It’s a cool winter’s evening and Archbishop John Vlazny is radiating warmth inside St. Mary Cathedral in Portland.
The slim 76-year-old spiritual leader has let out one of his signature high-decibel guffaws in the course of meeting people who want to join the Catholic Church. The archbishop, whose motto is “Go and Make Disciples,” is in his element; he’s electrified to behold someone embracing Jesus.
“True faith is about relationships, first and foremost our relationship with God,” he told the Catholics-to-be.
Archbishop Vlazny’s 15 years as Archbishop of Portland have included drama and even controversy. He was forced to deal with Oregon’s assisted suicide law, discrimination against immigrants, advancing abortion rights, cantankerous media, a priest sex-abuse scandal, bankruptcy and assaults on religious liberty.
But those news bites don’t tell the real, everyday story. John Vlazny has always been primarily a pastor. He has visited churches all over western Oregon, celebrated Mass in prisons, heard confessions in migrant labor camps and spun spiritual anecdotes by the score. He’s supped with the rich and poor alike.
Through it all, he’s maintained joy, giving the teachings of Jesus some real legs in the modern world.
“The purpose of the church is not to make the world Catholic but to bring the gospel into the world,” he said in an interview in 2006. “We can contribute to make this a more just and loving society.”
During his first press conference in Portland, he told reporters, “Jesus wasn’t sitting around in church.”
John Vlazny was spiritual leader of more than 400,000 Catholics, head of the fifth-largest school district in the state with 15,000 students, and a major influence on eight Catholic hospitals and scores of Catholic charities and other organizations. Most imposing of all, he had come to a place where the church is not heeded so much.
But as he had everywhere, Archbishop Vlazny quickly won over the hearts of Oregonians just by being himself.
He penned warm thank-you notes after visiting places like small St. Anthony Parish in Waldport. He thanked the people for a beautiful Mass and a tasty supper. At St. Helen Church in Junction City, after a home-cooked meal, the archbishop picked up the accordion and led the audience in “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and the “Beer Barrel Polka.”
Meanwhile, he attended parish meals, Catholic Daugters meetings, graduations, Knights of Columbus dinners, Catholic women’s conventions and the annual tea party to benefit the seminary — all with homey enjoyment. Usually, he was the last one to leave.
There was no mystery as to why this man was chosen for Portland. The state at the end of the Oregon Trail had a legendary percentage of religiously unaffiliated residents. These rugged individuals, the Vatican reasoned, might respond well to the outward focus of a man who really believes the gospel is, at least, a tremendous benefit to society.
In his installation homily in Portland, Archbishop Vlazny urged a welcoming spirit in parishes and asked the laity to remember that their evangelizing mission is intended primarily for activities and relationships outside the church.
From his very arrival in Oregon, Archbishop Vlazny laid plans for evangelization. Evangelized Catholics, he reasoned, will bring the gospel into society.
He said the faithful are to do three things: “Go, and make disciples, welcome other people to the church, and bring the good news to the people where we live.”
In May 1998, he presided at the first Mass ever in Portland’s main park on the waterfront. It was part of the Cinco de Mayo celebration and the Eucharist had never before been so public in Portland.
“To be a good Christian, one needs to participate in some aspect of the service ministry,” the archbishop said, standing in front of a life-sized painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “At home, at work, in our neighborhoods, the Christian attitude should be one of generosity and service.”
Keeping up an effort to bring the faith beyond the churchy world, he spoke at Portland’s City Club lunch about poverty and biblical justice.
Addressing a filled St. Mary Cathedral in 1999, the archbishop read a list of invectives often used against the church: “brain-dead, backward, rules-driven, guilt-inducing, heartless.” He added that many people in Oregon know the church more for its spaghetti dinners and Mass-time parking hassles than for its good works, powerful prayer and “daily miracles.” He hoped to surmount the bad image.
As the 2,000th year of Christianity arrived, he saw an opportunity to gear up evangelization. He designated eight historical pilgrimage sites in the state. A team from the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association visited Oregon to help parishes find ways to offer the faith to those who don’t practice. A leadership team from parishes was formed and an office of evangelization established.
Then came a wide-reaching initiative. Catholics from all over western Oregon would meet in homes to pray over scripture and consider ways to embody and spread the gospel in their everyday lives. Called Disciples in Mission, the process impacted almost every Catholic household.
He led a local pilgrimage to Catholic sites in Oregon, mingling with pilgrims as the buses drove down Oregon country roads.
On a pilgrimage in Jacksonville, at historic St. Joseph Church, he at one point walked outside with the Eucharist so overflow pilgrims could participate in adoration. The archbishop began planning for a massive public celebration in one of secular Portland’s most hallowed halls — Memorial Coliseum, former home of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers.
After hundreds marched down streets and sang their devotion to Jesus and Mary, 10,000 faithful gathered at the sports arena for Mass, the largest ever in Oregon. Distributing Communion alone took 20 minutes.
The event made television news and was covered above the fold on the front page of the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian.
“God may seem distant to many people — too many people,” the archbishop told the massive crowd. “This is our jubilee challenge, our jubilee gift to the world — our God is not a distant God.”
At an evening youth rally, the archbishop walked on stage in sunglasses to speak — spoofing the movie sensation at the time, Men in Black as an original “Man in Black.” An icon showing Mary as the inspiration for spreading the faith was displayed in St. Mary Cathedral in early 2003. It began traveling to various parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Portland.
“Our church does not exist for itself,” he said at the centennial Mass at Holy Redeemer Parish in North Bend in 2006. “This is not a club where we come together because everyone here is so nice. We are church, called by Christ to bring the message and mission he shared 2,000 years ago to the world of our own day.”
Within his first few months in Oregon, Archbishop Vlazny had presided at a youth conference, saying that human imperfections are what make us reach out to God for help. “Our good news is not, ‘Hey, look at us. Aren’t we great?’” he said in a homily. “No, our good news is ‘Wow! What a God!’”
Archbishop Vlazny was one of only a few prelates asked to lead a catechetical session at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.
Jesus, he told the Oregon pilgrims, “encourages us to be generous and caring, to perform our own miracle of creating a community of friends and believers in the course of our travels.”
Back in Portland, he began joining Catholic young adults for a barbecue, something he has done each year since.
It was standing room only when he spoke to young Catholics gathered in a Portland brew pub in 2006.
Archbishop Vlazny reached out to other faiths steadily. The already strong Catholic relationship with the Jewish community was enhanced by his Shabbat visit to Congregation Neveh Shalom. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he joined an interfaith panel with Jews and Muslims to cultivate religious understanding. In a Catholic Sentinel column, he offered a primer on Islam.
He had met the Dalai Lama earlier during the Tibetan’s Portland visit. The two men shared thoughts on peacemaking. The archbishop said that Buddhists and Christians alike “acknowledge that there is no peace without justice.”
With the Archdiocese of Portland as one of the supporting members of a coalition, a Holocaust memorial was dedicated in Washington Park. During the ceremony, the archbishop said that “the past will be wisely remembered so the future might be changed.”
About the same time, in a joint celebration, Archbishop Vlazny and Lutheran Bishop Paul Swanson spoke about the challenges and hopes facing the Catholic and Lutheran traditions as believers work toward further unity.
Recognizing that the archdiocese is fortunate to have three Eastern rite parishes in its midst, the archbishop visited the local Maronite Catholic parish, reminding Roman Catholics that the other rites of the church are an important part of the Catholic family even though they are not a formal part of the Roman archdiocese.
Archbishop Vlazny in 2002 founded a new parish in Washington County. St. Juan Diego was the first new parish in the Archdiocese of Portland since 1982.
Through the years, the archbishop’s sense of humor remained. In 2006, the Cathedral bulletin announced that a Mass would be offered for the intentions of “Archbishop Vlazny, deceased.” The typo made him laugh his famous laugh, which could be heard in three counties. But mostly, he was grateful for those who pray for him.
Throughout his years in Oregon, and at every opportunity, the archbishop has focused on the laity, urging them to take on the evangelizing mission of the church, offering Gospel values and living them at home, in the workplace, in the marketplace. This has been the hallmark of his teaching.
“The focus on evangelization, building the kingdom of God together here on earth, has energized many of us,” Archbishop Vlazny wrote in 2008. “We have become disciples in mission together. That is my greatest delight.”