From the Winter 2006 Edition of the Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter: Last fall, the College was honored by a visit from the Most Rev. Robert F. Vasa, DD, JCL, Bishop of Baker. A native of Lincoln, Neb., he was ordained for that Diocese in 1976 and consecrated a bishop in 2000. Bishop Vasa presided over Convocation Day ceremonies and offered the opening Mass of the Holy Spirit. Later that day, he graciously consented to an interview here on our campus, excerpts from which are printed below.
Q: How do you see your role as a bishop and, in particular, your role in the Diocese of Baker?
A: Having been raised in the Diocese of Lincoln and having served for 24 years as a priest there, I have had the experience of what it is like to live in a genuinely Catholic culture within a city, even where Catholics are only 10% or 15% of the population. In Baker, the Catholic population is even smaller—perhaps only 9% or 10%. I want them to realize that it is indeed possible for Catholics, even when they are small in number, to have a visibility, an identity, and an impact that far outweighs their numbers.
In so many places, Catholicism has been eroded by our culture. I have been exposed in innumerable ways to the meaning, the depth, the beauty, and the wonder of Catholicism. I want to bring that experience to the faithful of Baker. I want them to understand that Catholicism calls us to step out of the secularity of our culture, to be counter-cultural, to be different, and to make a difference, and to somehow be an exception.
Q: In your five years as Bishop of Baker, what kinds of initiatives have you undertaken to help the faithful to bring about a genuinely Catholic culture?
A: So often one hears that people do not know whether something is right or wrong, and neither do they know where to look to find that information. So what I have tried to do is teach. For instance, I tried to make the most of the Year of the Eucharist declared by Pope John Paul II and the preparatory years leading up to it.
I was very much taken with the late Holy Father’s pastoral letter, Mane Nobiscum Domine, in which he recommended as one project for dioceses—and really for every parish—for the Year of the Eucharist that they undertake a thorough study of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. In fact, when the General Instruction of the Roman Missal had come out four years earlier, I had initiated diocesan-wide projects and regional presentations about it. I had also made the liturgy the subject of my Confirmation homilies, focusing on the need to approach the Mass with reverence, attention, and devotion, and reminding priests and laity that there are liturgical norms and rules that we need to be attentive to. We had seminars on the subject and encouraged people to study the Instruction.
I have also encouraged pastors to study and teach the Catechism of the Catholic Church in their parishes. In the parish in the city where I live, I met for an hour and a half every Tuesday for 18 months with a small group of adults from the area. We went through, from the beginning to the end, the whole Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph by paragraph. I wanted people to know that the Catechism is a viable, approachable document that they have the capacity to read. I have tried to help them recognize that these are the truths that their Church teaches.
Drawing on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we have put together diocesan liturgical guidelines, a sort of dictionary of various terms. We also laid out rules and regulations about how things are to be done. I have also, to the best of my ability, encouraged and insisted that the priests of the diocese be attentive to the liturgy, that they conduct it in the manner and method that the Church calls us to do.
Q: You have recently published two pastoral letters concerning lay ministry in the Church. What have you hoped to achieve with these?
A: Our own diocesan guidelines from the 1980s state that only people of “high moral character” can serve in the various lay ministries—teaching religion, administering Holy Communion, proclaiming the Word of God, and so on. I saw that there was a shepherding role here, that if I were to be true to my mandate to be a shepherd to the flock and thereby protect it from error and false messages, I must define the meaning of “high moral character.”
So, these two documents, Giving Testimony to the Truth and Entrusted with Sacred Duties, do just that. They clarify the teachings of the Church to which those in lay ministry must adhere, and they lay out the standards for who can be assigned to these roles. These two documents, then, serve two purposes: to protect the faithful from error and to instruct the laity, and especially lay ministers, about the core teachings of the Church.
Q: How did you discern your vocation?
A: I grew up in a Catholic family. We were devoted to prayer and would say the family Rosary every night, and we would always say the prayer for vocations. By God’s grace I developed a love for the liturgy, a love for the Eucharist. We had the opportunity to go to daily Mass, which we did from the time I was in the first grade all the way through high school.
The old missal, the St. Joseph Missal, had the prayers of the priest, and though I didn’t realize it until later, they are really a recitation of Psalm 116: What return should I make to the Lord for what he has done for me? The cup of salvation I will take up and I will call on the name of the Lord. My vows to the Lord I will fulfill in the presence of His people. I said that prayer daily and thought, Lord, if that is what you want me to do, give me the grace to respond. The thought never left me.
About the time I was a junior in high school, I had made the determination to enter the seminary. So, after graduation, I went directly to St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, then to Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas for Theology. Following ordination I was sent to Rome to study Canon Law and then back to Lincoln. Then the Pope sent me to Oregon.
Q. What advice do you have for someone discerning a vocation?
A. You know, I read a lot about astronauts, but I have never had the hint of a question in my mind as to whether I should become an astronaut. It has never crossed my mind. Why not? Because I am not called to be an astronaut.
The reverse is true as well. If one wonders whether he has a vocation, I believe that is itself a sign, a call. If someone responds at all to a suggestion concerning a vocation, I believe that response is a sign of a vocation. If someone internalizes that wonder and asks, I wonder if the Lord could be calling me?— then the very asking is a strong sign of the Lord’s invitation. Those who are not called do not even get that far.
I would reiterate the words of Pope John Paul II, “Do not be afraid!” If there is a call, a hint, a suggestion, pray it is for real and do not be afraid of casting yourself into the hands of the Lord as wholly and as enthusiastically as possible. The priesthood is a great life, one of the best! At times difficult, certainly. But the blessings and rewards far outweigh any perceived sacrifice.
“My time here has really refined the way I think, read, and understand. It has allowed me to think about things more critically and logically.”
– Thomas Cavanaugh (’18)