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From City of Angels to land of Mormons, new Catholic bishop bringing fun-loving, faith-filled dynamism to Utah

First Published      Last Updated May 03 2017 12:31 pm

Solis brings a fun-loving, faith-filled dynamism to the Beehive State.

Anaheim, Calif • Make no mistake — Utah Catholics got the right Oscar. And what a win it was for a minority faith in the heartland of Mormonism.

By all accounts, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Azarcon Solis, who will be installed Tuesday as the 10th bishop of the Salt Lake City diocese, is a religious rock star.

He was the first Filipino bishop ordained in the U.S. and has become off-the-charts popular in La La Land. If you don't believe it, just watch him stroll through the giant Anaheim Convention Center, swarming with 30,000 Catholics during the just-completed Religious Education Congress. Every few feet, an adoring fan stops him to ask for a hug, a blessing, a photo.

Teens, older folks, deacons, nuns, couples, Eucharistic Ministers, fellow priests and lay members all want a piece of him like Star Trek's William Shatner at Comic Con — but for free. As Solis chats with each one, the multilingual cleric moves seamlessly from English to Spanish to (Filipino) Tagalog, leaving every group with a farewell grin.

Back home in the Philippines, the affable bishop dines with dignitaries and putts with presidents.

Yet Utah's bishop-elect carries his celebrity status lightly. Playful and personable, he does not demand deference but rather charms his listeners with self-deprecating humor, pop-culture allusions and profound God-soaked sermons.

He is equally at home playing Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up" at a piano bar as behind a pulpit, quoting scripture.

Because he served in an Italian/Cuban parish in New Jersey, a French/Creole parish in Louisiana, and the polyglot parishes of Southern California, people often ask what kind of accent he has.

To that, Solis quips, "I can't even understand myself now."

Clearly, the Filipino-American bishop embodies the faith's future. He moves beyond the Vatican II administrative style of his predecessors: Utah's former Bishop George H. Niederauer, a witty, urbane leader at ease in the company of priests, and Bishop John C. Wester, an ardent advocate-organizer and now archbishop of Santa Fe.

The Filipino bishop has had a completely different trajectory, growing up in a 90 percent Catholic country, then discovering firsthand what it means to be an American outsider. He witnessed the faith's abuse crisis as it exploded in a parish he served, and has lived in both the Northeast, where Catholicism has dramatically declined, and in the West, where it has consistently climbed.

Solis also is the only one of the three Utah bishops who spent much hands-on time laboring in a parish. That makes him the picture of what Pope Francis is looking for — shepherds who smell like their sheep.

Yet, the disarming Solis says with a shrug, no part of this journey was his idea. Each time he mentioned a desire for a sabbatical, he got a divine nudge — push, actually — in a completely unexpected direction.

"God," he says, is "a God of surprises."

A church cocoon • Catholicism came to the Philippines in 1521, when explorer Magellan "discovered" the island nations — and it was shortly thereafter colonized by Spain. After nearly five centuries, church and culture became nearly synonymous.

Filipinos practice "the same devotions," says Rocco Palmo, editor of Whispers in the Loggia, a Catholic news blog, but "with an Asian energy that puts them on steroids."

That world nurtured Oscar from birth in San Jose until his ordination there in 1979. Born of devoted Catholic parents, he was reared in the faith along with six siblings. All attended Catholic schools.

The installation ceremony

Oscar Solis will be installed as 10th bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City on Tuesday at 2 p.m. in the landmark Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple. No tickets remain for the event. A public reception will follow from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Marriott Downtown at City Creek, 75 S. West Temple. On Monday, Solemn Vespers will take place at 7 p.m. at the cathedral and will include the incoming bishop’s ritual door-knocking.

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About Bishop Oscar A. Solis

Born » Oct. 13, 1953, in San Jose City, Philippines

Education » Divine Word Seminary, Tagaytay City, Philippines; University of Santo Tomas, Manila

Ordained a priest » April 28, 1979, in the Archdiocese of Manila

Assignments » Diocese of Cabanatuan, Philippines; Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.; Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana

Ordained auxiliary bishop » Feb. 10, 2004, for Archdiocese of Los Angeles

Utah’s Catholic bishops

Lawrence Scanlan, 1886-1915

Joseph S. Glass, 1916-1926

John J. Mitty, 1926-1932

James E. Kearney, 1932-1937

Duane G. Hunt, 1937-1960

Joseph L. Federal, 1960-1980

William K. Weigand, 1980-1993

George H. Niederauer, 1994-2005

John C. Wester, 2007-2015

Oscar A. Solis, 2017-

Source: Salt Lake Tribune archives