Santa Rosa Diocese's incoming bishop offered a simple message to a packed sanctuary at St. Eugene's Cathedral Sunday about his hopes and plans as he prepares to ascend to the post.

"I want us to help each other get to heaven," said Robert Vasa, 59, who has served as Bishop of Baker Diocese in eastern Oregon since 2000.

That "ultimate purpose" will guide him as he travels throughout the 165,000 person North Coast-area diocese and learns the names of the parishioners that Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly called him to serve, Vasa said.

"Nothing else really matters," he said.

The message from the Nebraska-born bishop resonated with many of the Catholics who flocked to the Montgomery Drive cathedral to meet him.

Vasa's homily was general in nature as Vasa told the congregation he was committed to doing God's will. It was "down-to-earth" and left many hopeful about what he will do for the diocese, said Mary Ponseti of Santa Rosa, who echoed many people's thoughts after Mass.

"He's a person I could have in the kitchen while I cook, but he's also stern in his beliefs," said Ponseti, 77, who belongs to Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Church on St. Francis Road in Santa Rosa.

Vasa, pronounced "Vasha," earned his reputation as a hard-line Catholic through his outspoken stance against pre-marital sex and homosexuality at a time when some Catholic congregations are taking a softer approach to such issues.

Vasa gained national attention when he stripped Bend's St. Charles Medical Center of its church sponsorship because hospital doctors performed tubal ligation.

However his stern approach to Catholic doctrine was welcome to many who filled the sanctuary on Sunday.

"He doesn't want to bend (Church law) according to our times," said Marty McCormick, 53, a mortgage banker from Windsor.

Politics shouldn't influence religious laws, said McCormick, a father of 10 children who attended St. Eugene's school.

"It's tough to be Catholic," McCormick said.

Vasa will work as an assistant bishop, called coadjutor bishop, with outgoing Bishop Daniel Walsh until Walsh retires later this year.

Sunday's Mass drew bishops from Honolulu to Salt Lake City and brought parishioners from other churches that belong to the diocese, which includes 42 parishes in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

As people filed into the church before Mass began, the Northern California Knights of Columbus lined up in their plumed hats in green, yellow, purple and white feathers. They raised their swords as the bishops entered the room.

Emily Pham, 12, a sixth-grader at St. Eugene's, waited in her altar server's uniform.

"It feels special to serve today," she said.

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