BAKER, Ore. — Bishop Robert Vasa takes his role as teacher literally.
For many years, the 57-year-old bishop of Baker, Ore., has taught public classes on Tuesday evenings at St. Francis Church in Bend, Ore., drawing from Church documents to teach about the faith. He has taught using the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letters Veritatis Splendor and Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Eucharist and Its Relationship to the Church), and books such as Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s classic The Soul of the Apostolate.
The presentations are videotaped so that they are available elsewhere in the diocese.
In his seven years as bishop of Baker, Bishop Vasa has spoken clearly on many of the Church’s social and moral issues. From homilies and weekly instruction to editorials in his diocesan newspaper and pastoral letters, Bishop Vasa has communicated the Church’s teachings clearly without compromising the faith.
This article continues the Register’s ongoing series exploring how some bishops have found the voice to address issues that many bishops, priests and deacons have avoided.
Bishop Vasa considers his pastoral letters as one of his primary teaching tools. It’s a tool he describes as “teaching in action,” and one he used early on in Baker.
In April 2004, the bishop released “Giving Testimony to the Truth: A Pastoral Letter for Diocesan Lay Ministers,” in which he required all diocesan staff to publicly adhere to Catholic teachings.
“As I traveled through the diocese and met with various people, I got the sense that people, though they were faith-filled, did not necessarily know the faith,” he said. “There was a great tendency to interpret one’s good intentions as all that really mattered. Being trained as a canon lawyer, I lean toward things a little more concrete.
“When people say they are a good Catholic, what does that mean?” said Bishop Vasa. “Those who exercise these ministries must be Catholics in good standing.”
His 2004 pastoral was followed by “Entrusted With Sacred Duties” in May 2005. It called for all diocesan lay ministers, teachers and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to make an affirmation of personal faith. The bishop encouraged anyone who felt unable to do so to voluntarily withdraw from his or her position.
As a result of those two letters, some diocesan personnel resigned. That wasn’t Bishop Vasa’s intention. He said the goal of the letters was a call to conversion, deeper fidelity and an acknowledgement of the truth of Church teaching. That’s a goal which seems to guide Bishop Vasa in all his work.
It’s a quality that is appreciated by many in his diocese.
“I have become aware that Bishop Vasa is acutely aware of the fact that he is responsible for the souls of the faithful in his diocese,” said Jay Boyd, a home-schooling mother who lives in Baker City. “He is doing everything he can to keep those souls headed in the right direction.”
That appreciation for adherence to the truth extends outside the diocese as well.
“I think very highly of Bishop Vasa,” said Thomas Dillon, president of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.
In August 2005, Bishop Vasa was invited to preside over the 35th convocation at Thomas Aquinas. He concelebrated Mass and delivered a homily on the importance of forming solid communities centered around Christ and his Truth.
Another distinct way Bishop Vasa puts teaching into action is through a series of annual workshops known as “FaithWorks.” Each workshop is presented three different times in five different locations, for a total of 15 presentations each year. One year he focused on diocesan guidelines and statutes; another year, he focused on Pope John Paul II’s 2004 apostolic letter Mane Nobiscum Domine (To the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful for the Year of the Eucharist). Such teaching is his response to the lack of adequate formation that has plagued the Church for the past three decades.
“The fruit of this absence or diminishment of teaching over the past 25 years is not very attractive,” said Bishop Vasa. “If we expect to produce a different kind of fruit, we need to take a different kind of approach.”
Bishop Vasa admitted that he favors a “stronger approach.”
That clarity manifested itself in February 2006 when Bishop Vasa used his diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Sentinel, to posit the question of whether the pro-abortion position is one of “heresy.” That article received a great deal of media attention.
“Those who maintain that any and all decisions about the disposition of pre-born human beings are exclusively the right of the mother or the parents, at least implicitly, reject the clear and consistent teaching of the Church,” he wrote.
“It is necessary to defend truth and not be too quick to rationalize, justify or excuse misleading teachings or teachers,” he continued. “There is a point at which passive ‘tolerance’ allows misleading teachings to be spread and propagated, thus confusing or even misleading the faithful about the truths of the Church. There is a very strong word, which still exists in our Church, which most of us are too ‘gentle’ to use. The word is ‘heresy.’”
Bishop Vasa believes that the Church is coming into a time of increasing clarity.
“I look at the Church of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s as a period of being kind of unsettled and overwhelmed by theologians and liturgists,” said Bishop Vasa.
“We’re now looking at a set of bishops who say, ‘I don’t have a degree in liturgy, but I do know what the Church is calling me to. I can read Veritatis Splendor and see what the Church is calling us to,” he said. “I can look at spiritual and moral theology and see where it is not in line with the Church.”
He added, I can certainly consult with theologians, but as a shepherd, I am the one who is responsible for teaching my people.”
Tim Drake is based
in St. Joseph, Minnesota.