Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto leads vast diocese with a smile

For its “Breaking Bread – Building Bridges” series on Feb. 22, Sacramento’s Mosaic Law Congregation welcomed a genial Roman Catholic to the synagogue’s pulpit. Bishops and rabbis rarely share the same spiritual stage, but Jaime Soto has made a point of reaching out across faiths and cultures in his seven years as head of the sprawling Sacramento diocese, California’s third largest.

“Many people were touched by his presence in our synagogue,” said Rabbi Reuven Taff. “What really came through was his soft-spoken humility. It was not a long-winded speech or sermon, it was a very beautifully crafted message of acknowledgment of the Jewish people.”

Soto’s sermon noted that Pope Francis, at a World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, “spoke of creating a culture of encounter, ‘ encuentro,’ as a protest against a growing culture of exclusion.”

That idea has been central to Soto’s approach to his seven years as bishop of Sacramento. “I’ve cautioned Catholics to not define ourselves as the church of ‘no!’ ” Soto said during a recent interview in his office on Broadway in Sacramento. “The Gospel is a ‘yes!’ A yes to people’s hungers and needs and hurts – that should always be our starting point. Let’s get busy about cultivating a culture of hope.”

Soto, whose belly laugh often precedes him into a room, is a cheerful man with heavy responsibilities. He faces the challenge of guiding parishioners in a diverse diocese, stretching from Sacramento to the Oregon border, through the turmoil and transformation in the Catholic world. The Stockton diocese recently filed for bankruptcy protection. Churches are struggling to find priests, cultivate new members and hang onto the longtime faithful as they recover from sex scandals that have rocked parishes across the nation. Now, Pope Francis is placing new emphasis on serving the poor and sounding a gentler tone on gay Catholics, a stance that Soto said he welcomes.

Despite the enormity of his duties as bishop, friends say Soto is a down-to-earth guy. He lives in a two-story home in Curtis Park across from retired Bishop William Weigand, and they occasionally grab coffee and share ideas over a meal. Soto, who is 56, enjoys barbecuing steaks and grilling vegetables during the summer. He takes in a couple of Kings and River Cats games every season.

“I rarely turn on the TV,” Soto said. “I’d rather put on some jazz CDs or listen to Capital Public Radio’s nightly jazz show and sit down and read nonfiction.”

Thanks to the influx of Latinos and Filipinos, the number of Roman Catholics in the Sacramento diocese has doubled since 1980 – to 980,000 – and is 10 percent larger than it was in 2000. Nearly one out of every three area residents identifies as Catholic, and the diocese offers ministries for African Americans, Indians from Asia and the Americas, Hmong, Mien, Laotians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Tongans, Portuguese, Poles, Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans.

The challenge of applying Francis’ populist style of inclusion across 42,000 square miles with 102 parishes, 250 priests, 46 schools and six hospitals has stretched the diocese’s human and financial resources, said Soto. He sees his job as pastor, prophet, public relations man, lobbyist and general manager rolled into one.

Soto starts his days with a 5 a.m. prayer, then conducts a variety of church business: quinceañeras, weddings, funerals, confessions, retreats, dinners and meetings with congregants from Elk Grove to Yreka. He said the ethnic diversity of the diocese presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

“We are blessed with so many cultures that form the one community of faith that is the diocese of Sacramento,” Soto said. “How do we take full advantage of the gifts our people bring to their local church?”

He studied Mexican literature in the seminary, and has honed his Spanish skills by writing his homilies in Spanish. Soto said he also prays the psalms in Spanish every day, a practice he started during his 13 years of living in a working-class immigrant parish in Santa Ana. Two years ago, he launched a Catholic Spanish radio program.

As Sacramento’s Filipino population grew to 60,000, making it the region’s largest Asian ethnic group, Soto met with Filipino priests and community leaders and urged them to take leadership roles in their parishes. Earlier this year, he traveled to the Philippines on a pilgrimage with about 50 parishioners.

Soto’s experience working with immigrant parishioners has made him a strong backer of comprehensive immigration reform. He and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez are helping lead the immigration efforts of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Sacramento diocese spokesman Kevin Eckery.

Sacramento’s Mexican Consul General, Carlos González Gutiérrez, said Soto has made the church a refuge for immigrants with or without papers. “Bishop Soto has been extremely successful at establishing himself as a voice of moderation and a welcoming voice for immigrants in general,” he said.

‘A finance guru’

Father Michael Kiernan has worked for three bishops over 40 years. He described Soto as a leader with vision – and while not quite the equivalent of Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and his NBA 3.0, Soto does use Twitter and Facebook, Kiernan said.

“If Bishop Soto had not been a priest, he would be a finance guru. He’s done a lot of creative stuff to make sure Catholic schools are not only spiritually adept but academically and financially as strong as can be by setting up new school boards of lay people.”

Soto has launched a $50 million capital campaign to hire more people, upgrade the Newman Centers that reach out to college students and help parishes and schools in poorer areas, Kiernan said.

“A great example is when he took St. Patrick’s Academy on Franklin Boulevard, which was a rundown organization, and was able to rebuild it, modernize it, get computers and bring in principal Laura Allen, a go-getter type,” Kiernan said. “Now the school’s full and it’s a jewel in the system and a great blessing in the run-down area.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops elected Soto chairman of their Committee on Cultural Diversity and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. They also appointed him as a consultant to the Committee on International Justice and Peace, which guides an arm of the church that works to address poverty and promote the peaceful resolution of conflicts around the world.

“The fact that he was elected to these offices is an indication that his fellow bishops hold him in high esteem, and he’s on the radar for even higher positions, such as archbishop or cardinal, because he’s relatively young,” Kiernan said. Pope Francis recently gave Soto a hand by appointing Monsignor Myron Cotta – the son of dairy farmers in Merced County – as auxiliary bishop of the growing Sacramento diocese.

Like many of his congregants, Soto has Mexican roots. He is the oldest of seven children born to Mexican Americans from Texas and Arizona who moved to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. His maternal grandparents came from Chihuahua, Mexico, and his paternal grandfather came from Spain to Mexico and married a woman from Sonora.

Soto grew up in the Orange County town of Stanton, where Catholic boys were encouraged to become priests, police officers, firefighters or train engineers. By second grade, he said, he had publicly declared his intention to become a priest.

In high school, Soto said, he had girlfriends and contemplated pursuing a legal career because of his fascination with politics. Still, he never lost sight of the priesthood.

“My parents were very pious, and I was in a Catholic bubble. All of our free time was with family or at church,” he recalled. Soto received his master’s in divinity from Saint John’s Seminary in Camarillo in 1982. He was ordained as a priest in the Diocese of Orange and served as associate pastor of Saint Joseph Church in Santa Ana.

‘No one got hurt’

Soto earned his master’s degree in social work at Columbia University, where his spiritual views were tested in debates with his classmates. “I came out more convinced than ever about how the Catholic Church can bring hope and dignity to society and leave the world a better place by building the kingdom of God,” he said.

He worked with Catholic Charities of Brooklyn, ministering to poor families at St. Rita’s Church in East New York. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Soto worked with people who were homeless and mentally ill. He said his New York experience enhanced his listening skills. A good priest, he said, has to be able to engage people as individuals, whatever their problems: “We don’t always have the answers, and if we’re only looking at the problem, we’re going to fail. They need to know there is some redemption, that ‘somebody loves and cares about me.’ ”

Soto said Pope Francis has encouraged his pastors to minister to all who have been excluded, including the nation’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants. And he has an intimate knowledge of how immigration reform might work. He said he helped about 5,000 undocumented immigrants get legalized under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which took effect while he was a priest working for Catholic Charities in Orange County.

To qualify for green cards, applicants had to supply proof of residency for five straight years. “One of the most common forms of proof was tax returns, even with false Social Security numbers,” Soto said. “Some poor people came in with shoeboxes full of check stubs and letters from home and utility bills and said, ‘Help me!’ Sometimes we’d get an affidavit that said ‘Margarita cleaned my house for five years.’ ”

Soto suggested that a new round of immigration reform should include online applications with supporting documentation. “The applicant would have a year to complete other requirements, such as a certain amount of English and civic instruction to qualify for permanent residency,” he said. During that year, he said, applicants would not be subject to deportation unless they committed a felony or violent crime.

As he advocates the church’s position and performs his duties throughout the vast diocese, Soto finds plenty of time to laugh, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously, friends say. He has won over the community with his easygoing manner and appreciation for art, music and sports, Kiernan said. “He has a keen sense of humor. After a long, tiring ceremony, he might say: ‘OK, no one got hurt.’ ”

Soto also has met with Muslims and Sikhs, said John B. Fish, president of the Interfaith Council of Greater Sacramento. “He’s hitting his stride now, and just talks to you straight like you’re just his brother and life is good,” said Fish, a Mormon. “I like him because he’s uncommonly common.”

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