Bishop Robert Vasa said Monday that his nomination as future head of Santa Rosa's Roman Catholic diocese came "out of the blue."
"It was an absolute shock to me," said Vasa, 59, a Nebraska native who has served as bishop of the Baker diocese in eastern Oregon since 2000.
Vasa, whose name is pronounced "Vasha," was introduced Monday as the successor to Bishop Daniel Walsh, 73, who said he will retire later this year.
Pope Benedict XVI made the appointment, placing Vasa in line to become the sixth bishop of Santa Rosa since the North Coast diocese was established in 1962.
"I am really delighted with the appointment," Walsh said at a press conference at the Santa Rosa chancery.
Walsh, who has headed the 160,000-member diocese since 2000, said he looks forward to a months-long transition period working with Vasa, who officially holds the title of coadjutor bishop.
Vasa will take up residence in the bishop's house in Santa Rosa on March 4 and will serve, as Walsh does, at St. Eugene Cathedral.
The joint tenure of a bishop and his replacement is intended to create a "continuum," Walsh said, "not a dramatic break."
Walsh and Vasa said they had seen one another at conferences but were not well acquainted.
"When you were born I was already into the seminary," Walsh remarked as the two bishops sat side-by-side in a conference room at the chancery.
"A generational shift," Vasa said.
But Vasa admitted that he is not young enough to comprehend the online social media, recalling that a Catholic youth once asked if he could "friend" the bishop on Facebook.
"You could but I have no idea what that means," Vasa replied.
Born and raised on a dairy farm near Lincoln, Neb., Vasa, whose grandparents were Czech immigrants, was ordained in the Lincoln diocese in 1976 and served there 24 years before he was named bishop in Baker.
That sprawling, sparsely populated diocese serves 60,000 to 70,000 Catholics in an area that covers more than 66,800 square miles, all of Oregon east of the Cascades.
The Santa Rosa diocese, which covers 42 parishes from Petaluma to the Oregon border, is about one-sixth as large as Vasa's territory.
Both dioceses have a significant Spanish-speaking population, with Masses in Spanish at many churches and a need for bilingual priests.
Hope Burke, the Baker diocese's chief financial officer, said her chancery was abuzz Monday with news of Vasa's impending departure.
Vasa is "an amazing man and even more amazing bishop," Burke said, describing him as "a down-to-earth, no-frills kind of guy."
"I think the people there (in Santa Rosa) will absolutely fall in love with him," she said.
Vasa got a decidedly different review from David Clohessy of St. Louis, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"Honestly, he's awful," Clohessy said. "This is like replacing Nixon with Agnew," he said referring to former President Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, who resigned in 1973 amid criminal charges.
Clohessy's group faults Vasa for allegedly covering up a former eastern Oregon priest's attempted molestation of a 14-year-old girl in 2003 and for declining to participate in a 2008 church-sponsored nationwide audit of child safety practices.
Vasa's promotion "is still another clear sign that the Vatican does not value the well-being of children," Clohessy said.