Catholic News Service photos by Paul Haring
Cardinal William Levada and Archbishop John Vlazny enjoy gathering after golden jubilee Mass.
Catholic News Service photos by Paul Haring
Cardinal William Levada and Archbishop John Vlazny enjoy gathering after golden jubilee Mass.
VATICAN CITY — On a cold and sunny Dec. 20 in Rome 50 years ago, Archbishop Martin O’Connor rose to his feet in St. Peter’s Basilica and imposed his hands on the head of 24-year-old John Vlazny. Priesthood has ever since been a central identity for Archbishop Vlazny, joyful spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Portland since 1997.

The archbishop was in Rome last week celebrating his jubilee with classmates.

Archbishop Vlazny is known as a man who loves the priesthood. He’s a friend to clergy. To encourage vocations to priesthood, he personally leads a retreat each year for young men with an inkling.

“For us who have known him as ‘archbishop’ he has first of all been a priest who is prayerful and dedicated to his responsibilities as shepherd of western Oregon,” says Father George Wolf, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Southeast Portland. “He is approachable, warm, collaborative and hospitable to those of us privileged to minister with him.”  

The man who would become archbishop grew up in Chicago during the Great Depression, serving Mass, studying hard, listening to the White Sox on the radio and helping his father in the family drug store. He entered seminary at 18, shortly before his father died of cancer, then was sent to Rome to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University. There, he was exposed to the universality of the church and was ordained with men who would be lifelong friends, including a Californian named William Levada, who would eventually become a cardinal and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.  

“If it were up to friends and parishioners to choose an episcopal motto for Archbishop John Vlazny, I would nominate ‘Joy to the World!’” Cardinal Levada says. “Joy in the Lord, laughter among friends, have been his hallmark. By it he has nourished and led his friends and flock to share in this fruit of the Holy Spirit.

“Joy to the World,” the cardinal explains, tells the story of God’s only-begotten Son among humans. The song celebrates the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the Savior and how the great High Priest Jesus “has called some of his disciples, including John Vlazny 50 years ago, to be one of his priests — to minister in his name and to build up the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”

Cardinal Levada tells his classmate: “However long the Lord gives you breath, you will lead us in raising the joyful song — in singing ‘Joy to the World.’”  

As a priest in Chicago, Father Vlazny served in parishes — including one with a large Spanish-speaking contingent — and began a long career as a seminary professor. One of his colleagues in teaching was retired Archbishop James Keleher of Kansas City, Kansas.

“A better friend I have never had,” says Archbishop Keleher, who has been part of a prayer group with Archbishop Vlazny for more than 25 years.

In 1983, Chicago Archbishop Joseph Bernardin named Father Vlazny an auxiliary bishop. His good work there led Pope John Paul to name him bishop of Winona, Minn. and then, in 1997, Archbishop of Portland. In addition to his local shepherding role, he has done work in dozens of bishops’ committees.

“I’ve come to greatly admire him for his pastoral sensitivity,” says Father Nathan Zodrow, who once served as spiritual leader of Mount Angel Abbey and now has returned to parish ministry at St. Agatha Church in Portland. “He always approaches even the most difficult situations with a pastoral heart, looking out for the best of the people.” Beyond the archbishop’s famous friendliness, Father Nathan explains, is insight, strength and authentic empathy.

The archbishop has been a blessing in western Oregon and remained encouraging even amid hard moments, says Bud Bunce, longtime spokesman for the archdiocese.  

“He ensured that the mission of the Church continued during that difficult time,” Bunce says. “His positive leadership has been an example of a truly caring person.”

The archbishop, fluent in Spanish, celebrates a large Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass each year. He also presides at the annual Freedom Mass, a July 4 liturgy in which refugees, especially those from Vietnam, give God thanks.

He recently visited a religious community of Vietnamese nuns who think the world of him. “He is very close to us,” says Sister Mary Nguyen Thi Trinh of the Adorers of the Holy Cross. “He is generous and always mild and he loves the Vietnamese people.”