Friends remember Msgr. Royale Vadakin’s life as an LA pastor, pioneer, and peacemaker

On a bright Sunday morning in the late spring of 1964, Hermine Lees, her husband Walter and their four young children were just stepping out of All Souls Church in Alhambra after Mass when they saw a young man bounding out of the rectory, hurrying toward them, wearing clerics, dark horn-rimmed glasses and a huge smile.

It was Father Royale Vadakin, All Souls’ new (and newly ordained) associate pastor, all of 26 years old, and anxious to meet — well, everyone.
“And we were the first people he met,” recalled Hermine with a smile. “It was the beginning of a close and wonderful friendship.”

Such was the case with many, if not most, of the people fortunate to make the acquaintance of Msgr. Royale M. Vadakin, who died September 17 at age 80 from pancreatic cancer. 

Though he served as vicar general of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and pastor of several parishes, and was a pioneer in the local ecumenical and interfaith movement in his 54 years of priesthood, he was equally known for creating a warm and extensive series of relationships — in the parish, at the archdiocesan Catholic Center, and on any number of civic and religious boards and commissions.

“And that’s what made him so good at any level — relationships mattered to him,” said Msgr. Gregory Cox, executive director of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, who lived with Vadakin for 28 years at St. Anastasia Church in Westchester. “He liked to get out of his office to meet and deal with people personally, and that meant so much to them because it meant so much to him.  

“He could talk to and relate to anyone. He’d talk to second-graders in the morning and explain a homily, and speak at a civic commission that evening about matters far more complicated, and feel totally comfortable in both settings.”
That was clear to those he studied with at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, from where Msgr. Vadakin was ordained to the priesthood in 1964. “Everyone knew and loved Royale,” said Cardinal Roger Mahony, a member of the 1962 class. “His great sense of purpose, his sense of humor, and his incredible organization skills endeared all of us to him.”

Lees recalled how Father Vadakin recruited her and others at All Souls to form a Christian Family Movement in the parish. After the 1965 Watts Riots, the young priest — determined to find solutions to the disharmony and turmoil that gripped the city — invited Lees to work with him, Rabbi Alfred Wolf of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and others in developing what became the Catholic-Jewish Women’s Dialogue, now in its fifth decade.

“That was right after ‘Nostra Aetate’ [the 1964 Second Vatican Council document on Catholic-Jewish relations],” said Lees, who later worked 28 years at The Tidings (after Msgr. Vadakin encouraged her to apply for a staff writer opening). 

“He spearheaded [a] whole ecumenical and interreligious process, reaching out to Muslims, to Buddhists, to everyone. He realized that instead of criticizing or not understanding people of other faiths, we needed to talk with them, to help us accept and understand why they believed as they believed.”

“Msgr. Vadakin was a trailblazer in interfaith relations and particularly in Catholic-Jewish relations in Los Angeles,” said Doris Haims, Jewish co-chair of the Catholic-Jewish Women’s Conference and an American Jewish Committee Los Angeles board member. “He leaves behind a rich legacy that will benefit our communities for years to come.”

The 'gift of tact'

Vadakin’s “gift of tact,” as Lees called it, was not lost on those who came after him, regardless of the setting.

“Very often, in Church leadership, you’re trying to put out fires,” noted Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Joseph V. Brennan, who in 2012 succeeded Vadakin as vicar general and moderator of the Curia. 

“You try to get people to talk with each other, especially now in a society and a Church where talking and listening is sorely needed. And there was no one better at doing that than Royale.”
Chuckling, Bishop Brennan continued, “With no disrespect meant to our Lord, I often catch myself saying, ‘What would Royale do in this situation?’ I can still remember coming to [the former Cathedral of] St. Vibiana in 1987 as a young associate when Royale was pastor, and the three years serving with him there was the best thing that happened in my life. He was a wonderful teacher and mentor, a priest who loved to serve people.”

“He was a true servant-leader, and I would underline both terms,” added Cox. “He made everyone feel not just included but important. And he had great faith, a strong foundation and work ethic, for which he’d always credit his mom and dad for providing. His parents were part of the St. Anastasia community too, and to know them was to better know their son.”

He was, his friends added, a priest who had a special compassion for those in distress. When  Vadakin came to the ACC as vicar general in 2003, the archdiocese was in the throes of dealing with the scandal involving clergy abuse of minors.

“Without him,” said Cardinal Mahony, “we would never have charted a course which emphasized the plight of the victims, and the need to guarantee the protection of all children and young people in our care.”

Archbishop José H. Gomez sprinkles holy water on the casket carrying Msgr. Vadakin’s body at his funeral Mass at St. Anastasia Church in Westchester September 29. (VICTOR ALEMÁN/ANGELUS)

‘Taking time to be a friend’

Yet even in the midst of such a monumental task, Vadakin never lost sight of personal relationships. He regularly visited his aging parents in the years prior to their deaths, “regardless of what other crises were going on,” said Lees. “He knew how much they looked forward to seeing him, and nothing was going to interfere with that.” 

“He had the weight of the world on shoulders, but he always took the time to be a dear friend,” added David Herbst, a St. Anastasia Church parishioner who served with Vadakin on the William H. Hannon Foundation board of directors. “When my father died, I would often get a call early in the morning from Monsignor, checking up on me, asking how I was doing.”
And when his 12-year-old daughter Margaret Mary faced long and difficult spinal fusion surgery,  Vadakin gathered the Herbst family together for a pre-surgery anointing.

“He involved us all, and did it with such thoughtful kindness that we weren’t scared anymore,” said Herbst. “Afterward the doctor told us, ‘These surgeries don’t always go as they’re supposed to, but everything on this one went 100 percent right.’ I called Monsignor and said, ‘You haven’t lost your touch.’ ”

Herbst and others also appreciated their friend’s sense of humor. “The first time I saw Monsignor was in 1990, when he and Rabbi Wolf were receiving honorary doctorates from Loyola Marymount, where I was a student,” Herbst smiled. “Right as they were receiving the honors, the skies opened up, and Monsignor smiled and said, ‘It’s amazing what can happen when Catholics and Jews work together.’ ”

He also remembered, at foundation meetings, dessert being passed around and Msgr. Vadakin grabbing his arm and saying, with a smile, “David, remember Natalie and the kids. Do you really need all that?”

Lees recalled covering the 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II to Los Angeles, particularly the ecumenical-interfaith event hosted and organized by Vadakin. “I pull up to the parking lot,” she said, chuckling, “and, there’s Royale, out in front, directing traffic. He wanted everything to go right, and it did.”

Reaping the fruits

1987 was the year Father Alexei Smith arrived in Los Angeles as pastor of St. Andrew Russian Greek Catholic Church in El Segundo. Soon, he was serving on the local Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue panel, after being invited by Vadakin (who helped launch the dialogue).

“And he’d never admit it,” Smith said, “but I believe he put my name forward to become the archdiocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith officer in 2000, and I’ve been in that role ever since. But Royale was the one who enfleshed the Second Vatican Council’s call to ecumenism and interfaith relationships, who really planted the seeds, and today those of us who work in that area are reaping fruits of his labors.”

That includes Mike Kerze, who in the early 1980s was a visiting professor in the LMU Theology Department, specializing in world religions, when he was invited to participate in the Southern California Colloquium on Science and Religion with Vadakin and Wolf. 

Soon the group had formed Project Discovery, the Catholic-Jewish Educational Enrichment Program, which sent a rabbi to teach about Judaism in Catholic high schools, and Kerze became the Catholic teaching about Christianity for more than a decade at a Jewish high school, now Milken Community High School near the Skirball Center. 

“The pilot program, managed by the American Jewish Committee, became nationwide and continues to this day,” said Kerze. “This too is part of Msgr. Vadakin’s continuing legacy.”

In 1989, Kerze — at Vadakin’s invitation — joined the initial Los Angeles Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue, which has since become a model program for other dialogues nationwide. “I am still a member of the Dialogue and count it as one of the greatest blessings in my life,” said Kerze. 

Left to right: Then-Msgr. Joseph Brennan, Archbishop Gomez, Msgr. Vadakin and Chancellor Sister Mary Elizabeth Galt at a retirement party for the outgoing vicar general in 2012. (VICTOR ALEMÁN/ANGELUS)

‘Be open to change’ 

Vadakin’s work in developing and maintaining relationships, Brennan said, was rooted in his ability to not simply accept but embrace change.
“Royale used to tell me, ‘Joe, be open to a future that is different from what we’ve seen and known. Be open to change and transformation that is rooted in God. And listen to what the people have to say.’

“So much of what is wrong with the world, and even in our Church, is because people, including the hierarchy, won’t listen to one another. Royale was all about bringing people together, and that’s why he will be missed, as a beautiful, wonderful churchman in the best sense.”

And his friends — though sad, now that Vadakin is gone from this world — are grateful for his loving service to the Church, and their connection to him.

Mike Nelson is the former editor of The Tidings (predecessor of Angelus News).

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