By Mark Apostolon
I am sitting in the residence of and talking with Bishop Stephen E. Blaire about his life since his ordination to the priesthood in 1967 and through his nineteen years of service as Bishop of Stockton as he prepares to submit his resignation this month on his 75th birthday as required by the Church. One thing is irrefutable, were I to be asked to describe the Most Reverend Blaire in one word, as difficult as that may be, it would be “humility”.
Were I asked to describe his good works, I would need to use many more words such as merciful, courageous, thoughtful, joyful, in service, acts with intention, compassionate, and inclusive, just for a start. “The Catholic Church has to do two things. Speak in the light of the Gospel which means speaking for justice, human rights, immigrant rights, workers, healthcare and education to start and to be a partner with the people,” the Bishop softly states with the strongest of convictions. “The Church is not the political community, not the civic community, it is the public steward.”
His well considered words reveal Bishop Blaire to be a man who understands the strength of our country depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens, and that The Church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the country, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust. As Pope John XXIII wrote in 1897, “Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.”
“The Church is the largest private provider of services in the United States,” Bishop Blaire points out smiling. “Many agencies and organizations in service to the community started out as either part of The Church, or from grants from The Church, then went on to become their own entity outside of The Church. El Concilio is the perfect example of this.”
Almost 49 years ago, the Stockton-based El Concilio, also known as the Council for the Spanish Speaking of the Diocese of Stockton, started with a $10,000 grant from the diocese in service to the needs of the underserved, immigrant Latino community. “El Concilio is now the largest Latino-based organization in the Central Valley with a distinguished record of accomplishments.” Bursting with pride in The Church, Bishop Blaire continues, “I like to say we give birth to institutions that go on to do good works. The Church cannot be a sect unto itself; it must be in service to the world.”
Before his assignment to the Diocese of Stockton, Bishop Blaire had a variety of assignments within the Diocese of Los Angeles. As Monsignor Blaire, he took a strong leadership role in shaping the organization of the Archdiocese utilizing the Deaneries and Pastoral Regions to encourage pastoral activities at those levels.
Since being ordained a Bishop in 1990, Bishop Blaire has served seventy-seven parishes and one million people in his Pastoral Regions with dedication, he has also assisted the Church in speaking out on behalf of the rights of immigrants, those in need of health care, inner city education, and the problems of international debt and its impact upon the poorer countries of the Americas. Recognized by the Bishops in the United States for his skills, Bishop Blaire has served as Chair of Pastoral Practices for the Bishop’s Conference, Chair of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and Chair of Domestic Policy. This is information in his biography supplied to me by the diocese.
A natural humility borne from a dedication to service, simplicity, compassion and mission quite honestly does not lead him to seek personal glory to make his presence known. He doesn’t even mention the La Raza Award he recently received from El Concilio at its annual Gala. Instead, Bishop Blaire makes his presence known with a dedication to all he serves through faith and love, with religious conviction, and through the cooperation of all people of good will.
Upon his arrival to Stockton in 1999 to take on his new duties, the diocese was in trouble, suffering from the same issues the whole Church was facing at the time, which created a financial burden that forced the Diocese to enter into bankruptcy three years ago. “Rebuilding the Diocese’s financial structure is a current challenge the Diocese will face when it comes out of bankruptcy, hopefully before the end of the year.”
There were also the issues facing the needs of the parishes and community. “One of the biggest challenges was to meet the needs of the Spanish speaking. Seventy percent of our parishioners have been and continue to be Hispanic.” His predecessor had taken significant steps by bringing Spanish-speaking priests to the diocese and local parishes, and reactivating the ministry to migrant workers. Now, a newly installed Bishop Blaire wanted to do more.
“I wanted to build a church that was strong in faith, but also strong in service to the community, that we didn’t forget the poor. One of the greatest challenges is in developing the unity of our parish communities, not just diversity, we have that, but creating and achieving true, meaningful, unified multi-cultural parishes.”
Certainly, considering the tenor of the presidential race has created its own challenges. “California’s Central Valley has always had a lot of issues such as water, workers, health, low paying jobs and high unemployment. The rhetoric of this campaign season and of our president-elect has people frightened.” While personally hopeful the conversations that drove public discourse and distracted the media from any meaningful discussion were just the outbursts of a candidate who had obtained notoriety through a decades-long history saying the outrageous, Bishop Blaire knows those outbursts have done much damage to the community and emboldened those who are unashamedly racist.
The Bishop understands that, while you cannot legislate how someone chooses to think, there is a responsibility to respond to and denounce anyone or any group that believes it has a right to act out based on racism or prejudice. Perhaps this is the result of not only the campaign rhetoric of the president-elect, but also the resultant of a society that instead of embracing the shaping of human values, has become what Pope Francis denounces as the “epidemic of animosity” toward minorities, and the cruelty of a “throwaway” society that discards the most vulnerable, the children, the poor, the sick, and the elderly.
“I understand that many people don’t believe he is going to act on what he said. But the words were still said. I have worries about what may happen, but I also have to wait and see. I am hopeful. But, racism still exists. Unhealthy prejudices still exist. Talk that we’ve been hearing emboldens some into thinking that they now have the right to say mean, unconscionable things or behave violently. The community is suffering from traumatic stress, and it can’t continue. The Bishops are going to be pressing this issue at the upcoming Encuentro convening, as well as how to meet the needs of the Hispanic youth.“
In the meanwhile, Bishop Blaire plans to address the issue head on when he speaks at the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an annual event celebrated across the country by Hispanic Catholics. Drawing a crowd of more then 12,000, the massive procession makes its way through Stockton and provides locals of differing backgrounds with the opportunity to explore various cultural traditions. “There are a lot of rumors, people are justifiably afraid. Children a terrified their parents may be taken away from them. The fear has to be addressed.”
“Our Hispanic and Latino parishioners are diverse. Some are Spanish speakers, others bilingual, and some only speak English. Their backgrounds, education, socio-economic status, identification with their history ranges widely. That is why our biggest challenge is not building a Church of diversity, in many ways we’ve already accomplished that. But it is building a multi-cultural church that is unified, truly meaningfully, purposely unified.”
Bishop Blaire has a keen understanding of the shared responsibility between communities, government and private institutions to promote the common good of all, especially those who struggle to live in dignity. He also knows his work in Stockton will not end with the resignation he must submit this month when he becomes 75 years old, that is because it will take twelve to 18 months until his successor is assigned.
Until that time, the work continues, the challenges must be faced, and Bishop Blaire stands resolute in unity with and for the community in the light of the Gospel.
By Mark Apostolon