Archbishop Alexander Sample speaks to his new staff and the media as Archbishop John Vlazny listens at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in early February 2013. Both men, said Msgr. Dennis O’Donovan, came to Portland with the desire to connect with the people and the priests in the archdiocese. “I really respect those coming into a new place as bishop,” he said. (Jon DeBellis/Catholic Sentinel)
Archbishop Alexander Sample speaks to his new staff and the media as Archbishop John Vlazny listens at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in early February 2013. Both men, said Msgr. Dennis O’Donovan, came to Portland with the desire to connect with the people and the priests in the archdiocese. “I really respect those coming into a new place as bishop,” he said. (Jon DeBellis/Catholic Sentinel)
Ten years ago, on the occasion of their shared 50th jubilee as priests, the late Cardinal William Levada suggested that Archbishop John Vlazny’s episcopal motto really should be “Joy to the World.”

“Joy in the Lord, laughter among friends, have been his hallmark,” said Cardinal Levada.

It’s now Archbishop Vlazny’s 60th jubilee, and as an archbishop emeritus he’s still quick to laugh — although his good humor isn’t what another old friend, Msgr. Dennis O’Donovan, focuses on. For Msgr. O’Donovan, the retired archbishop’s prayerfulness is what strikes him first. “You have that sense of authenticity,” he said. “Not only his thoughtfulness and kindness, but that it comes straight from the heart and is connected to the Lord.”

“I like to think it’s been a little of God’s plan,” Archbishop Vlazny admitted of his posting to Portland. “And I’m still going. I think this was a good place for me to be.”

That counts for all the places he’s been, which he remembers without gilding the rough edges.

After Archbishop Vlazny was ordained in Rome for the Archdiocese of Chicago he returned to the windy city.

In his first job as a priest, the young Father Vlazny was told he would be a teacher.

Naturally, he expected to teach religion.

When he met the principal, however, he was told he’d be teaching Spanish and music.

“I think you’ve got the wrong guy,” Archbishop Vlazny remembers thinking. “I don’t speak Spanish,” he told the principal.

He didn’t think he was much of a musician either.

He was told to learn Spanish. His accordion playing helped with the music classes.

“I’m a good actor so I carried it off,” he said.

Ironically, the archbishop remembers the toughest class was religion.

“Those sophomore boys thought they knew it all,” he said with his trademark timing, a shudder and a laugh.

After 16 years as a high school teacher, he was appointed pastor of St. Aloysius Parish, a poor and challenging parish with many Spanish-speaking parishioners.

Again, Archbishop Vlazny didn’t think he was the right guy for the job.

And again, as he said, “in God’s providence it all worked out well.”

Then-Father Vlazny grew to love the parish, and so was not thrilled when told he would be the new rector of Niles College Seminary, beginning in 1981.

Later Archbishop Vlazny came to think that position — as rector of the seminary — was what gave him the visibility in the Archdiocese of Chicago to be one of four new auxiliary bishops named by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1983.

That thinking, about being in the right place at the right time, is a good example of Archbishop Vlazny’s humility. He gives credit to God and then works tirelessly to live up to what has been asked of him.

When he received the news of his appointment, Father Vlazny’s first thought was that a friend was playing a joke on him.

When he realized the call was real, although he felt he was in over his head, the soon-to-be Auxiliary Bishop Vlazny went along with the flow.

“This might not be such a bad job,” he recalled thinking. “It almost sounded easier than the seminary or parish.”

Again he laughed, telling the tale. “I was a little naive. But my mother was happy when I began meeting with the cardinal.”

Archbishop Vlazny noted that becoming a bishop is different than becoming a priest. “You become a bishop overnight, compared to the years in formation in seminary,” he said. “In 1983, Cardinal Bernadin turned my life around in a day.”

“Cardinal Bernardin asked for four,” Archbishop Vlazny mused. “No doubt I was the fourth.”

The four “Chicago guys” — Archbishop Vlazny, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the late Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Lyne and retired Bishop Plácido Rodríguez — formed a lasting friendship.

Less than five years later, in May 1987, St. John Paul II appointed Auxiliary Bishop Vlazny the new Bishop of Winona.

“Minnesota was stunned to get a city kid,” the retired archbishop said.

A chartered busload of mostly Spanish-speaking parishioners from St. Aloysius Parish in Chicago traveled five hours to Winona to cheer his installation there.

Ten years later, St. John Paul II appointed Bishop Vlazny archbishop of Portland.

His archbishopric began well. “The priests and I bonded pretty well, and I inherited a wonderful staff,” he said.

Mary Jo Tully, appointed by Archbishop Levada as the first laywoman diocesan chancellor, was part of that staff. She’s an unabashed fan of Archbishop Vlazny. “What is there not to love?” she asked. “He is never too busy to help another. He makes us better Catholics.”

Msgr. O’Donovan joined the pastoral center staff in 1999. He thinks Archbishop Vlazny’s success came about because “in a lot of ways he’s a priest’s priest. He’s always willing to help and he’s seriously humble. He was never a lone ranger.”

Msgr. O’Donovan sees that sense of the importance of priests working together being carried on by Archbishop Alexander Sample.

“Archbishop Sample keeps his door open on Fridays for priests,” he said. “Both men have a sense of how important it is for priests to work together to serve the people.”

But there were shadows.

Despite Archbishop Vlazny’s support, the repeal of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act (assisted suicide) failed.

And from the beginning his staff was dealing with gut-wrenching revelations and lawsuits over the sexual abuse of children by archdiocesan priests in decades past.

In 2000 the archdiocese settled a lawsuit brought by 22 men, all of them sexually abused altar boys.

In 2004, the Archdiocese of Portland became the first American diocese to declare bankruptcy.

Archbishop Vlazny recalled that he’d been the last one to agree to declaring bankruptcy. “But I was smart enough to know I needed help, and they gave it to me,” he said. “The Lord gave me the grace to survive it.”

Photos of the famously ebullient archbishop during those months show him frowning.

Msgr. O’Donovan remembers a different side of the traumatic episode. “I saw him talk with the victims with deep kindness and understanding,” Msgr. O’Donovan said.

Although Cardinal Levada may have thought Archbishop Vlazny’s motto should be “Joy to the world,” the one Archbishop Vlazny chose for himself was “Go and make disciples,” and that is an achievement he’s proud of. When he arrived in the Archdiocese of Portland, there were about 250,000 Catholics here. When he retired, there were more than 400,000, perhaps as many as 500,000. “We had lots of people join every year,” he said, adding that the reason for that success was the archdiocesan outreach to Spanish-speaking Catholics. Archbishop Vlazny credits the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit and the St. John Society with much of the good work. The archdiocese also began attracting more Spanish-speaking seminarians during his time as archbishop.

Archbishop Vlazny counts many close comrades among the hierarchy as well as among priests and laypeople. Retired Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas credits Archbishop Vlazny with being a good friend. “He has been a model for me of what a good priest and bishop should be,” said Bishop Kicanas. “He’s understanding, kind and responsive. He cares about people.”

In 2013, Archbishop Vlazny welcomed his successor, Archbishop Sample, to Portland, and again, nearly overnight, transitioned into yet a new job: archbishop emeritus.

This time he’s pleased to be staying in the same locale.

“Some of the Vietnamese just call me ‘Grampa,’” Archbishop Vlazny said. “That’s how I see my role. I substitute and help out where I can. I like being a priest.”