MARENISCO, Mich. — A prisoner at Ojibway Correctional Facility here has a question for Archbishop Alexander Sample: What should one say to a Catholic who stopped practicing years ago and feels nervous and uncertain about returning?
The inquiry is apt for Archbishop Sample, set to be installed as spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Portland April 2. He has formed his mission around the New Evangelization movement, which re-proposes the ancient faith to Catholics who've left.
"We may get disappointed and walk away from God, but it's important to remember he never walks away from us," the archbishop tells the inmate after Mass at the prison, in a remote section of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. "God always welcomes us back. It doesn't matter what horrible things we've done. Nothing is too big for God's mercy. God's very nature is to be loving and faithful to us."
Catholics in the Diocese of Marquette say their former bishop has a way of reaching the heart. The day after the Newtown, Conn. school shooting, he walked to the pulpit of St. Peter Cathedral in Marquette. He began his homily quietly and slowly, obviously sad. Then he taught about human dignity and the treasure of life in a way that left everyone rapt.
"People were holding their breath because it was so striking and so important to them," says Carol Parker, an accountant who has worked on Marquette's diocesan finances for 28 years. Parker has observed him since he was a seminarian; to her, it's clear that he possesses natural authority.
Many note that Archbishop Sample teaches with a remarkable balance of orthodoxy and kindness.
"He is very traditional; he is very compassionate as well," says Father Michael Jacobus, ordained by Archbishop Sample in 2008. "His great love of the church infects those around him. You feel inspired by him. And through the archbishop, you see the compassion of God."
The 6-foot-2-inch churchman, 52, is the youngest archbishop in the nation. But he's been a bishop for seven years and is respected among peers.
U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura at the Vatican, says Archbishop Sample is "a man of deep spirituality and of strong pastoral charity."
Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit calls him "a courageous shepherd, strong in witnessing to the Gospel, compassionate to those burdened with weakness."
During a Jan. 29 press conference in Portland, Archbishop Sample told secular reporters, "I am a believer. That's what defines me." He unabashedly professed faith in revelation and the church established by Jesus. And then he called the New Evangelization "the great pastoral initiative of our time." It is his hope, he told reporters, to gather other believers to gaze on the face of Jesus and "show forth his light to the generations of the new millennium."
Archbishop Sample sees Oregon, with its tradition of religiously unaffiliated citizens, as "rich, fertile ground for the planting of the New Evangelization." He wants to link secular people to Jesus, whom he sees as the longing of their hearts.
"People don't want us just to talk about Jesus," he said. "They want us to show them Jesus."
Archbishop Sample knows that big ideas like the New Evangelization need to be lived out in small ways — like visiting prisoners. The prison Mass at was held in a classroom where at other times inmates study for the GED or receive group therapy. The almost 1,200 inmates here have been convicted mostly of property crimes, drug offenses and habitual drunk driving.
Clad in blue and orange uniforms, the 20 who attended Mass treated the archbishop with deep reverence, many dropping to a knee to kiss his ring. Using hymnals from Oregon Catholic Press, where Archbishop Sample becomes chairman of the board, they belted out "Here I Am Lord." The prisoners helped as lectors and altar servers, with the archbishop looking as comfortable celebrating with them as in splendor-filled St. Peter Cathedral.
"I know you appreciate the priests who come to minister to you on the inside, but I want you to know we are very touched by you," the archbishop told the Catholic inmates.
In a homily about Jesus' journey to Jerusalem where he will be arrested and crucified, Archbishop Sample drew parallels to prison life. But he called the men to hope.
"I don't pretend to have it as rough as you guys, but there are days," he said. "For all of us the kingdom of heaven is the goal, or else it becomes overwhelming, day to day." Prison sentences, whether measured in years or decades, are "just the blink of an eye compared to eternity," he said.
During the homily, a voice on a prison loudspeaker issued orders to prisoners in the yard. It was the prisoners themselves who requested that the archbishop come say Mass. After the liturgy, he takes questions. The admiring inmates seem at ease, so speak their minds. What exactly is an archbishop? How do you become one? When will you leave for Portland?
One man wonders how one can counter a world that favors abortion, contraception and same sex marriage. Archbishop Sample answers by offering the New Evangelization, which aims to reach the baptized. "We need to return in many ways to the life of faith," he says.
He prays over the inmates, asking God to continue to make them "effective witnesses" in the prison and anywhere they go. "I've met very saintly men in prison," the archbishop says later. "There are some very good evangelizers."
Father Ben Hasse, pastor of St. Catherine Mission here, visits the prison regularly and goes to lengths for the inmates and their spiritual welfare. Ordained by the archbishop, he's a bearded outdoorsman, brilliant and a bit mischievous.
The priest and the archbishop prove that the New Evangelization can be fun. Father Hasse confides that one prison official, a member of a local parish, had earned the nickname "Jaws" because of a propensity to talk at length. The archbishop and the priest hatch a plot and on the way out the prison door, the archbishop turns back and says to the loquacious man, "Thank you, Jaws." The prison official smiles and turns red. Father Hasse laughs uproariously while the grinning archbishop walks to his car.