SALEM — He was the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church in western Oregon for 16 years. He’s also like everyone’s favorite uncle.
About 700 people convened at St. Joseph Parish here to celebrate the 80th birthday of the jovial Archbishop John Vlazny, who took on emeritus status in 2013.
The archbishop pointed out that the celebration was taking part on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, a day when the church remembers people who are sick.
He gave thanks for his health, and for signs of God’s love, but told the crowd, “I guess I am old now and I need to learn how to accept it.” He asked the people to pray for those who are old, sick and poor and offered the advice Mary gave to the servants during the wedding at Cana: Do whatever Jesus tells you.
The new octogenarian does not like to be the focus of attention, but was visibly moved during the Mass and reception that followed.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else today,” said Archbishop Alexander Sample, his successor. The “fatherly spirit” that the Catholics of western Oregon still cherish is the best tribute to Archbishop Vlazny, the current archbishop said.
Students from Salem-area Catholic schools sang for the Mass. Many had made a trip to Europe last year with Archbishop Vlazny as their chaplain.
“They were so impressed with him and he was so accessible to them,” says Margaret Thumel of Eugene, a friend of Archbishop Vlazny who helped organize the birthday.
After Mass, Archbishop Vlazny blessed a fresco of the life of St. Joseph, painted on the wall surrounding the altar. He got a big laugh when he explained he was told not to get too close and not to sprinkle too much holy water on the magnificent and fresh work.
Dancers from the Latino, Filipino and Vietnamese communities entertained at the reception, where Archbishop Vlazny’s boisterous laugh rang out steadily.
“Priests give their lives to the community. When they live to be 80 years that is a gift from the Lord,” said Paul Nguyen, a member of the parish and the organizing committee. Archbishop Vlazny “means a lot” to Vietnamese Catholics, says Nguyen, who was glad to see the archbishop looking so happy.
The Vietnamese community from St. Joseph gave the archbishop a painting of Mary and Jesus to remind him of Our Lady of Lavang, who appeared to comfort persecuted Vietnamese Christians several centuries ago.
The parish spent a year sprucing up its facilities, using the birthday party as inspiration. In addition to the fresco, parishioners painted many buildings and began fundraising to install an organ.
Gonzalo Contreras, a committee member from the Hispanic community, calls the 80-year-old archbishop a man of sanctity.
“I can feel he is a very good pastor,” Contreras says. “I can feel right away I am one of his sheep and am loved by him. He is very close to God. He radiates that.”