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Catholic Voice
  February 9, 2009   •   VOL. 47, NO. 3   •   Oakland, CA
Archbishop Allen Vigneron: The transition from Oakland to Detroit Archbishop Vigneron talks about his six years in Oakland

Just days before leaving Oakland to assume his new responsibilities as archbishop of Detroit, Bishop Allen Vigneron sat down with Voice editor Monica Clark to reflect on his six years in the Oakland Diocese.

How are you feeling about your new appointment?

In general my feelings are very mixed. I am sad to leave all the people I’ve come to care about — my co-workers, the people who’ve become my friends. And it’s always difficult to leave a project in the middle and there are so many projects that have to be left.

Archbishop Allen Vigneron
But I am happy to be going back to work with people I know very well and love very well. So there is loss and gain. What sustains me in the move is the focus that this is God’s will. I have a clear conviction that God speaks through the Church, that this is good for the Church in ways that I certainly am not able to fully articulate.

You mention projects that are not yet finished. Which ones would you highlight?


The cathedral is done, a great accomplishment. We’ve made good progress in new programming and implementing the pastoral plan for the cathedral. But there are so many more possibilities to be explored and made actual. I regret that I won’t be able to be a part of that.

Also, we’ve made good progress in paying for the cathedral, but there is the responsibility of paying off the final part of debt and I regret that I can’t help with that. I have offered to do what I can, depending on what the leadership might need me to do.

I am proud of the diocesan pastoral plan. I think we’ve made a good start on that. It would be a lot of fun to move that forward.

Not to slight anything else, there are two other pieces I might single out. We have a lot of talented people in place in evangelization and catechesis. I would have liked to have benefitted from working with them.
I am also enthusiastic about the new office of communication, which gives us a tremendous resource for evangelization. I was looking forward to how I might be able to work with Mike Brown, the new communications director, to consider what we might do.

As you reflect on your time here as Bishop of Oakland, what would you cite as your most significant accomplishments?


Three come to mind.

First, having brought together what I consider to be a very fine department and people for evangelization and catechesis.

Second, to have helped us through the aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis, both the legal side and the broader approach to responding, knowing that I was building on all the work of Bishop Cummins and Sister Barbara Flannery.

Third, the cathedral and my sense of satisfaction in it as achieving the evangelizing aims we hoped for, not just to have built a cathedral, but to have established it as a beautiful reality that leads people closer to God, even people who don’t believe.

That particularly is a sense of satisfaction, not just building a cathedral, but building this cathedral. I think we will be considered as having advanced the whole project of contemporary church architecture by what we’ve accomplished.

When you return to Detroit and think about Oakland, what will you miss most?


The priests. I really admire two particular qualities about the priests here.

First, their generosity in dealing with our multicultural parishes. I realize how hard they work to make a community out of different communities.

Second, their own sense of fraternity and fellowship. What is remarkable to me about the Oakland presbyterate is how welcoming everyone is. Often times in the presbyterate your place depends on what seminary you attended. While there is an element of that in the life of the presbyterate here, it is not essential to being part of the fraternity. That is something I will miss.

I was thinking the other day if I will have as beautiful a Guadalupe celebration in Detroit as we have here and will I have as moving an observance of the Vietnamese martyrs as here.

And I will miss our cathedral. It is a beautiful place and I am always lifted up in prayer when I am in there.

And, of course, I will miss the weather. On my second night back in Detroit for the announcement of my appointment I was in a fender-bender on an icy expressway so it was a good reminder of what I’m leaving. We were all safe, but when a car is out of control, it is a little scary. But I’ve been through that before and at least the car didn’t change direction and kept heading forward, which is a big help

What have you learned here in Oakland that you think will be most helpful to you in Detroit?


First of all, I had to think through to a new level of understanding what it means to be a multicultural Church community. And I very much grew in my conviction that the secular model of tolerance is not adequate for who we are. Certainly we have to tolerate one another, but that is not enough because culture is a spiritual gift. What we need to do as the Church is exchange those gifts.

Pope John Paul II always talked about the exchange of gifts and that as the bishop and the priests we have to facilitate that exchange.

For example, if we were only about tolerance, it would mean that a predominately Anglo parish would let the Latino parishioners have a Guadalupe shrine. But since we do more than tolerance, we don’t simply permit it but rather the whole parish needs to be invited into the love Latinos have for Our Lady of Guadalupe. You can multiply examples like that. This has been a very important learning for me.

To piggy back on that, I came here knowing about, and early on learning more about, the wide diversity of peoples in the East Bay and I’m always surprised at how nearly invisible they are in what we might call the mainstream, or perhaps we should say the elite, media.

Our newspapers, especially the Chronicle, seem to be written primarily for the Euro-American middle class with their interests and their focus in mind. You wouldn’t really pick up from that newspaper how many Latinos, how many Vietnamese, how many Filipinos, not to mention the other groups, we have here. I mention those because they are the largest Catholic ethnic groups we have.

I heard a statistic recently that sort of complimented this point — that more people watch Univision than any other major TV network. I think for people like you and me who are European American, that’s not something we think about.

Another observation I’ve had while in Oakland is how deeply parents feel the challenge of handing on to their children the way of life of a Christian disciple in a culture that militates against that. The learning here is the special responsibility we pastors have to support parents as they try to accomplish this.

Parents want the best for their kids. To the degree that parents are committed to the gospel way of life, that’s what they want their children to have. In a community where the elite culture is neutral, sometimes even somewhat hostile, to our values, parents need all the help we can give them.

You mention our East Bay diversity. How does that compare with Detroit’s?


I came here with a long experience of ethnic mix, but different proportions in Detroit than here.

Even in the six years I’ve been away from Detroit, the Hispanic population has grown significantly. That’s why there’s a Latino auxiliary bishop who is perfectly bilingual.

There is a significant but smaller number of Filipinos and Vietnamese than in the East Bay. There is a quite significant group of Albanians who are Latin Catholics as well as Slovaks. There are still Polish Catholics of more recent immigration, and I was told recently that over half of the Catholics in the archdiocese have some Polish heritage.

And there are very large numbers of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim. But I’ve been talking to some folks here and there is a more significant presence of Islam in the Bay Area than we take account of. There is a part of suburban Detroit that is as visibly Arab as our own Chinatown here. You can live in certain parts and never learn English, speaking Arabic your entire life.

My own impression is that the Jewish community is more prominent in Detroit.

The African American presence is much stronger. Admittedly it is very strong here in Oakland, but it is more dominant in the city of Detroit.

The Archdiocese of Detroit is four times the size of the Oakland Diocese. How has your time here prepared you to lead there?

Well, I never was the bishop of a diocese before. I had been a bishop for some years, but I never had the responsibility of thinking about how all the elements fit together, to be the leader of the whole community. This is where I have developed the skills I’ll bring to leading a bigger diocese.

While I’ve been in Oakland I’ve tried different approaches, and I think I’ve learned what I consider effective ways for me to be a leader. This is about knowing my own limits and my own strengths. I certainly am more confident about what I can contribute.

And I will take with me a greater awareness of ethnic diversity and the importance of family in passing on the faith. Those will help me very much.

Can you talk a bit more about your approach to leadership?


I came here with a firm conviction that for my own work as a leader I need to have a team that I can lead. This is very important to me. I certainly learned that, and was further confirmed in that, in dealing with the deans when I was president/rector of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.

Coming here, I’ve come to be convinced of the transferability of that approach to other kinds of organizations and institutions. It’s worked well for me. So that’s helped me grow in my own confidence and comfort. It’s a confirmation that this approach works for me and serves the institution or the group that I am responsible for.

I’m wondering whether you have any regrets or wishes that you had done things differently.


My regrets are intimately tied in with what is unfinished. It’s really about limitation, regretting that I couldn’t have done more. In saying that, I am immediately aware of the reality that the life of the Church has limits. I tell the priests this all the time — that we have to be at peace with limitations.

I think I did take up the matters that came to me in proper order. My regret is that I wasn’t able to accomplish all that I would have liked, especially in regard to supporting Catholic education. I wish we could have gotten to the point where any Catholic child who wanted to be in a Catholic school would be able to do so.

It’s a big dream, but I regret not being able to do that. If you are going to regret, you might as well regret big.
You were Oakland’s third bishop. As you depart, what advice would you like to leave for whoever will become our next bishop?

Have great confidence in the consultative groups that you’ll find established here.


There is great capital — resources about consultation and planning, and the new bishop should make good use of that. I am aware that in great part it was Bishop Cummins and other people who have built up this culture of serious and reliable consultation and planning.

When people talk about you after you’ve gone to Detroit, what would you hope they would say?


He was a good priest.

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