On a recent morning in Salt Lake City, Utah, Bishop Oscar Azarcon Solis reflected on the change of weather. The sun was out as temperatures rose to the mid-70s — a stark contrast to the week prior when he was welcomed into his new home with inches of snow.
“That’s what makes Utah very interesting for people to come: you keep on guessing,” Solis remarked during an interview with the Asian Journal.
The 63-year-old native of Nueva Ecija, Philippines made history on March 7 when he was formally installed as the 10th Roman Catholic bishop of the Salt Lake City diocese.
With this position — to which he was appointed to by Pope Francis in January — Solis is the first Filipino to lead such a large congregation of Catholics in the United States.
The ceremony earlier this month followed ancient rites, including a formal reception and knocking of the doors, and the celebration of the Solemn Mass and Rite of Canonical Possession. Both were held at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in the Utah capital and were witnessed by nearly a thousand individuals, including a whole host of special guests like Archbishop José Palma of Cebu and Hon. Salvador Medialdea, executive secretary of the president of the Philippines.
“Firsthand, I experienced the warm hospitality of the people of Utah…So embracing, so warm, so welcoming, very hospitable. I have so many adjectives that I can use to describe it,” Solis shared.
Despite this momentous role that Filipino and Filipino-American Catholics — hundreds of them from across the country and overseas traveled to Salt Lake City to witness the bishop’s installment — have hailed, Solis said being a Filipino immigrant is simply a sidebar to his ministry work.
“I really don’t dwell on that, being Filipino and the historical element of being appointed as bishop here in Salt Lake City,” he said. “I consider myself as a priest and a bishop for everyone. It just so happens that I am a Filipino by birth and a Filipino American by citizenship.”
“But in essence, I am just a regular, ordinary priest and Catholic bishop,” he continued. “I represent the universal Catholic Church that serves not only the Filipinos, but everybody.”
The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, which covers the entire state of Utah, is home to over 300,000 Catholics, 48 parishes, 19 missions and 16 Catholic schools. (About 15,000 of those Catholics identify as Asian American and Pacific Islander, a majority of whom are Filipino, the diocese said.)
In his homily during the installation Mass, he laid out his mission “to teach, to govern and to sanctify.”
“Working to build an inclusive community of faith in a rich multicultural setting like Utah is both a challenge and an opportunity. The attitude and perspective with which we approach our reality colors the outcome of our ministry,” he told the audience.
He added that during his time in Utah, he would continue the agenda of his predecessors to “bring the Church to the people.”
“As I have told my brother bishops, it is quite frightening to follow these ‘big dogs.’ And as I look up to them, I could not help but think of myself as a little puppy. And the sad part about it, I said, is that I am a little puppy and a mixed breed,” he mused during his message. “These men, my predecessors, were all dedicated leaders of our faith, who carried out their episcopal ministry with great zeal and enthusiasm, and who worked collaboratively with leaders of other faith denominations.”
The Desert State is known for having a population that predominately belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, even with the relatively small number of Catholics in comparison to the over 2 million Mormons in the state, Solis said he is looking forward to engaging with other faiths.
“The Catholic Church in Utah has a longstanding, wonderful partnership between the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as other interfaith and interreligious groups. We have an ecumenical group here in Salt Lake City and I heard they meet regularly,” he said.
Solis — who was born in San Jose, Nueva Ecija — attended the Christ the King Seminary of the Society of the Divine Word, Tagaytay City, to study philosophy and the Pontifical Royal Seminary at the University of Saint Thomas in Manila for his theological studies.
He was ordained a priest in 1979 for the Diocese of Cabanatuan and served as chaplain to a number of organizations, as Prefect of Seminary Studies and as Diocesan Vocations Director, according to the Catholic Church.
He emigrated to the United States in 1984 and was a Parochial Vicar in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey until 1988. He then moved to the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, in 1992, where he served in four different parishes.
Pope John Paul II appointed Solis as the auxiliary bishop for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles in late 2003, and it was made official during a ceremony at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown LA the following year. It was a historic moment as well, for he became the first Filipino to be installed as a bishop in the U.S.
He was later promoted to auxiliary bishop of the San Pedro Pastoral District in 2009. For the past seven years, Solis has been responsible for overseeing 67 parishes and eight Catholic high schools in Los Angeles and Long Beach. He has also been the episcopal advisor for the National Association of Filipino Priests since 2011.
Beloved and embraced by the greater LA Catholic community for his quick wit and humor, Solis said his personality stems from the “joy of sharing [his] faith with others.” This charisma is what he will continue to grace his new environment with.
“I want them to feel excited about it because it is exciting for me to have this opportunity and share the presence of Christ in my life and the love that I have experienced and the love that God has bestowed upon me all my life. It’s a simple message that God is love, God is good and he loves us all,” he said.
“Joy is contagious — that’s why I always smile and bring the joy of the Gospel to everyone…When you have God in your life, you don’t need all of those [material] things…That’s what the Gospel of God is all about.”
As previously written in the Asian Journal during a MDWK Magazine feature in 2011, Solis shared that he questioned if he was truly meant to dedicate his life to being a priest. But he eventually knew it was his destined path and is committed to helping others consider ministry work.
While stationed in Utah, one of the demands he will be addressing is how to encourage more individuals to become priests or nuns.
“…As the population grows, that means the Catholic population is growing as well. We need more ministers in order to make themselves available to give service to people, to bring the Church to the people. That’s our main goal, really, trying to bring the Church where the people are, instead of waiting for the people to come to the Church,” he said.
Given the political climate and divisiveness in the country right now, Solis said the Church “sets the example of inclusivity” and can be a safe space for individuals.
“In fact, we welcome…all, even the strangers among us,” he reflected. “That is the basic principle of what the church stands for: it is open, inclusive, hospitable and welcoming, especially to those who are in need.”
“That is why it’s not surprising that the Church stands in support of refugees, people living in poverty, the homeless, people suffering from addictions [of] drugs. It’s a normal thing for the Church to stand in support and on behalf of those people who need our love and compassion so they may be able to uphold their innate human dignity as human beings, as members of our faith community and as members of God’s family.”