Bishop Mark Schmitt anoints the hands of Alexander Sample during priesthood ordination on June 1, 1990, in St. Peter Cathedral in Marquette, Michigan. (Sample family photo)
Bishop Mark Schmitt anoints the hands of Alexander Sample during priesthood ordination on June 1, 1990, in St. Peter Cathedral in Marquette, Michigan. (Sample family photo)

Amid the coronavirus lockdown, Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample has experienced a deepened sense of his priestly identity as a spiritual father.

“It awakened a response in me: ‘Now I really have to be there for the people,’” said Archbishop Sample, who on June 1 marks the 30th anniversary of his priesthood ordination. “I have this desire to be with the people and reassure them and give them hope and give them spiritual guidance.”

During the pandemic, the archbishop has recorded regular video messages, encouraging western Oregon Catholics and reassuring them of his love and God’s steadfastness. On social media and websites, his spiritual messages are reaching large audiences.

Friday night informal livestreamed chats from his home chapel have attracted an average of 5,000 viewers from all over the nation. With a face full of delight, he greets the virtual guests as his mother’s grandfather clock chimes the hour. He urges viewers to have hope and then reflects on matters of faith and how they play out in everyday life.  

“Looking forward to watching you every Friday night now,” said one commentator on Facebook Live.

He wants to be a pastor

With a lightened administrative load, the archbishop recalls how he felt on ordination day in 1990. His only dream was to be pastor of a parish, assuring people of God’s transforming love.

The new sense of spiritual fatherhood had already blossomed thanks to a set of weeklong visits the archbishop has been making to various parts of western Oregon. He has met parishioners, toured ministries and had long conversations with priests.

“It has transformed my episcopal ministry,” Archbishop Sample said. “It has brought a whole new life to me as a bishop. It is fulfilling my desire to be a pastor.”

Even after the pandemic subsides, he wants to continue the visits and the videos as much as his schedule allows.

“There has been a real change in me,” he said. “That has carried with it a responsibility. People are supposed to see Christ in me and the loving father in me.”

‘Uh-oh’

Once the nation’s youngest bishop, Archbishop Sample is now almost 60. This is the time of life, he knows, to share experience. He admits that the role has been a weak point until now. 

But he feels encouraged by the memory of two priests. Both were decades into their vocations when they helped him embrace the notion of priesthood and selfless service.

As a senior at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas in the late 1970s, he was living for a time without his parents, who had moved to northern Michigan. Before relocating himself, he wanted to stay behind to finish school with his classmates.

Viatorian Father Leo Weiland, his German teacher, became a kindly grandfather figure. Young Alex Sample served Father Weiland’s Masses. The veteran priest once took his student to lunch and at the conclusion said something like this: “I have been a priest a long time and have seen men who have a priestly vocation. I have never been wrong.”

The youth, who wanted to be an engineer, said to himself, “Uh-oh.”

The priest pointed his finger and said definitively: “You have a vocation to the priesthood.”

For years afterword, as the future archbishop attended engineering school at Michigan Tech, Father Weiland wrote encouraging letters. After graduating from college, Alex Sample went on a road trip west and dropped in to see his old mentor in Las Vegas. On the door was posted an apologetic note — The priest could not have lunch because he’d been called to anoint a dying patient. That dedication impressed the future archbishop.

Father Weiland himself died early in 1990 and a few months later Father Alexander Sample had his old teacher on his mind on ordination day at St. Peter Cathedral in Marquette, Michigan. 

He kept saying yes

The second veteran clergyman who taught him a lesson about priesthood was Father Henry Mercier, a pastor in Marquette. Father Mercier advised that his protégé never ask for an assignment and never refuse one. Father Mercier declared he did not want to reach the end of his life and find that he had lived out his own will instead of God’s. Further, the older priest said, every place he went people were kind and wonderful.

Father Sample took the advice to heart. When the form arrived from the diocese each year asking if there were a post he might like, he simply would write, “Whatever the bishop wants me to do.”

“It is so liberating,” Archbishop Sample explained. “You can just say, ‘Lord, it’s in your hands. I did not need to worry about whether I would get that parish or get a high position. There was a lightness and joy in that.”

He was happy as a parish priest for 15 years and then again said yes, being named Bishop of Marquette in 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI.

In 2013, open acceptance was once more in play when Pope Benedict asked him to become Archbishop of Portland.  

Configured to Christ

As a young man, Father Sample focused on what a priest did. Now, three decades later, Archbishop Sample is more interested in who a priest is. Priesthood, he insists, is not just another career path or a role.

“Something changes in the soul at ordination that never goes away,” the archbishop said. “It does not make a priest better, but it does make him different. What we priests do flows from that central identity of being one who is sacramentally configured to Christ. All these years later, I have an awareness of how Jesus operates in me. It’s not just the actions from me. That configuration to Christ flows into my relationship with the people I serve. The priest is called to pour out his life for the people, like Jesus poured out his life on the cross.”

For the future, Archbishop Sample sees a need for priests who place a priority on cultivating a deep relationship with God.

“The church now needs more than ever men who are fervently dedicated to prayer and dedicated to fostering their relationship with God,” he said. “We need to fall head over heels in love with God.”

That deep relationship will fill the hearts of priests, and God’s gift of charity then spills over to the people, he explained.

Defender of priesthood

Yet priests, including those who become bishops, are humans and sinners, too, he said. He has observed that the people are usually forgiving of mistakes, flaws and quirks if a priest has been there for them and lets them know he loves them.

But, Archbishop Sample said, some misdeeds and sicknesses have no place in the priesthood. Even before becoming a bishop, he was a diocesan official called upon to handle cases of clergy sexual abuse. Perhaps because he so loves the priesthood, he has emerged as one of the church’s strongest voices for child safety policy and transparency.

“There is no room in priesthood for anyone who would dare harm a child or a young person,” he said. “I have zero tolerance for this.”

He has noticed deep brokenness and psychological wounds in abusers.

One case of abuse is too many, he said. At the same time, he is discouraged when the public sees the relatively small number of priest abusers (the rate is no higher than among the general public) and unfairly judges all priests or the priesthood in general.  

“Most priests are very dedicated holy men who have offered their lives to serve God and serve people,” he said.

‘I am being held up’

Even with its challenges, Archbishop Sample would choose his life again “in a heartbeat.”

“I would not give it a second thought,” he said. “I have never once in my 30 years of priestly ministry regretted my choice once. The Lord has given me such joy in my ministry.”

He may feel lonely now and then, but never deep loneliness. 

“Christ is always there for me,” he said. “The people are always there for me. The church is my family. I am never alone, and it is so humbling. I am being held up by my family.”

edl@catholicsentinel.org