After one year in Utah, this trailblazing bishop is conquering personal mountains and leading Catholics to higher ground

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Catholic Bishop Oscar A. Solis waits in an anteroom prior to leading the Mass on the third Sunday of Lent, Sunday, March 4, 2018. March 7th will mark his first anniversary of his installation as the tenth Bishop of Salt Lake City.

After a full year in the mountain-rimmed cities of Utah (where ski resorts help drive the economy), Oscar A. Solis has yet to attempt speeding downhill on two slick sticks.

The intrepid Solis, who was installed as the 10th bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City on March 7, 2017, hails from the heat-drenched Philippines, and snow skiing is a bridge too far.

“The mountains frighten me,” the 64-year-old Solis said with a smile. “I want to be healthy — not disabled.”

Not that the charismatic clergyman has been idle the past 12 months.

Traveling the Beehive State’s freeways and back roads, he’s lost 15 pounds and “a fourth” of his hair. He’s hiked the state’s most glorious canyons, piloted his little Kia to all the church’s nearly 50 parishes and most of its tiny missions, talked with students in each of the diocese’s schools, conducted hundreds of confirmations, and preached many, many sermons — making sure they all included at least one laugh line.

The first Filipino-born Catholic bishop in the U.S., Solis also become a player on Utah’s religious turf. He’s developed a deep respect and partnership with the dominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well being a regular contributor to the interfaith scene.

He has penned opinion pieces for newspapers and led a 40-day “dignity of life” initiative, urging the 300,000-plus members of his flock to pray for an end to abortion, euthanasia and the “less-than-charitable attitudes emerging in some quarters toward the poor, the homeless, immigrants, refugees and the mentally challenged.”

Meanwhile, Solis has become a Utah Jazz fan and knows how to make the block U. that University of Utah followers flash with their thumbs and forefingers.

Then there’s golf.

When the weather allows, “we go every week,” said Deacon George Reade. “The bishop likes to go on his day off — typically Thursday.”

The two, joined by many others, have teed up at public and private courses across the state — Rose Park, Willow Creek, Hobble Creek, the Salt Lake Country Club.

Watching the playful bishop with a driver in his hand, Reade said, is seeing his personality at work.

“It reveals how kindhearted he is,” the deacon said. He downplays his own skills (which are considerable) and “roots for other people to play well.”

When the bishop “hits bad shots,” he handles the moment with “self-deprecating humor,” Reade said, which is how Solis faces problems in the diocese.

“He doesn’t let a bad shot — or situation — keep him down at all,” the deacon said. “He’s very resilient.”

It is, Reade added, “a joy to be around him.”

Culture shock

Young Oscar was born, educated and ordained a priest in the Philippines, coming to the U.S. in his 30s. He first worked in a parish in New Jersey (where, with its sizable Cuban membership, he learned Spanish), then moved to Louisiana and, finally, to Los Angeles, with its vast Filipino community.

Utah seemed like another universe altogether.

Though Solis appreciated Utahns’ warm welcome, the good-natured bishop had no idea what he would find in the Salt Lake City diocese.

“I came with an open mind and heart,” Solis said in a recent interview. “My first impression was that there is a beautiful community of faith in Utah, not just Catholics.”

He intended merely to observe for a while. That was never going to happen, of course. The high-energy cleric is not one for sitting still.

Solis moved into a small house a few blocks north of the church’s pastoral center on C Street near the Cathedral of the Madeleine and went to work doing his own laundry, cooking and cleaning.

Right away, Solis met Mormon higher-ups and formed “a good partnership with them,” he said. “I have a high regard for them and the tremendous good they do for the community. They’ve treated me well.”

Within the first two months, the new bishop outlined his hopes for the diocese in a pastoral letter, “A Springtime of the New Evangelization.”

In that document, Solis listed his priorities: faith formation, the Holy Eucharist and Catholic identity, priestly and religious vocations, social justice and the culture of life, as well as ecumenism/interfaith dialogue.

He prodded Utah Catholics to get out of their comfort zones, learn their religion, trumpet the Christian gospel and lift those in need.

He also commissioned a survey of how each parish is teaching its young people, longtime members and converts how to build faith.

What does it take for Catholics to move from intellectual knowledge of God to richer, deeper devotion of both mind and heart? Solis asked.

“It is not just about learning or memorizing,” he said, but must come through a “personal encounter with Christ.”

Solis expects to see results from that survey later this month.

Going the distance

Though the Salt Lake City diocese has far fewer members than Solis’ previous postings, visiting them is tougher.

Long distances separate many of Utah’s rural Catholics. They worship in small parishes or missions, making it difficult for a bishop to minister personally to them all.

Earlier this year, Solis set out to officiate at Mass in three churches on a single day — Helper, Huntington and Green River. He left in his Kia at 7:30 a.m. and didn’t get back until late that night.

“I admire the dedication of priests [in those lonely outposts],” he said. “They are by themselves with not much support.”

Solis sees part of his calling as lifting the 70 or so priests in the diocese.

“I try to consult with them and listen to them,” he said. “I want to make their workload a little lighter.”

The Filipino also feels drawn to Catholic youths, most of whom are Latino.

West High School senior Alex Fierro said Solis has “gone far beyond his personal bubble.”

The bishop came out strongly in defense of “Dreamers” — immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — Fierro said, cautioning Catholics against treating others unjustly “because of their race or sexual orientation.”

He was expressing, the former altar boy said, “the reality we live with.”

For Solis to be a “bishop of color” who speaks fluent Spanish, Fierro added, is an important symbol.

The Catholic leader can communicate with the Latino community directly, the student said, guaranteeing that his ideas “are presented clearly.”

Jocelyn Alcala, who teaches fifth grade at East Midvale Elementary School, applauds how Solis engages with young people.

“I recently went to the Diocesan Youth Rally and was overjoyed to see the bishop was present,” she said. “For young people, it might not matter what the bishop is doing for them but the fact that he is present amongst the young people makes us feel like we are appreciated. …

“Bishop Solis is pretty liberal,” she said, “in a sense that he’s following Pope Francis’ steps, and Pope ‘Franny’ is pretty radical.”

For his part, Solis worries about those who — like so many millennials — are slipping away from religion.

He sees it as a consequence of a “trend toward individualism … which breeds polarization and fragmentation,” he said. “We want to bring them back and [convince them] that life is not only about me but about us. The global faith does not exist so we can be by ourselves; we are related to others.”

On the horizon

Solis bemoans not being able to achieve all the goals he set for his first 365 days. But he concedes it has been an “inspiring” beginning.

“The warm hospitality and joy I have received as their shepherd invigorated me,” he said. And those sentiments have lingered, regularly energizing him.

Solis, writing in the Intermountain Catholic, said he plans to continue his faith-building efforts, to reach out to other religious figures, to discover new ways to connect with the young, and to speak on “immigration reform (especially advocacy for the Dreamers), racism, and respect-for-life issues to end abortion, assisted suicide and capital punishment.”

The Filipino leader remains a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity and heads a subcommittee on Asia and Pacific affairs.

Those efforts “speak to the universality of the church,” he said. “We are one — but diverse.”

Though a globe-trotting bishop with family and friends spread across continents, Solis is comfortable in landlocked Utah.

“I have a feeling this will be my home forever,” he said, or at least until he retires at age 75.

And skiing?

With a mischievous grin, he mused: “Never say never.”