conversion and prayer, which still resonates today. Some might view Fatima as relevant to a particular time in the Church’s history, but not today. But I think it is as relevant today as ever. 

I fear that our culture and world is on a destructive course. We need to get back to the true, the good, and the holy. The message of Fatima includes the prayer for the conversion of sinners. I myself am a sinner, and I must work for the conversion of sinners. That was my desire when I made the consecration, to place our archdiocese under the protective mantle of Our Lady.

I’ve always had a great devotion to the Blessed Mother. As we draw closer to her Immaculate Heart, we find the safety and strength to be the person God calls us to be.

CWR: You apologized to parishioners for the behavior of a Sherwood, Oregon priest, Father Ysrael Bien, who placed a hidden camera in a church bathroom and then fled to his native Philippines when police investigated the incident. When a member of the clergy is guilty of a significant failing such as this, what do you think is the best response on the part of faithful clergy and the laity?

Archbishop Sample: When one priest does something wrong and destructive, it paints us all with the same brush. Incidents such these are among of the most painful things I’ve had to endure as a priest. There are many wonderful, dedicated, and hardworking priests who are made to look bad by such failings.

I say to my priests that these things give us the opportunity to redouble in our efforts to grow in holiness, recommit ourselves to Christ and work harder on improving our prayer lives. We need to be confident and not afraid. We’re all sinners, and we can’t let the sins of a few pull us down and destroy us.

The Church is the holy, spotless bride of Christ. But, its members are human beings who are sinners. Pope Francis himself reminds us that he’s a sinner in need of confession and the mercy of God.

Sometimes our leaders disappoint and scandalize us. But God does not abandon his Church and continues to guide it. There is no human explanation as to why the Church still exists. We should have been wiped out by the persecutions and martyrdoms of the first century. We’re here because Christ is with us. He chose men who were sinners to be his first bishops; one of his apostles, in fact, betrayed him.

I ask the people to pray for their pastors, and when they fail, pray that God give them the grace of conversion and the healing of those who have been hurt by their actions.

CWR: You had the chance to confirm Gary Haugen, one of Oregon’s most notorious murders on death row. What was this experience like?

Archbishop Sample: When I was a parochial vicar in Marquette, one of my responsibilities was prison ministry. When I first began and was still “wet behind the ears,” I was very nervous about it. I was afraid of it, in fact, and didn’t know what to expect.

But I immediately fell in love with prison ministry. Many prisoners have a great openness to Christ and want to hear the Good News, despite the bad things that brought them to prison in the first place. They’re hungry for it.

Of all the places where I have ministered, I have seen the greatest impact among those in prison. I’ve seen incredible transformations and profound conversions, with some inmates becoming saintly men.

Prisoners are so often forgotten men, cast aside, thrown away, and [seen as] not worth our concern. But God’s mercy needs to reach all people, including the men and women in prison. I think this is especially important to consider in this Year of Mercy.

Confirming Gary Haugen was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had as a priest. When I first met Gary beforehand, I was stunned. He dropped to his knees, prostrated himself on the floor and said, “I am not worthy.” Here is a man, notorious for his crimes, humbling himself before me, who he sees as a representative of God and the Church. I reassured them that he’s very worthy of God’s love.

I’ve visited Gary twice since then. I keep a photo of him on my desk in his cage [for safety reasons, prison officials had Haugen stand in a cage throughout his confirmation] to remind me to pray for him, for all those in prison and anyone else in special need of God’s mercy and love.

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About Jim Graves 235 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.