Bishop Tod Brown announced on March 23, 2000 that Monsignor Jaime Soto had been selected to become auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Orange CA. This newspaper article was printed four days earlier:

Personal mission

A man who saw himself as a simple parish priest has led the county's Spanish-speaking Catholic community through tumultuous times. Now he reaches out to other cultures.

March 19, 2000

STORY BY ROSALVA HERNANDEZ THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

For most of us, life is a tiny, daily tug-of-war between our minds and our hearts.

A spiritual conflict between what our souls crave and what our bodies need. A flesh-and-blood struggle between the kind of person we want to be - and the one that we are.

And then, there are people like Monsignor Jaime Soto.

A man of faith who long ago answered his own deepest questions. And a religious leader whose mission it is to help Orange County's more than half-million Latino Catholics do the same.

A different path

The year: 1986. The issue: immigration. The place: Orange County.

The federal Immigration and Control Act (IRCA) had just been signed into law. Amnesty was to be granted to undocumented immigrants able to prove longtime residency status before the doors of citizenship were closed to them for good.

But controversy over the policy was tearing the community apart. And many in the Latino community - the largest ethnic group affected by the federal ruling - turned to the church.

The church, in this case then-Bishop William Johnson, head of the Diocese of Orange, turned to his officiates - particularly a young, educated priest named Father Jaime Soto.

This was a different pastoral path from the one Soto had envisioned - that of a simple parish priest - but his sense of responsibility to the call was just as strong as the devotion that had called him to the church.

For the next three years he slept, ate and breathed immigration, representing the diocese in a countywide immigration roundtable and using the pulpit to cajole Latino immigrants to take advantage of the government opportunity.

He also tirelessly argued the benefits of amnesty to the community at large through the media. It was a trial by fire sometimes more heated than the issue itself.

"It's one thing to speak the Gospel from the pulpit on Sunday; it's another to speak at a press conference," Soto, now 44, says with a smile. "Nobody talks back to the pulpit."

But if Soto didn't always make converts, he did win fans. Among his early supporters was Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

"He has a real passion to see that immigrants are not mistreated," Kennedy says. "Instead of sequestering his faith into strict spirituality, he brings it out in social justice."

And Sister Carmen Sarati of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a longtime immigrant community activist, believes Soto's public stand on IRCA signaled a more socially committed diocese in Orange County.

"A lot of clerics do not see the connection between the issues that deny people their rights and the church's social teachings," she says. "He did."

But Soto also had his share of critics.

"I believe strongly in a separation of church and state," says Bill King, a former U.S. Border Patrol official and one of the main organizers behind 1994's anti-immigration measure, Prop. 187. "I respect (Soto) for what he does, but I think he's dead wrong as an American for not only protesting (Prop. 187) but encouraging illegal immigration into this country by his work."

That work may have been borne out of a personal ideology, but the tactics were honed in a world far from his own, Soto says.

Shortly after Soto's ordination in 1982, then-Bishop Johnson asked him to take on the associate director's post at Catholic Charities. Soto traveled to New York to attain the required social services degree at Columbia University. The move became a personal epiphany.

"I came to realize there was a world out there who didn't know God, or believe in his existence," Soto recalls. "I learned to talk to people who did not have the same religious lexicon I did, and who did not share my values."

At Columbia, Soto read voraciously from the works of modern thinkers, such as Peter Berger, author of "Sociology of Knowledge," and Brazil's Paulo Freire, who wrote, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." He explored the world of contemporary art and roamed the city's myriad cultural neighborhoods.

Slowly, moral tenet intertwined with real-world philosophy. But it took IRCA to fuse them into a personal mission. And that proved only a prelude to other controversial issues that continually forced Soto into the breach: Prop. 187, affirmative action, bilingual education and countless social issues.

Along the way, he was appointed vicar of the diocese's Hispanic Ministry - replacing the beloved Archbishop Tomas Clavel, who died in 1988 - and was bestowed the title of monsignor.

By the late 1990s, Soto - the would-be simple parish priest - had become a polished, pastoral diplomat.

ACTS OF FAITH

Sometimes a mother just knows things.

Like when Gloria and Oscar Soto moved to Stanton from Los Angeles in the 1950s, she knew the rural city dotted with strawberry fields was the perfect place to raise a family.

Like when the couple's seven children were born, Gloria knew that raising them in the deeply religious ways she and her husband were raised would give them comfort and support.

Like when the Sotos' two oldest sons, Jaime and Ricardo, announced their intention to enter the priesthood at age 12 and 11, respectively, she knew one of them would fulfill that destiny - and the other would not.

"With Ricardo, there was a sense of something ... a piece that was missing until I saw him married, with his two children and teaching his music," Gloria Soto, 69, says now, relaxing in the neat, ranch-style Stanton home she shares with Oscar. "But with Jaime, I had no such doubts."

But if mothers sometimes know things, fathers sometimes have to be convinced.

Oscar Soto, 76, is as quiet and soft-spoken as his wife is warm and outgoing. He is the kind of man who teaches by example and earns his wisdom by experience. And the main thing he learned raising seven children is that sometimes they change their minds.

Which is how the weekend drive tradition began. Every now and then, when Jaime and Ricardo were teen-agers, Oscar Soto would round up the two boys and drive them about the neighborhood for a talk. The subject was always the same: their decision to enter the former Queen of Angels minor seminary in San Fernando Valley.

"The only thing their mother and I were afraid of was that they'd do it for us, and we didn't want that," Oscar Soto says.

Perhaps the elder Sotos shouldn't have been surprised at their sons' choice.

During their youth, Oscar Soto was a eucharistic minister. Gloria was a lectorer, as would be Maria Elena, their only daughter, much later. All six sons were altar boys.

One of Jaime Soto's favorite memories as a child is a day when some relatives came for a visit. Arriving at the home while the Sotos were in the midst of reciting the rosary, they simply knelt on the driveway and prayed along. Another favorite memory is the many times his father invited the poor, migrant fieldworkers who attended the family's church, St. Polycarp, to the family home for a meal.

Faith, as taught in the Soto household, was something one acted upon, not just believed. Which didn't mean Gloria Soto wasn't worried when her sons entered the seminary at a young age.

So when Jaime suddenly decided to transfer to Mater Dei for his last years of high school, she breathed a sigh of relief. There, he reveled in the normalcy of high school, attending dances, joining clubs and dating.

But the switch would not prove permanent. Toward the end of his senior year, 18-year-old Soto took his girlfriend to the family's parish and gently broke the news: His life was about to take a different path.

He entered St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo the following year.

Ricardo Soto, who had continued with his studies, found himself struggling with that decision. He joined a more conservative order. But when the order tried to separate him from his other love - music - in a bid to teach him endurance and sacrifice, he discovered it only taught him that his place was not within the church.

Of course, his decision to leave the priesthood provoked a storm of questions within his older brother.

"In the seminary, people were leaving all the time," Jaime Soto says. "Whenever anyone left, there was always a reassessing. We always asked: Why am I still here? What did God tell him that he didn't tell me?"

Jaime Soto says he eventually received his answer, though it came more in the form of a whisper.

During his junior year at the seminary he was overcome by the certainty that God had directed his footsteps toward the priesthood. He found a great freedom in that, he says. "So that even when there was a doubt in my mind, there was certainty in my heart."

Recalling how her oldest son took her and her husband out to dinner the night before his ordination to reassure them of his decision, Gloria Soto's eyes grow misty.

"When our children were born, we took each one to church and spiritually offered them up to God," she says softly. "When Jaime was ordained, I said to God: 'I offered him to you and you took me at my word. He's yours now.' "

JOURNEY OF THE SOUL

Monsignor Jaime Soto stepped up to the altar inside the cavernous St. Boniface Catholic Church in Anaheim, his sure, practiced movements as he performed the rituals of the Sunday Mass proof of his nearly 20 years in the priesthood.

Though he had been assigned to St. Boniface only nine months earlier, his voice rang out confidently - proof, too, of a history of facing challenges.

Yet something in his manner, particularly after the service when he warmly greeted parishioners exiting the church, suggested his comfortable actions stemmed from more than mere experience. Clasping their outstretched hands within both his own, throwing his head back and laughing at a humorous remark, and bending down to gently touch a child's head were all evidence of one thing.

Soto is a man at home.

"As I grow older, being a priest, the importance of the ritual, sacramental life of the church has become more essential to me," Soto admits.

There are no regrets, he says on a recent afternoon, ensconced in his diocese office in the unincorporated hills of Orange. The past 18 years have been a journey of the soul, as well as the body.

"There have been many people who have been my teachers," says Soto, his neatly trimmed beard heavily shaded by gray and his light brown eyes framed by permanent lines of laughter and concern.

There is Father Will Davis of St. Boniface, whom Soto credits with teaching him patience and the ability to see the other's side. There is Pastor Alonso Caceres at Our Lady of Guadalupe, under whose tutelage Soto learned to speak the Spanish he never learned as a child. And there are the numerous priests at the diocese, with whom Soto has come to appreciate the brotherhood among priests.

But most of all, Soto says, he's learned from the people he has been assigned to guide and comfort.

It was that way at Our Lady of Guadalupe, where Soto served as priest-in-residence for 13 years. Already directed to aid the immigrant community, Soto found himself equally sustained by the heavily Mexican neighborhood's traditions and philosophies.

"When he first came here, he knew barely a bit of Spanish," Caceres says. "So he set out to learn and the parish set out to help him. He didn't have one teacher, he had hundreds."

Now, at his new parish, the roles are reversed. Soto often speaks to St. Boniface's youth and liturgy groups and helps them to organize.

"He makes you feel comfortable to approach him, even though he is a very important man," says parishioner Efren Torres, 27. "It feels good to have someone like him here and know that he is of our people."

And yet, up to now, Soto's diocese work has often taken him from working directly with the people. Even now, with an election year prompting a measure that echoes the controversial immigration policies of Prop. 187, Soto's greater responsibilities seem far from over.

"But the Latino community is in a very different place now - socially, economically, politically," he points out. "It has the will and strength to wage a larger, smarter battle."

And it's important to let people take ownership of their destiny, he adds.

DEDICATED TO COMMUNITY

New Bishop Tod Brown credits Soto with bringing the diocese closer to the county's growing and socially evolving Latino community by encouraging it to make its spiritual and social needs known to church officials.

"I think he's an excellent liaison between myself and the community," Brown says. "He's very steeped in the culture, he thinks very clearly and is attuned to the needs of the Latino community. ... He's a leader and a necessary social voice."

It's a voice being heard more and more outside the Latino community as Soto uses his experiences of the past two decades to bridge the gap with other cultures and societies. At St. Boniface, Soto's clerical duties often call upon him to deal with Vietnamese, Chinese, and Anglo parishioners in addition to its large Latin American membership. And he's finding the multicultural arena stimulating, if a tad daunting at times.

"There's a lot to learn," he notes with a grin. "But this is the challenge facing the church today. To reach out to a world of cultures and find a common ground where we can communicate. Discovering how to do that is a lesson most of us, myself included, have to learn one day at a time."

But Kay Lindahl, a co-sponsor of the county's annual Religious Diversity Fair, believes Soto is more teacher than student. She recalled how he spoke at one diversity fair a few years ago to stress the richness of culture and how it can enhance a person's faith. His open, engaging manner and ready grasp of the gritty issues that face new cultures and societies in Southern California won him many admirers and sparked some deeply felt conversations among his listeners, she said.

"My impression is that he is a lightning rod and things happen around him, and yet I see him reach out and engage the community," Lindahl said. "Not many people can do both and yet he does it well."

Community is in the forefront as Soto ponders his future.

In his office, his gaze wanders over the bits and pieces of his life. There are the books on administrative policies and social-service reforms. There are the reports on immigration, health care and the family. Littered here and there are crafts from his travels throughout Latin America, tomes from his favorite poets and gifts from grateful parishioners.

"A pastor," Soto says in a soft, thoughtful voice, "has the potential to build a community and shape not only the life of the parishioners, but also the neighborhood that surrounds the parish.

For everything else I do, that sense of helping to provide unity and community is the saving tether for me."

They are the words of a man who long ago learned to fuse his mind and his heart - and who along the way became the person he always wanted to be.