Robert Vasa, the bishop of eastern Oregon, is a son of the American Plains, a no-frills man of the cloth who once described himself as "common as an old shoe."
Born and raised on a Nebraska dairy and row-crop farm<NO1><NO>, the 59-year-old cleric came 11<NO1><NO> years ago to the vast Catholic diocese where he helped convert a horse barn into a retreat center and wired the church office for a computer network.
With a theological steadfastness that belies his homespun ways, Vasa <NO1><NO>gained <NO1><NO>national attention by stripping <NO1><NO>Bend's major hospital of its Catholic affiliation for performing tubal ligations.
<NO1><NO>He also imposed on lay teachers and administrators a pledge of fidelity to Catholic prohibitions on pre-marital sex, masturbation and homosexuality, calling them "gravely evil."
Named in January as successor to Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh, Vasa (pronounced "Vasha") will be introduced to local Catholics at Mass this morning at St. Eugene Cathedral.
Vasa declined to say what his initial priorities will be, other than getting to know the priests and parishioners of the 165,000-member North Coast diocese.
His record suggests that he <NO1><NO>could depart <NO1><NO>from the largely <NO1><NO>tolerant approach to church<NO1><NO> doctrine attributed to<NO1><NO> his predecessors.
Plain, if not blunt, in speech, the man who will be Santa Rosa's sixth bishop is inclined to squeeze a dime hard. He won't pay for cable TV and he'd rather eat beans out of the can with a spoon than dine on French cuisine off fine plates and silver service.
"People say I am penurious at the risk of being cheap," Vasa said in an interview.
Called at young age
Vasa will share the bishop's residence and work alongside Walsh, 73, until Walsh retires later this year from the post he has held since 2000 and returns, he hopes, to serve as a parish priest in his hometown of San Francisco, where he was ordained in 1963.
Vasa, who said he felt called to the priesthood in grade school, takes over a diocese <NO1><NO>still recovering from an extended sex abuse scandal that surfaced in 1994 and drained $25 million from church coffers in compensation to victims.
He will face an immediate challenge in replenishing church finances, while his doctrinaire style raises questions about how he will mesh with the North Coast's liberal inclinations.
Santa Rosa's bishops generally have allowed the members of their flock to follow their own consciences, said Yvette Fallandy of St. Eugene's Parish in Santa Rosa and a former member of a lay advisory council to the bishop.
"The assumption has been that Catholics who turn up at Mass believe firmly in the Apostles' Creed and practice their Catholicism as best they know it," she said.
Bishop Walsh is a "commonsensical conservative" who issued no pronouncements on church law while bringing stability to the scandal-plagued diocese, Fallandy said.
There remains tension, however, over the doctrine of a 2,000-year-old church ruled by Rome but spread over a spectrum in America from traditionalists who favor the Latin Mass to advocates for change in keeping with the 21st century.
Disputes over the church's opposition to abortion, birth control and homosexuality, and its adherence to clerical celibacy and a male-only clergy are enmeshed in the split.
"There are many flavors of Catholics," Fallandy said.