Currently serving the Diocese of Marquette, Mich., Bishop Alexander Sample will take up his new post as archbishop of Portland, Ore., on April 2, Easter Tuesday.
The Archdiocese of Portland encompasses 124 parishes and 22 missions. Geographically, it extends from the Columbia River to the California border and eastward to the Cascade Range, ministering to more than 400,000 people.
Archbishop-designate Sample has shown himself to be willing to publicly defend the Church: He joined his brother bishops in criticizing the Health and Human Services’ mandate and said in January that he was willing to go to jail in protest against it to defend religious liberty. In 2009, he decried the University of Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Barack Obama.
And, on Feb. 14, he released a letter on sacred music titled “Rejoice in the Lord Always,” concerning the purpose and nature of music within the Mass. Using documents from the Second Vatican Council such as Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) and the writings of Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the archbishop-designate contends that liturgical music must be sacred, beautiful and universal. He also describes how a sense of reverence can be restored to the celebration of the Eucharist through the practical application of the actual written intent of the Council Fathers.
In a recent interview with Register correspondent Anna Abbott, Archbishop-designate Sample discussed his personal background, his spiritual life and a variety of current issues facing the Church, both in his new archdiocese and elsewhere.
How would you describe your upbringing?
I came from a normal, unremarkable family. My parents sent me to Catholic schools. We prayed before meals, but we weren’t overly religious. In college, the foundation had been laid for me. It was a desert period in catechesis [but] I discovered my Catholic faith anew.
I went to the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and learned about Catholic prayer life. My mother is fond of joking that I hid my Polish heritage until John Paul II became pope. I’ve explored my Polish spiritual heritage. I used to identify as Scottish, because of my father, who converted to Catholicism from the Episcopal Church when he married my mother. I chose the Black Madonna of Jasna Gora (Our Lady of Czestochowa) and connected with her on a deep level. I have a beautiful icon of her in my private chapel.
When did you sense a calling to the priesthood?
The earliest was as a young child when I began serving Mass. That sense of calling matured during my high school years and eventually bore fruit as I was finishing up my university studies.
What are your favorite books and devotionals?
I love the Breviary. It is my obligation as a public minister; it’s spiritually nourishing. It’s immersed in the Scriptures. I like the writings of the Church Fathers and the Second Vatican Council; it’s a reinforcement of faith. I also read The Imitation of Christ and St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life.
What is the role of Marian devotion in your life?
It’s very strong. I have a great love for our Blessed Mother. I had renewed [my] Marian devotion in college. I consecrated my vocation to her on a retreat at the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto. I read St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary and pray my consecration at least once a day. She is strong and powerful.
Why is Marian consecration important to you?
Because she is the Mother of God, Jesus Christ, and Mother of the Church. She is a special mother to priests, because we are spiritually configured to her priest-son, Jesus.
As she formed her son Jesus, so I believe she helps form me into the image of her Son, even with all my failings and sins. I will never stray too far from Jesus if she is there to guide me. She will always point the way to the Heart of her Son.
How would you describe your relationship with Jesus?
I foster an intimate relationship with Jesus. My motto is about contemplating the face of Christ (“Vultum Christi Contemplari”). I feel connected to him as priest and bishop; I am a disciple of the Master. I believe in his presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
Who are your favorite saints?
Sts. Peter and Paul, the princes of the apostles; great Carmelites like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. The Little Flower is a good friend for priests, and my appreciation of her has grown over the years.
I am backing the sainthood cause of Venerable Frederic Baraga, a Slovenian priest who evangelized the Upper Peninsula [of Michigan] in service to the Gospel. I had the privilege of meeting Blessed John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
I met John Paul II on two occasions: when I was studying canon law in Rome and at a private Mass with my mother during an ad limina visit to the United States in 2004. I use my rosary from him the most often. I regularly celebrated Monday morning Masses at Blessed Teresa’s homes for women with crisis pregnancies as well as for sisters’ vows. I spoke with her four or five times. You know when you’re in the presence of a saint; there is tenderness and love.
We think of John Paul II as the “Pope of the Catechism” and World Youth Day, but he also revised the Code of Canon Law. How has your experience in canon law informed you?
Canon law is the law that governs the life of the Church. The Church is a divine institution, founded by Jesus Christ himself, and so has a supernatural and transcendent dimension. At the same time, it is a community made up of real human beings, with all of their gifts, but also with their natural human weakness.
Like any “society,” therefore, there is a need to bring order and discipline to the life of the Church, so that we can live out the mission entrusted to us by Jesus Christ with relative peace and security. Canon law helps us do this. It governs the organization of the Church, the temporal goods of the Church, the processes for justice and even penal law.
I am a canon lawyer by education and training, and it has helped me stay clear and focused on what is essential to the proper and smooth functioning of the life of the Church. We must always remember, as canon law states, that the supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls. All must be directed to that mission and purpose.
Can you explain how the liturgy has become so important to you and how your appreciation of it developed?
I have always loved the holy Mass. This really began for me in earnest once I started serving Mass in the fourth grade. I just sensed that I was close to something very holy and not of this world. As a young person, I loved the ritual and solemnity of the Mass.
Unfortunately, I also grew up with much of the illicit experimentation with the liturgy, mostly in the 1970s. It left me, even as a young person, disturbed and unsettled. I could never have articulated it in theological or liturgical terms, but I just knew something was not right.
As I have grown older … I have come to rediscover the true dignity, beauty and meaning of the Mass. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, I have come to experience and appreciate the true “spirit of the liturgy.” It is, after all, the source and summit of the Christian life.
Can a Mass be a form of evangelization and transform the culture?
I am solidly convinced that an authentic and faithful renewal and reform of the sacred liturgy is not only part of the New Evangelization — it is essential to its fruitfulness. The liturgy has the power to form and transform the Catholic faithful. We must live by the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing). What we celebrate in the Mass expresses the essential content of the faith, and it also reinforces our faith when celebrated well and with fidelity.
The liturgy both teaches us and expresses what we believe. If we do not get the sacred liturgy right, I fear that we will just be spinning our wheels rather than getting the New Evangelization going in the right direction. If we are transformed by the sacred liturgy, then we, as believers, can help transform the culture.
How does one speak of beauty in a relativistic culture?
We have to acknowledge that beauty is not some abstract concept, but reflects to us the beauty, perfection and goodness of God, the Creator of all.
When we experience or create something truly beautiful, we can experience something of God himself. Especially in a relativistic culture, we would expect many to live by the idea “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But this would be to deny that there are any objective standards for what is truly beautiful. There are things that are capable of speaking to every human person if we will open ourselves to the experience of what is in itself beautiful.
When I see the sun rise over Lake Superior, no one has to tell me that it is beautiful. I feel the presence of God swelling up in my soul. The same is true when I hear a beautiful piece of sacred polyphony, such as a piece by Palestrina. God is reflected in the beauty of created things. We need beauty to help form the human person, the human soul.
What are your plans for the liturgy in the Archdiocese of Portland?
I have no formal plans. I first need to learn and experience what is happening in the liturgical life of the archdiocese. My ultimate goal, however, will be to see that the liturgy is celebrated with all due reverence, prayerfulness, beauty, sacredness and dignity, in faithfulness to the true spirit of the liturgy and according to the liturgical discipline given to us by Holy Mother Church.
How does the Pacific Northwest differ from Michigan so far?
The people I have met thus far have been very kind, welcoming and hospitable. I am used to that good, old Midwestern hospitality, and I have found the same to be true thus far in Oregon.
I look forward to meeting the people of western Oregon and truly becoming part of their community. One thing for sure, I will not have to deal with the snow we have here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They do get a lot of rain, but, as someone has said, you don’t have to shovel rain.
The Pacific Northwest is one of the most unchurched areas of the U.S. How do you plan to tackle this?
With faith and hope in Jesus Christ.
For whatever reason, God has chosen to place me in this assignment at this time in my life and at this moment for the Church. I am sure that the people of the Northwest are just that — good. They are all created in the image and likeness of God. They all have a deeper calling and a hunger for God, even if they may not recognize it or even reject him. This is true for every human person.
I would hope, in some way, to help people connect that deeper spiritual sense and hunger with the fulfillment of all human desire in Jesus Christ. I will do this by being faithful to my own spiritual life and witness and by teaching as best I can.
What are the biggest problems facing a bishop today?
We have to solidify our Catholic people, helping them live authentically in a highly secularized culture. Relativistic thinking is pulling our people away. It’s about strengthening the faith of the Church. To be Catholic is to be countercultural.
The New Evangelization is directed to those in the pews: to be witnesses to others. My generation has experienced a wasteland in catechesis. Believers are strengthened by believing — that is the theme of this Year of Faith.
What are your thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation?
He is a clear thinker, a deeply spiritual, humble man. It came as a real shock. My first reaction was sadness. He appointed me as bishop of Marquette and archbishop of Portland. He’s a great teacher. It’s sad to see it all come to an end. He has tried to renew the liturgy.
I hope his successor will carry on the New Evangelization and build on his foundation.
You have spoken out against the HHS mandate and Notre Dame’s honoring of President Obama. What is the role of bishops in the public square?
We must speak clearly and with courage on faith and morals. The state interferes with the Church in the HHS mandate overreach; the Church is being pushed out. Catholic citizens have a right to be heard in culture and society on fundamental human issues. This is going to be a challenge.
President Obama recently endorsed same-sex “marriage,” and it was legalized by voters in Washington state. How will you address marriage as archbishop?
It is about respect for the dignity of the human person. People with same-sex attraction need respect and help. Same-sex “marriage” is against the nature of the human person and fundamental dignity. So much of the debate is driven by emotion; we want others to be happy. It cannot be a human right if it goes against the human person.
In Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, the Church has had to be one of resistance. Do you see that coming for the Church in the United States, or has it already come?
We’re like the last ones standing. We’re already in that position. We don’t look for these fights. We won’t stand by and let our religious rights and attacks on the human person go unchallenged.
Anna Abbott writes from Napa, California.