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In Good Faith : Msgr. Jaime Soto, leader of O.C.'s Catholic Latinos, cultivates activism and spirituality.

July 31, 1994|PATRICK MOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The man who is likely the most visible and influential Latino Catholic in Orange County got his first lessons in social responsibility at the family breakfast table, listening to Spanish-speaking strangers.

His father would regularly bring them home from daily Mass at St. Polycarp Catholic Church in Stanton, and young Jaime Soto, who was used to seeing a frequent and lengthy procession of family members come through the house, would sit at the table and watch the mostly young men and his father converse in a language he didn't understand. For years, he believed the visitors were cousins he had never met.

"I had no idea how big our family was," he says, "and we were accustomed to having relatives over who spoke no English at all, but we were always taught to be respectful to them. It wasn't until I was much older that I caught on that they were immigrants. My father would bring them over and help them out a little bit--give them a meal, take them to the store.

"That memory of my father doing that and the fact that he made us believe that these people were part of our family and that we should extend hospitality to them probably more than anything else gave me the conviction and led me to the kind of ministry I have now."

That ministry--the post of episcopal vicar of the Hispanic community of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange--has helped propel Msgr. Jaime Soto into the often turbulent heart of one of the fastest-changing, most influential and most hotly discussed ethnic populations in America.

His principal job is a religious one: to bring cohesion, organization and vibrant faith to Orange County's estimated 480,000 Latino Catholics--roughly half of all Catholics in the county. He chairs or serves on several boards and committees, both within the church structure and in the secular community. He speaks frequently before city councils, civic organizations, church groups and at forums both religious and civic. And he presides at special Masses and observances for Latino Catholics.

But because such issues as immigration, the right to work, fair wages, crime, education, poverty, housing, health care and other concerns are so closely associated with his flock, Soto often finds his job description encompassing both religion and politics.

"I'm not a politician," says Soto, 38. "I'm a priest. But I believe that as a church, and myself as a priest, we have something to bring to the political forum, a light to bring to some often confusing and unclear issues. The church is not a body-less spirit. We're here on this earth, and I'm here on this earth, to do a mission, and a core aspect of that mission is the transformation of the world. And that includes not only our hearts and minds, but our institutions. So we will not hold back."

At stake, says Soto, is nothing less than the future of Catholic Orange County and, by extension, of Orange County society as a whole. The Latino community, he says, has the potential to become a rich economic, social, spiritual and cultural asset, but that perception, he adds soberly, is hardly universal. And the task of full assimilation is daunting.

"We're in a time now," says Soto, "when the accomplishment of that effort, and the value of that effort, is being challenged by society at large, also even by many of our own (Catholic) people, as to whether it is worth it.

"I ask them to really take a good look at some of our Santa Ana churches and other churches in the central county, and ask themselves if that isn't the church of the '40s and '50s all over again--the vital, active youth programs, the churches filled to overflowing, people forming associations and groups. They bring a renewed vigor and passion for the faith that can honestly awaken us to what it means to be Catholic again.

"I understand the anxiety and fears that many people have about the immigrant population. We as a church feel the same strains in meeting the pastoral demands of our very young congregations. But this population is not a deficit population; it is a contributing population that in the short term right now may require an investment by the public and the volunteer sector. But in the long term, this same population will contribute and foster a new prosperity. I believe it will yield a harvest for the church and society in general."

*

This is a position that delights many and irritates others.

"He's a man of the people," says Rusty Kennedy, the executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission. "He presides over the pastoral care of his people and at the same time gets involved in broader scale issues, contentious and difficult issues. He helps build understanding and tolerance in an era when most people are heaving bombs. He's a cool head who helps to focus people in a more sane direction.

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