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Inspired by Holy People: An Interview with Bishop William Skylstad
By Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.
The new president of the U.S. bishops listens to a wide variety of people through visits, Worldwide Marriage Encounter weekends, ham radio conversations and e-mails.

Q U I C K S C A N

Valuable Lessons Learned
Facing the Clergy Sex-abuse Crisis
Traveling for the USCCB
Maintaining a Balance
Looking to the Future

 

Bishop William Skylstad

CNS Photo by Nancy Wiechec

Last November, the country’s Catholic bishops elected as their president a former beekeeper who grew up on an apple farm. Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, is no stranger to them or to the work of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). From 2001 through 2004, he served as its vice president. He had earlier chaired three of its committees and served on two others.

On Presidents Day last February, he spoke in his second-floor office in Spokane with St. Anthony Messenger about the challenges and opportunities facing the Catholic Church in this country. Because the diocesan offices were closed that day, he came down and opened the front door.

Born in Omak, in eastern Washington, Bishop Skylstad grew up with three brothers and two sisters. His younger sister died four years ago. “Growing up in the Menhall Valley in north central Washington on an apple farm,” he says, “I feel very comfortable in this beautiful area. My roots are here and this is where I’ve lived most of my life.”

Ordained for the Diocese of Spokane in 1960, he was an assistant pastor for a year in Pullman, Washington, and then served on the staff of Mater Cleri [Mother of the Clergy] Seminary in Colbert (1960 through 1974), including the last six years as rector. He studied for a master’s degree in mathematics but switched to school administration, earning an M.Ed. from Spokane’s Gonzaga University.

After serving as pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane (1974-76), he was appointed chancellor of that diocese. In 1977, he was named to head the neighboring Diocese of Yakima, Washington. In 1990, Pope John Paul II transferred him to Spokane, which had more than 86,000 Catholics in 2004. In December 2004 the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Valuable Lessons Learned

How did being pastor at two parishes influence you as bishop of Yakima?

While I was in seminary work, I regularly substituted at parishes on weekends, eventually visiting most of the parishes in the Diocese of Spokane. In my last six years of seminary work, I was also pastor of St. Joseph, a small rural parish in Colbert. It was a wonderful experience. In 1974, I was named pastor of Assumption, a relatively large parish by Spokane standards.

When I became a bishop, I found my previous years of working with people in parishes to be very helpful and beneficial. One of the primary roles of a bishop is to be a pastor, a shepherd of the people. My parish experience was invaluable—very, very helpful.

What was the most important thing that you learned in your first year as a bishop?

(Laughs) I’m not sure I can point out one thing. Certainly for me, it was a tremendous adjustment from being a priest in the Diocese of Spokane to leading the Diocese of Yakima, which is next door. I think of the admiration of the people for the office of bishop. I knew that already, but experiencing it was another matter.

Being pastorally present to people was a good learning experience for me early on. If there was any kind of parish celebration beyond obvious things like Confirmation or special parish celebrations, I tried to be there. Every year I tried to make a weekend visit to each of our 42 parishes. I considered it very important to support the people and let them get to know me.

Which events have had the biggest impact on your spiritual journey as a bishop?

One of a bishop’s greatest blessings is to serve God’s people and to see their holiness, their gifts touching others, including me. I’ve always strongly felt my role as a pastoral leader. Although I am the shepherd for the diocese, by the same token, people help to form me through their gifts and their holy lives.

In our parishes there are holy people all over the place. There are! Married couples, single people and some of our youth are tremendously inspiring. Coming into contact with so many people and so many faith communities was a tremendous grace and blessing for me. It was a very special privilege and honor to be able to do that.

In February 2000, you began as episcopal moderator for Worldwide Marriage Encounter. How did you become involved in that?

Bishop Jack Kaising, auxiliary of the Archdiocese for Military Services, became the new episcopal moderator last month. He has been heavily involved in this ministry for over 25 years.

I made my first Marriage Encounter in 1973. When I became bishop of Yakima in 1977, however, I was asked to become a team priest, which I have been since 1978. Two weekends from now, I will be helping to assist couples in giving a Marriage Encounter weekend. I have found that to be very refreshing.

Married couples are tremendously inspiring to me in terms of their own mystery of faith that they have embarked upon in this sacrament. Worldwide Marriage Encounter supports the renewal of marriage, which is very important considering today’s pressures on married life. This is a tremendous peer ministry! I am so touched by couples who give their lives in service to other couples with a lot of sacrifice; they do it by sharing their own lives openly and honestly. I find it wonderfully uplifting to see that.

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Facing the Clergy Sex-abuse Crisis

What are the main challenges that you foresee the bishops’ conference facing during your term as president?

From 2001 to 2004 when Bishop (now Archbishop) Wilton Gregory was president, we began facing in a new way the sex-abuse crisis in the Church. My years as vice president were a challenging, learning experience. It was a privilege to serve with him, considering his skills and remarkable leadership.

Our conference of bishops must continue to address the sex-abuse crisis in a way that helps us to serve God’s people with accountability. We need to restore trust and continue to implement the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People so that Church ministry takes place in a safe environment. We must reach out as best we can in a continuing way to those who have been hurt.

We also need to be supportive of the Church in terms of the community of faith, to support priests in their pastoral ministry. These have been very hard days, not only for bishops but for our priests as well—given the fact that we’ve had the amount of clergy sexual abuse in the Church that we have had.

I hope that my service helps our Church in these very challenging times. I hope to foster a sense of community and solidarity as we address this issue and seek to move on.

As difficult and painful as these past three years have been, I still see them as moments of grace and blessing while we look to the future. I’m not glad about the fact of this crisis; it’s tragic to see the number of cases of sexual abuse in the country.

I am grateful, however, that people are coming forward and saying that they have been abused. We can deal with the issue and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. We can try to reach out in healing and reconciliation to those who have been tragically touched by abuse. That is our challenge for years to come.

How do you see the Church, both locally and nationally, assisting survivors of clergy sex abuse?

This ongoing challenge is tremendously complicated by the litigation process. And, until we reach some settlements and finish with the litigation, the process of healing and reconciliation will be impeded.

I have always been very willing to meet with victims and to offer whatever assistance we can by way of counseling and support. That’s very, very important, but it’s going to be a long, ongoing process—not a year or two or three.

We are seeking effective ways of helping people to come to a sense of peace and reconciliation—maybe even forgiveness—as we look to the future.

What do you say to people who do not expect much of the Church on this issue? Many survivors of abuse and their friends or relatives are very discouraged by the Church’s response.

For people who have experienced abuse and their families, oftentimes their sense of an ideal Church has been shattered. I hope we can provide an opportunity for them to share their feelings of devastation and anger. By the same token, I hope we can encourage them to move toward reconciliation. I can perhaps provide an atmosphere, an ambience to let them know that I’m always open to listen or to talk. Any of our pastors, or the Church in general, is open to that.

From my standpoint, we have just begun to address how we might better provide an atmosphere of encouragement for reconciliation and forgiveness.

For example, for several years now I have made the Friday before Holy Week a day of prayer and fasting for myself in the cathedral. Not only do I invite people here to come and pray with me sometime during that day, but I also encourage every person in the diocese, in every parish, to make this a special day of prayer for the victims and the survivors of abuse.

In December 2004 your diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in view of litigation over clergy sexual abuse. How has that impacted your work as bishop?

In some ways, it makes the road ahead clearer. As a relatively small diocese, we have very limited resources. Mostly, they have been plowed into ministries within the diocese. We really don’t have a lot of extra funds in terms of a nest egg, so to speak.

Filing for Chapter 11 has made things less ambiguous, even though we are still moving into uncharted waters. The Chapter 11 process is a new experience for the Church, a real journey of faith. [The Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, and the Diocese of Tucson had previously filed for bankruptcy for the same reason.]

Traveling for the USCCB

Last week you participated in a meeting in Bogotá, Colombia, of presidents, vice presidents and general secretaries of the episcopal conferences of Canada, the United States and Latin America. How does such a meeting help the USCCB’s work?

These three groups meet annually, rotating among Central and South America, Canada and the United States. Each meeting has a theme; this year we focused on media and communications.

We also shared about our respective areas of Church ministry. Listening for a couple of days to descriptions of the life and activity of the broader Church is a very rich experience.

One of the biggest pluses of this kind of meeting is developing relationships, knowing brother bishops from another part of the world, whether it’s Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil or Chile.

A meeting like this helps develop collegiality with other bishops, perhaps even long-standing friendships. At that meeting there were 16 bishops in all: 11 from CELAM [federation of Latin American episcopal conferences], two from the United States and three from Canada.

Do you speak Spanish or a language other than English?

I went to a German-speaking seminary and learned some German then, but I’ve pretty much lost it over the last 50 years, although it may come back quickly.

I speak Spanish somewhat. I can read and pronounce it well. Perhaps one of my regrets when I went to the Diocese of Yakima was not taking time for a formal study of Spanish, the first language of many Catholics there. I wish that I had done that very early on and then for the next three or four years maybe take a month to study the language more formally. Today it’s really important to be able to have a facility in Spanish.

Having a facility to speak several languages helps a bishop. Last week in Bogotá, some bishops could speak three or four languages quite well.

Will you make any foreign trips in 2005 for the USCCB?

Every April, the week after Easter, and usually in October, the USCCB president, vice president and general secretary go to Rome to visit several of the Holy See’s offices about our conference’s business. [Bishop Skylstad arrived in Rome on April 2, 2005, the day that Pope John Paul II died, and returned to the United States the Sunday after the pope’s funeral.]

We also meet with the executive committee of the Canadian conference—usually in August or September—to discuss mutual issues. Our two countries have very much in common, and it’s good for us to listen to one another.

I will travel to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, this August. After that, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and I will go to Eastern Europe to visit episcopal conferences. He chairs the USCCB committee on aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

During these conference visits to Rome, which offices do you visit? Are they the same ones each time?

Almost always we visit the Congregation of Clergy, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, plus the Secretary of State. There is flexibility in which other offices we visit, given what the conference is working on and the need to dialogue.

Last January you joined heads of episcopal conferences from Canada and Western Europe for a meeting in the Holy Land. Is that an annual meeting?

Yes, for about the last five years. We go to express solidarity and support for the bishops and the people of the Holy Land. The day after we arrived, the elections for the Palestinian leadership took place. We held discussions with the bishops of the Holy Land and met with the president of Israel, plus the newly elected president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

Some bishops met with Israeli government officials, addressing specific issues. We also visited several parishes in the Holy Land. I was assigned to visit Mother of God Parish, the Melkite parish in Bethlehem.

I was happy to tell them, by the way, that, in the Diocese of Spokane for the last year and a half, we have given each of the young people who receive First Eucharist or are confirmed an olive-wood rosary made in Bethlehem. This is one small but real way of expressing our solidarity with the people in Bethlehem, where the unemployment rate is about 65 percent.

It’s very impressive to see the wonderful work of the Church in the Holy Land, especially in the Bethlehem area. We visited Bethlehem University, the Caritas baby hospital and an orphanage.

Maintaining a Balance

How has your election as president impacted your work as a local bishop? How do you find time and energy for all of these responsibilities?

Between 2001 and 2004 I often traveled with the USCCB president. My election last November brought much more correspondence. Thank God, fax machines, e-mail, Palm Pilots and cell phones make communication easier. I tell the priests of this diocese that wherever I am they can contact me. Last week, for example, when I was in Bogotá, three or four of them sent me messages, asking questions. It was very easy to send a short reply.

Does this technology increase business? Sure it does. I have to make sure that I keep things in perspective. Probably one of my shortcomings in my years as bishop has been not taking enough time for relaxation and rest. I have to try to keep that in balance, to do a better job there than I have done in the past.

Don’t you give retreats for bishops and priests?

I have preached three bishops’ retreats and over the last 20 years have given many priests’ retreats. I love doing that work. I was doing three of these a year, but my job as conference president will require stopping that for a couple of years. I enjoyed retreat work; it’s personally inspiring and has given me an opportunity to meet priests across the country.

It’s a bit humbling to give a retreat to your brother bishops, but again they are brothers and they’ve always been very supportive. Of course, they influence me as well. This mutual sharing benefits everyone.

Do you have any hobbies?

For the last 15 years I’ve kept bees; a deacon in the diocese now cares for my hives. Beekeeping is a humbling yet fascinating experience. Things never turn out quite as you expect them to turn out. It’s like life; there’s always something that goes wrong or something that’s not perfect, but the world of bees is absolutely fascinating and captivating. I just find it marvelous and energizing.

Since 1956 I’ve been an amateur radio operator. I now have a ham-radio station at my house and one in the car. In the car I can chat with people locally. This has been a great hobby for me. Over the years I’ve come to know many people; this hobby pulls me into a different world. No matter how busy my day has been, when I get on and talk with somebody nearby or, if I’m at home, maybe half a world away, it’s just a marvelous hobby.

I’ve always liked mountain hiking, but in the last two years that has really taken a backseat because of my schedule. That’s unfortunate because there’s something tremendously spiritually renewing about being in that kind of ambience.

Looking to the Future

How has the Year of the Eucharist taken hold?

I talk a lot about the Eucharist in my homilies, especially during my Confirmation homily. I invite people to become more sensitive to the marvelous gift of the Eucharist.

Parishes are using this year as a springboard for developing education programs that should be helpful. Eucharist is such a gift to us as a Church. John Paul II’s encyclical Church of the Eucharist and his apostolic letter Day of the Lord help us to appreciate the gift of the Eucharist. We don’t want to see our country go the way of some countries where the attendance at Eucharist has fallen very low. Our attendance has dropped, but I think it has stabilized somewhat now.

We need to help people to appreciate this great gift. In a very complex but wonderful world, spirituality helps us keep our bearings and develop our sense of holiness and discipleship with the Lord.

[After the interview, the Holy See announced that the U.S. bishops had selected Bishop Skylstad as one of their delegates for the October 2005 World Synod of Bishops. That synod will have as its theme “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.”]

When your term as conference president ends, what one accomplishment would you like to point to with pride?

Well, there are a couple closely related things. Anything that I can do to foster a sense of unity and community among the bishops and within the larger Church will be very, very important.

Secondly, considering our recent experience, we bishops need to continue our own conversion of heart to become more holy. Whatever I can do to foster this for myself and for others is very important.

I’ll never forget a talk given by Cardinal Basil Hume of London during a 1982 retreat for the U.S. bishops at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. He began with the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (1:15).

Cardinal Hume said, “Listen, if we bishops don’t first of all live those words, we’re not serving our people as well as we might.”

I’ve often remembered that in terms of my own ministry and the ministry of bishop in general. We are constantly in need of conversion and renewal of our own lives.

We bishops are also looking very seriously at how we can be supportive of one another. Given the fact that we’re responsible for individual dioceses, it’s very easy for a bishop to get locked into his diocesan ministry, but we are also bishops together in the Church.

Fostering a greater sense of solidarity, support and affirmation for one another is going to be very important as we look to the future.

According to the Vatican II documents, a bishop is responsible not only for his diocese but also for the larger Church. Both kinds of ministry are enriching. I find that my ministry in Spokane enriches my service within the conference. I hope that our experience here in Spokane can be a gift to the larger Church. That’s part of the gift and the mystery of our Church universal. It’s a wonderful, wonderful reality that we live in terms of God’s gift to us.              

At www.dioceseofspokane.org/Bishop/Index.htm, Bishop Skylstad’s monthly column in the Inland Register, his diocesan paper, is available back to 1997. As he travels through his diocese, he notes that people more often comment on his monthly schedule, printed with his column, than on the column itself.


In June 2002, Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., became editor of St. Anthony Messenger. Since January 2000 he has written its “Ask a Franciscan” column.

 


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