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3/18/2013 11:30:00 AM
Approaching justice with balance
Catholic News Service photo
Dolores Leckey, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, and Archbishop Vlazny sing a hymn at the opening of a national consultation in Chicago on women in the church and society in 2001.
Catholic News Service photo
Dolores Leckey, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, and Archbishop Vlazny sing a hymn at the opening of a national consultation in Chicago on women in the church and society in 2001.

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Bishop Vlazny receives miter, 1983.

It soon became clear that Archbishop John Vlazny was not partisan, but instead a man who takes a balanced and prayerful stance by way of promoting justice and peace.

When terrorists seized jetliners and crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, he was at a committee meeting in Washington, D.C. He phoned Portland to report that he was unharmed. Then he asked Catholics to pray and work for a peaceful resolution.

Once U.S. forces started bombing Afghanistan, the archbishop asked Catholics to refrain from passing judgment on those who made the decision.

“It is a time for prayer, support and concern for our fellow citizens who are called upon to protect a people in a time of trouble,” he wrote.

By 2002, the archbishop was among the 25 Oregon religious leaders who signed a statement challenging the U.S. push toward war in Iraq.

“We believe that preemptive, unilateral military action towards any nation is not consistent with U.S. and U.N. policy and would set an unsettling precedent for other nations,” said the statement. “We are opposed to any action that would result in civilian casualties and further victimize the innocent people of Iraq, who have already suffered more than two decades of war and economic deprivation.”

In March 2003, Oregon Catholics joined the faithful around the world in offering millions of prayers for a quick end to the Iraq war. “War has begun; our most powerful weapon is prayer,” Archbishop Vlazny said. “We pray for peace as well as for our many brothers and sisters at war in Iraq. We pray for a speedy peace and a healthy reconciliation.”

The archbishop received an award from the Oregon National Guard in recognition of his support for U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq.

Archbishop Vlazny’s compassionate approach served well on other issues. In 2003, he opened the cathedral for an annual Mass in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  

“Seeking justice is seeking the establishment of right relationships between ourselves and our God, our sisters and brothers in the human family, and all of creation,” he said in his homily. “Those who take the quest seriously learn, like Dr. King, that whatever does affect one directly, affects all indirectly.”

He met with African-American Catholics to hear their concerns and encourage their ministry.

“We preachers and teachers over the past four decades have still not convincingly addressed the sin of racism nor confronted our negligence in demanding the eradication of all racist attitudes and actions, even from the institutions for which we are responsible,” he had written in 1999.  

During the hot summer of 2001, Archbishop Vlazny spoke out for farmworkers as they marched through western Oregon to highlight their cause. True to his sense of fairness, the archbishop also had farmers’ concerns at heart.

“We cannot continue to demand cheap berries and other produce at the expense of growers and workers,” he said, calling on everyone to work for a sustainable economy.

The archbishop’s concerns for immigrants endured.

In June 2007, he denounced a federal immigration raid on a North Portland business, calling it “an affront to a nation whose tradition has always welcomed the stranger.” Calling for a moratorium on raids until national immigration reform is complete, the archbishop said the arrests tear families apart.

Over the past four years, he has urged Oregon’s U.S. senators to “reject restrictionist and narrow, enforcement-only proposals, in favor of reforms that will comprehensively address our broken immigration system.”

Church involvement in environmental justice entered a new phase when Archbishop Vlazny and other bishops of the Pacific Northwest released a pastoral letter on the Columbia River watershed in 2001. An unprecedented project, the letter challenged readers to promote sustainable environmental relationships while developing community economic benefits.

The document is still being discussed and invoked when, for example, a team of students from the University of Portland clears invasive plants from a local riverbank so trees can grow and help cool the water — and perhaps the planet.

In a Catholic Sentinel column, the archbishop praised a new building at Holy Redeemer School in Portland, built to high environmental standards. In 2006, he pointed out the dangers of global warming. He called on Catholics to be prudent stewards of God’s “very precious gift.”

He promoted other environmentally sound buildings, hybrid cars and forms of energy like wind, hydrogen, solar and biomass.

The archbishop met with theologians, scientists, environmentalists, business people and students at the University of Portland to discuss the links between environment and theology, bringing concern for the earth into Catholic social doctrine.  

As a member of a bishops’ committee, he helped create a statement affirming the dignity of all persons, including those with disabilities. The statement urges parishes to make themselves more accessible and recognize and appreciate contributions of people with disabilities. He also became the regular celebrant of an annual Mass on World AIDS Awareness Day.

In addition to speaking out for the vulnerable, he acted. He sponsored a Bolivian child, quietly blessed disabled children from Spanish-speaking families in Cornelius and made regular prison visits, even confirming a death row inmate.

At a University of Portland conference on faith and life in 2005, he told worshipers, “Whenever we extend love, peace, compassion, forgiveness and support to those who have done nothing to deserve them, then we ‘get it’ as far as Jesus is concerned.”  

The past year saw a federal health mandate eat at religious liberty. Even so close to his departure, Archbishop Vlazny took on this justice issue with zeal.

“Obviously we cannot and will not comply with such an unjust law,” he wrote. “We have been made second-class citizens and it is imperative that we regain our religious freedom.”

In his columns, he also spoke out for just wages, the right to unionize, and more leadership among laywomen and women religious in the church. He championed AIDS patients and low-income people.    

“We Catholics can be rightly proud of our church’s social teaching,” he wrote in 2008. “Over the years it has been recognized by people both within and outside the church as a rich treasure of wisdom about building a just society and living lives of holiness in the midst of all the challenges of today’s modern world.”

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