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Bishop discusses proactive efforts to address issues

God’s surprises, daily prayer and personal relationships sustain Bishop William Skylstad for ministry in troubling, often divisive times.

Bishop William Skylstad

Bishop William Skylstad

After deciding in the seventh grade to become a priest, he left his home in the Methow Valley and spent 12 years in high school, college and seminary studies at the Josephinium Pontifical College in Ohio.

As bishop of the Diocese of Spokane for 15 years, he travels from Omak to Colville to Pullman to Walla Walla, visiting parishes.  Previously, he was Bishop of the Yakima Diocese for 13 years.

This year, he became president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), presiding at national meetings and traveling throughout the United States as spokesperson for the bishops’ statements.  As president and previously as vice president, he has related with the Vatican, meeting seven times in the last three years with the late Pope John Paul II and several times with the new Pope Benedict XVI.

Such experiences are among God’s surprises in his life, surprises that carry responsibilities to address the issues of the church, society and world.
Bishop Skylstad, who sees Benedict XVI as “a bright theologian with humility and a good sense of humor,” anticipates a continuation of Vatican II’s and John Paul II’s support of ecumenical relationships, ties with Jewish and Muslim communities, and commitment to peacemaking.

Ecumenical and religious dialogue
are also priorities of the U.S. bishops, said Bishop Skylstad, who co-chaired Catholic-Methodist dialogue until he became the USCCB vice president. 

“While many assume people are backing off, in fact, ecumenical relationships are strong in local communities,” he said, noting that when he is in Spokane he meets Wednesday mornings for breakfast with other bishops and regional church executives.

“We forget how far we have come in the last 40 years. Priests now have Protestant pastors as friends, which was unthinkable 50 years ago,” he said.
Polarity and divisiveness from political and ethical differences, Bishop Skylstad said, run across society and within churches.

“The Gospel says we are one.  Often lesser values come in the way of loving our neighbors and our call to unity.  We must be respectful of each person, because each person is made in God’s image,” he pointed out.

Asserting that the church’s role is both to form individuals to be gifts to society and to advocate for the common good, he said that the Catholic Church interfaces with society and government, advocating policies that uplift respect for life, human dignity and social justice.

“It’s not a choice of personal responsibility or government responsibility.  It’s both/and,” Bishop Skylstad explained. “Politics is about moral issues, so it should be influenced by values of the community.  We need to connect both.

“Jesus said to love our neighbor.  We are responsible for each other.  It’s easy to label someone an enemy and build walls, but the church is to build bridges so we can love neighbors and enemies.  It’s a radical initiative to love everyone, no matter who he or she is.”

Respect for life and people permeates Catholic and Christian teachings.  It is taught in parish education programs, homilies, liturgies, counseling and advocacy.

“The challenge is for teachings to go from the head to the heart,” Bishop Skylstad said.  “We live in dramatically changing times. We are to be faithful to Catholic traditions and teachings over the centuries and to teachings that evolve today.”

Recognizing changes that come from instant communication around the world, he said: “We saw tsunami destruction in Bande Aceh, Indonesia, minutes after it happened.  That was not possible 25 years ago.”   Plus, billions of people around the world watched news when Pope John Paul II died, “attended” his memorial service by TV, waited as voting was underway and saw Pope Benedict XVI installed.

“We are a world community,” Bishop Skylstad said. 

With news providing information on problems around the world—be it AIDS or terrorism—he believes people must find ways to come together to end poverty, human rights abuses and genocide.

While supporting the idea of spreading freedom, he said the Vatican and the bishops opposed the U.S. going to war in Iraq.  They favored cooperative action through the United Nations.

“Now that we are there, we can’t just pull out without creating more chaos, but we in the church must proclaim that we are to seek peace and to respect, help and protect each other,” he said.

Dealing with the war in Iraq and the call to peace can be “dicey” in parishes, so he finds prayers of intercession a way to both care for those in the military and pray for peace among the nations.

Spiritual support for troops, to him, also means helping returning soldiers process their experience.  Just as people returning from the Vietnam War suffered post-traumatic stress, he finds people returning from Iraq troubled.

“We need to be sensitive about what happens to people in war, when they see people killed and kill people.  We have an innate sense of our need to respect the dignity of human beings, even enemies,” he commented.

Monsignor William Van Ommeren from Holland, who is now at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center, has told him that churches in Europe are struggling, even now 60 years after World War II, with “the scandal that Christians killed Christians and Catholics killed Catholics.”

“What witness do we give if we do not live the Christian life?” Bishop Skylstad asked, challenging people to have “God’s words written in our lives.”

“We have a long way to go to live in justice and peace, to be responsible for our neighbors,” he said.

Rugged individualism undermines the common good, he said, calling for balance.

“As the nation with the highest standard of living, we sometimes base our identities on what we have rather than on who we are.  Sometimes less is better, so we can assure the economic wellbeing of all people.”

He advises balancing concern about over-consumption with awareness that purchases support livelihoods.   He used to tease the late Bishop Bernard Topel who often said he was “wearing a dead man’s shoes” to express his simple lifestyle.  Bishop Skylstad would reply, “I bought my shoes so I could support the person who makes shoes.”

He also encourages people to remember that the inexpensive food on their tables is available because of the “sweat of people who work in fields.”

“They need fair wages,” he said, noting progress in housing, wages and conditions for farm workers from efforts of bishops and the Washington State Catholic Conference meeting with state legislators and educating parishioners to voice concerns, examine prejudices and change attitudes.

Following a recent education campaign by the national church and the pope, he has observed, a “significant drop” in the number of Catholics who support the death penalty.

While media can help educate, he finds coverage of clergy sexual abuse clouds that issue.

Bishop Skylstad said media have neglected to cover guidelines and training in place for years to prevent abuse and protect children and youth—workshops for clergy and laity, print and video resources and codes of conduct.

The diocese teaches priests and parishioners to create a safe environment, to know appropriate and inappropriate behavior, to set boundaries and to look for and report signs of abuse, he said.

“We have a zero tolerance policy.  While we have training and policies, we continue to address the many dimensions of this issue.  I hope media will see those aspects and help us help society be more healthy.”

Bishop Skylstad is concerned that explicit coverage of sexual abuse in the church or by public officials passes the abuse on to readers and viewers.

“Media tolerate an unacceptable level of promiscuity and a compromise of healthy values,” he said, adding that media trivialize sexuality, assuming they cannot sell publications or broadcasts without unnecessarily explicit presentations of sex outside of marriage and for self-gratification.

“We need to continue both to work to create a safe environment for ministry and to voice concern about trivialization of human and sexual relationships in media,” Bishop Skylstad said.

U.S. bishops are commissioning a study of causes of abuse to facilitate effective ministry. 

“As we have encouraged people to come forward—and women have come forward, too—we seek to listen so we can understand causes,” he said.
Based on current understandings, the bishop said, the emphasis is on respecting boundaries—respecting someone else as a unique person, rather than using someone as an object of gratification or control.  He said control arises from machoism and fear. 

“We need to encourage people to seek the common good, living humbly and gently on the Christian journey,” he said.

The bishop also believes the church must be more assertive about standing by women and children—to prevent teenage pregnancies, trafficking of women and children, and child abuse by live-in boyfriends of single  mothers. 

“By being sensitive to people’s need for dignity, we hope better human relationships will emerge from the complex situations in our community and world,” he said.

“People’s desire for intimacy and love leaves many vulnerable to endure abuse, hoping a husband or boyfriend will change. 

“The church allows for the annulment of a destructive, dehumanizing marriage that is not a sacramental, covenantal relationship, not a community of life,” Bishop Skylstad said.

Expressing concern about the prevalence of familial and other violence, he said:  “We accept a level of violence in films that disconnects us from respect for human life, desensitizing us to violence.”

He sees that disconnection when media report the number of U.S. troops killed—50,000 in Vietnam and more than 1,600 in Iraq—but not the millions of Vietnamese or the 10s to 100s of thousands of Iraqis killed.

Through the power of the Gospel and sacramental life, he believes, the church has impact.

“Today, much of what once happened below the surface has come to the surface, so we can see and deal with it,” he said.  “Previously, accepted in silence and secrecy, it could not be addressed.”

Bishop Skylstad believes people can be hope-filled and joyful even in the midst of the complexities of the world, because the Gospel is humanizing.

“We need to live it and help the world assume its values.  It calls us to humanity.  It will make us free,” he said, affirming that in encounters with Catholics and other people from the local to global levels he finds many good and holy people who inform and inspire him. 

“They are holy, but human.  Saints are not antiseptically holy.  They struggle with being human.  Many faith-filled people help each other on the journey,” he said.

“Our challenge is to deal with our divisions as Christians.  Whatever we do we need to ask, ‘Am I helping society or another person to be better?’ If someone is angry at me or criticizes me, I need to ask how I can help that person be more fully human.”

Despite divisions in churches, communities and society, he sees hope.

For information, call 358-7305.

By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © June 2005