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Encino Priest Ordained Bishop of Valley Region

Hierarchy: About 1,000 attend ceremony. New official says church might oppose area's secession from L.A. if it seemed to be an attempt by well-off to shun urban poor.


The Catholic Church would consider opposing the San Fernando Valley's secession from Los Angeles if it represented an attempt by the middle class to shake off the urban poor, but otherwise is unlikely to take sides on the secular political issue, said the Encino priest ordained Wednesday as bishop of the Valley region.

"We would take a position only if in some way it affected human dignity for the worse," said the Most Rev. Gerald Wilkerson.

Wilkerson, 58, was given his bishop's miter, staff and ring by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in English- and Spanish-language rites attended by 23 bishops and scores of priests.

Wilkerson was named in November as an auxiliary bishop for the San Fernando Pastoral Region, an area with an estimated 765,000 Catholics that would be the second-largest diocese in California if it were split from the Los Angeles archdiocese. The region, with headquarters in Mission Hills, covers the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, and reaches as far to the south and east as Eagle Rock and Highland Park.

Wilkerson, addressing the crowd of about 1,000 onlookers at the end of the two-hour ordination and Mass, said the sheer responsibility of spiritual and administrative oversight of three-quarters of a million Catholics was enough to give him "cold feet" after he learned that the pope had chosen him for the position.

"I went to my spiritual advisor and told him, 'It's all a mistake; you've got the wrong man'--and he agreed with me!" said Wilkerson, eliciting laughter from the pews.

"But he said, 'It's not what you do for God, but what God does through you.' "

Wilkerson said he was also assured about the same time by Mahony--who wrote from Rome, where he was co-presiding over a bishops meeting--that the Long Beach native was the right man for the job.

Indeed, Wilkerson had been functioning since mid-1996 as episcopal vicar, or acting bishop, for the region after the Vatican assigned Auxiliary Bishop Armando X. Ochoa to head the El Paso diocese.

The authority of a regional bishop in the Los Angeles archdiocese--which has five regions in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties--is limited. "The ultimate buck stops at the cardinal's desk, although his idea is to have as much regionalization as possible so that we can truly become closer to the people," Wilkerson said.

Asked what his plans are for the region, the bishop said he won't have any until he can consult the laity, clergy and nuns in his jurisdiction.

"My style, even in the parish, has been to get people involved to come up with a plan together," he said.

Wilkerson said he was not aware of any lack of rapport between him and the many Spanish-speaking Catholics in the Valley area, despite his following the Mexican-born Ochoa in the regional office.

"I've found that wherever I have gone, that people are very warm, and they accept you for who you are," he said. "I think it certainly helps to be bilingual; in fact, [it's] almost a necessity in this part of the country."

Wilkerson, who was ordained at Encino's Our Lady of Grace Church, a 2,400-family parish he served for 13 years as senior pastor, said he can speak Spanish reasonably well when he works from written material. The new bishop spoke in both languages at the service Wednesday.

Watching from the front pews were his parents, Bette and Max Wilkerson of Long Beach, and his three brothers and two sisters with their spouses.

Bette Wilkerson said she never thought her priest son would become a bishop. "But I believe that he has earned it; he's worked hard," she said.

With Catholics constituting 28% of the Valley population, according to a 1991 Times poll, the responses to any secession drive by Wilkerson and Mahony might be significant, observers say.

In an interview, Wilkerson said that if a secession campaign were to become an "isolationist movement" of residents saying, "Let's protect ourselves and not give so much money to those who are needy," it would pose a moral problem in the church's view.

"Then, we would have to talk about that, because it is a human dignity issue."

Otherwise, "it's up to the people to choose how they want to govern themselves, and how large they want their city to be," he said.

Father Gregory Coiro, Mahony's press spokesman, said the archdiocese has not yet studied the issue.

A group called Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment plans to start a drive in April to gather signatures on a petition that would require a state commission to study the financial ramifications of secession.

If that study by the Local Agency Formation Commission shows that secession would not impose a financial burden on either the Valley or the rest of the city, the issue could be put to a citywide vote in 2000.

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