WHITE PINE, Mich. — Before Mass at St. Jude Parish in this small Michigan town, 20-year-old Kaleb Coonrod asks Archbishop Alexander Sample to bless a crucifix. The archbishop is delighted and performs the sacred job without rushing.
Before long, Archbishop Sample inquires about Coonrod's work and family and if the young man has considered priesthood. Coonrod admits that yes, he has. "I'll be praying for you," the tall, thin archbishop says in a way that seems both fatherly and brotherly.
"He's a great guy — his devotion to God, his pastoral care," says Coonrod, who works at a grocery store in Ontonagon on the shore of Lake Superior. He is touched that the church leader always remembers him. The archbishop's holiness is catching, Coonrod explains.
"He's a real people person," says Marti Sample, the archbishop's sister. "Especially young people are drawn to him."
Archbishop Sample himself looks youthful, but maybe not so much as when he was ordained a priest in 1990. Before his first Mass at St. Peter Cathedral in Marquette, at least one parishioner mistook him for an altar boy.
"I love kids and young people," he says. "I think it's important for a bishop to reach out to them. They have so much on their plate, so much pulling at them. I want them to know I'm accessible, not a distant figure."
Last year, he went to the Steubenville North youth conference in Minnesota and stayed the entire weekend, the only bishop to do so. During long bus rides, he would at times pick up the microphone and invite questions. The youths did not hesitate. He heard everything from "What's with the mud flaps hanging behind your bishop's hat?" to "If the church teaches that you don't have to be Catholic to be saved, why should you be Catholic?"
He answers in ways that are at once heartfelt, kind and in line with church tradition.
"The world is telling them all kinds of things regarding what life is about," the archbishop says. "How the world measures their value is so contrary to their dignity as humans. It's not how you look, not what clothes you wear, what you do, what clothes you wear. You have a dignity before you do anything. The church is the place to find your true meaning in life and come to know your identity as a child of God."
Archbishop Sample has noticed some young Catholics emerging as evangelizers of their peers. During the March for Life in Washington, D.C. — attended by a large youthful group from Michigan's Upper Peninsula — the archbishop marveled.
"I get energy being with people who are fired up about their faith," he says.
Archbishop Sample believes in delivering the good word about Jesus and the church in any way he can. He tends a Facebook page and a Twitter account, social media favored by the young. His Facebook page followers have trended young. Since he was named Archbishop of Portland, most followers are from Oregon.
Whatever the form of communication, the archbishop wants young people to encounter Jesus and realize that the Catholic Church is not just for old people.
"I want them to know they are part of the church — an integral, central part — and that they don't need to wait until they are grownups," he says of youths. "They are an integral part of the church now. I want them to know they are loved by the church and that they are loved by God."