GARDEN GROVE — Jaime Soto, for more than a decade an advocate for the Latino community, immigrants and the poor, was ordained Wednesday as auxiliary bishop for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, the first Latino in that position here and, at 44, the youngest bishop in the United States.
The two-hour service drew more than 1,500 parishioners and dignitaries, including Catholic and Latino leaders, to St. Columban Church in Garden Grove. The crowd spilled out of the sanctuary into the garden, which was decorated with streamers and pinatas, and filled with tables of taquitos, flautas and chimichangas.
Dressed in a white robe and stole, Soto, a native of Stanton, received his bishop's ring, staff and pectoral cross from the Most Rev. Tod Brown, bishop of the diocese.
"Of course, Bishop Soto will continue to serve the Latino community, but he will be a wonderful bishop for the whole church of Orange and all the people here," Brown said. "I'm ecstatic. It's a great day for all of us."
As Soto greeted colleagues in the crowded rectory before the service, he admitted being a little nervous, "but I'm relying on God's grace. I am aware of how fortunate I am to be in this diocese and how deep the faith is here, the willingness and eagerness to work together. I hope that enthusiasm continues."
Soto's promotion signals the growing emphasis by the Catholic Church on the burgeoning Latino community here and across the United States. Of Orange County's 1 million Catholics, about 480,000 are Latino, according to diocese officials.
Long beloved by the local Latino community, Soto also has the respect of local and national church leaders for his work as vicar for the Hispanic community in Orange County since 1989.
"Jaime is a bishop for the new millennium," said Ronaldo Cruz, executive director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
"The Latino population is growing immensely, and the church has to respond to it," he said. Soto "is a great collaborator with other cultural groups. He also knows what's going on in the community."
Though Latinos account for a significant segment of the Catholic community--as much as 40% nationwide--they have remained largely segregated in many areas, and discrimination still exists within the church hierarchy, according to a study released earlier this year by the national bishops group.
Nationwide, there is one priest for every 1,230 Catholics, according to the study, but only one Latino priest for every 9,925 Latino Catholics.
Among the 400 members of the bishops conference, Soto takes his place as one of 24 Latino bishops now serving. The nation's first Latino bishop, Patrick Flores, was ordained in 1970 in the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
"Orange County is very lucky to have Bishop Soto," said Father Virgilio Elizondo, founder of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio. "His influence will not be limited to California. . . . Latinos do want to see their own in leadership positions, which they have never seen."
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said he is delighted by Soto's ordination and hopes it signals more Latino leadership within the church in increasingly multicultural Southern California.
"I look forward to working with him on some of the issues that transcend county lines," said Mahony, who has known Soto for 15 years.
Soto has been active with the bishops conference and has been instrumental in organizing "Encuentro 2000," a multicultural Jubilee Year celebration set for July 6-9 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Hardly a reclusive cleric, Soto keeps his appointment book full. He has a study and bedroom at the rectory of St. Boniface Church in Anaheim but is rarely there because of his busy schedule. He is often invited to preach in Spanish to local parishioners and has long advocated carrying Catholicism to the community's young people. He also frequently visits the ill and the elderly.
"He's been a great ally on human relations issues dealing with diversity," said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Human Relations Commission in Orange County. "He has a very caring and thoughtful way of looking at life. He tries real hard to not judge people by their worst side but find and hold up the best in people."