Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Solis was listening to his brother priests during a morning deanery meeting in San Pedro when his cell phone began to vibrate. He ignored it. It went off again. And then again, but he didn’t answer.
He had another meeting later that afternoon, so he couldn’t join the others for lunch. He checked his phone and noticed that it was the papal nuncio — Archbishop Christophe Pierre — who had been calling. Bishop Solis called him back.
“Am I in trouble? What did I do?” Bishop Solis quipped once the archbishop had picked up the phone.
“No, no, no,” Bishop Solis recalled Archbishop Pierre saying, then adding as a side note, “The papal nuncio has a great sense of humor, you know?”
“Bishop, are you by yourself?” the archbishop asked Bishop Solis.
“Yes, your excellency.”
“I would like to share some good news with you.”
“What is it?” Bishop Solis said.
“The Holy Father has appointed you to be the ordinary in Salt Lake City.”
“Oh dear! I am in trouble!” the bishop recalled in an interview with Angelus News, breaking into laughter.
Back in 2003, Bishop Solis was the first Filipino to be named a bishop in the United States when Pope John Paul II announced his appointment as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. His episcopal ordination on Feb. 10, 2004, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels marked the first time a bishop had been ordained at the cathedral.
Now, with his appointment to the Salt Lake City Diocese, Bishop Solis becomes the first Filipino to lead a diocese in the United States. After his installation in March, he will be serving a diocese of 300,000 Catholics that spans the entire state of Utah.
“Our loss will be a gift to the family of God in Salt Lake City,” Archbishop José H. Gomez said. “I know that Bishop Solis will be for them a model of prayer and compassion and a great bishop. And I fully expect that he will become the leading voice for the millions of Filipino Catholics in this country, who are a beautiful sign of growth and renewal in our Church and in our country.”
Bishop Solis called the appointment “a recognition of the diversity of the Church in America and the universality of the Church,” adding, “I know what it means to be a pastor, a shepherd of a particular diocese. It is a tremendous blessing and a responsibility and a privilege to be of service to the local Church in the United States of America, coming from the Philippines.”
Bishop Vicente Reyes ordained Oscar Solis as a priest in 1979 in San Jose City in the Philippines, Bishop Solis’ hometown. He was assigned influential roles in the Cabanatuan Diocese from the beginning of his priestly life. He served as rector of the diocesan high school and college seminary, the vocation director, a professor, and on the diocesan priests council.
In 1984, he was sent to Rome to pursue doctoral studies in canon law. He visited his family in the United States along the way and spent some time in pastoral work.
“I fell in love with parish life,” he said. “I never did parish work in the Philippines.” Bishop Solis discerned then that God was calling him to change course.
“That’s the mystery of God’s grace,” he said. “Just be open and be ready for surprises because our God is a God of surprises. Just like now!”
Bishop Solis served for four years as pastor of St. Rocco Church in New Jersey, a parish with a large Italian and Cuban immigrant population. He then served various parishes in the Louisiana Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, including pastor of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Golden Meadow and pastor of St. Joseph Co-Cathedral and St. Luke Church in Thibodaux.
In 2003, having turned 50 and having spent 25 years as a priest, then-Father Solis thought it might be time for a sabbatical. He thought Louisiana would be the place where he would eventually retire.
“That’s when the heavens were opened and a voice came down, ‘You fool. You’re going to Los Angeles, California. And you’ll become an auxiliary bishop of L.A.,’” Bishop Solis said, laughing. “Oh sugar! That was an unforgettable moment. God always has a sense of humor. He knocks you down from your pedestal.”
In Los Angeles, Bishop Solis served a variety of roles, including as vicar for Ethnic Ministry from his ordination in 2004 until 2009. He also served as the director of the Office of Justice and Peace from 2005 to 2009. Then, in 2009, he was assigned to the San Pedro Pastoral Region, where he serves today.
He had actually been teasing Archbishop Gomez recently that he wanted to take a sabbatical. Then he received the call from the nuncio about his appointment to Salt Lake City.
“So from now on, I don’t want to think of sabbaticals!” Bishop Solis laughed. “Every time I do, God shakes me up and says, ‘You fool!’”
‘Thy will be done’
In a way, Bishop Solis is used to being uprooted. First he began his ministry in the Philippines. Then he moved to New Jersey, to Louisiana and to Los Angeles. Now he will be in Utah.
Nevertheless, he said, moving to a new place can be tough.
“I will miss friends and priests and L.A., but I know God has something in store for us when he leads us to a new place,” he said. “I have wonderful priests in Utah and wonderful people. I know we won’t go wrong if we work together as a Church, as a community. God will provide the rest.”
He added there’s always a reason when God puts you in a new place.
“It’s always God’s will. I don’t have expectations. I don’t have any hidden, personal agenda,” he said. “I’m just going there with an open heart and an open mind, with the willingness to embrace and love the people that I will shepherd, to listen to them, and to establish a beautiful working relationship to build the local Church in Utah.”
Bishop Solis said that his episcopal motto, “Fiat voluntas tua” or “Your will be done,” from the Lord’s Prayer, has guided him through his entire priesthood.
“When you follow God’s will, you find joy, happiness and peace. That’s the essence of my heart and my faith in God, joy and gladness,” he said. “It’s not the place. It’s what’s in your heart. In as much as I feel uncertainty, I just have to continue learning how to rely on God’s grace and God’s providence.”
He’s encouraged by the example set by the faithful in the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Bishop Solis noted the extraordinary service of Msgr. Colin F. Bircumshaw, who has been the diocese’s administrator for the last 20 months since its previous bishop, Archbishop John Wester, was appointed to lead the Santa Fe Archdiocese.
“I’m following in the footsteps of these great pastors in Utah who have made tremendous working relationships with all kinds of people, especially with the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” Bishop Solis said, also recognizing Archbishop [George] Niederauer, archbishop emeritus of San Francisco who had served in Salt Lake City. “So I feel comfortable that they have set the foundation of working relationships with other religious groups. Following the footsteps of these wonderful shepherds, I won’t go wrong.”
Bishop Solis, who always carries a rosary in his pocket, doesn’t consider himself an above-average Catholic. Like other individuals who are more active in their faith, he has to make a point of setting time aside for quiet prayer.
“I’ve become more dependent on God’s grace. ‘Lord, you mold me. You form me.’ I’m limited. … I don’t think I have anything to be proud of but my love for my vocation, my love for God. Even though I have trepidation, I have to remind myself that it’s not my work. It’s God’s work,” he said, then laughing, “If he brings me there, he better take care of me!”