He's a son who calls his widowed mother every day and an uncle who rouses his nephews and nieces at 5 a.m. to go kayaking. He's a pastor who listens to people's problems with the focused attention of a trained therapist. He laughs easily when high school girls call him "Father What-a-Waste" and weeps just as freely when abuse victims reveal the pain his church has caused them.
In short, Wester doesn't seem like a guy who relishes power and prominence.
With his installation Wednesday as Utah's ninth Catholic bishop, though, he will instantly become Utah's most visible religious leader outside the LDS Church.
Nearly 50 Catholic bishops and cardinals from across the country will cram into Salt Lake City's Cathedral of the Madeleine, as will the pope's representative from Washington, D.C. They will be joined by all three members of the LDS First Presidency, the mayor, the governor, leaders of Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and other faith traditions and civic groups, plus 1,500 invited guests. Scores of his devoted friends and family are flying in from San Francisco, where Wester has lived for 56 years.
Perhaps it is a godsend that he is color-blind. Viewing the pageantry that way might mute the effect of purple-robed bishops, throngs of well-wishers, multicolored banners and light streaming through the Spanish-style cathedral's gorgeous stained-glass windows - all focused on him.
Whatever the day or the role holds, those who have known Wester longest say it won't change the man. He'll still be just John.
An early start
Wester grew up in the close-knit Catholicism of the 1950s. His parents, Charles (who died in 1999) and Helen, brother Barry and sisters Nancy and Kathy were devout but not overly pious. They went to Mass regularly, sang in choirs and were deeply involved at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Daly City, Calif.
"Religion was always a positive and healthy thing in our house," Wester says. His parents and especially his grandmother had "a good pastoral instinct about how to apply rules in a humane and balanced way."
Wester remembers being moved by the film "Miracle of Marcelino," which tells how an orphan boy raised by Franciscan monks discovers Christ.
"It was my first conscious memory of perceiving that God communicates with us in a real way," he says.
In sixth grade, Wester had a "premonition" that he would become a priest. "The priests I had growing up were good men," he says. "I was impressed by them and all they did for people. It looked like a life I wanted to lead."
At just 13, Wester left home for St. Joseph's Seminary in Menlo Park to begin a 12-year program to become a priest - four years of high school and two years of college, followed by six years at nearby St. Patrick's Seminary. Eventually, he also would earn two graduate degrees, in counseling and spirituality.
St. Joseph's rules were pretty rough for a young adolescent. Wester and his peers went to school six days a week and Mass seven days a week. The campus was completely self-contained, with a barber shop, sundry store and athletic fields, like a "little city of God."
Students could leave only a few times a year, and he missed the rough-and-tumble play of his family.
"I'm not sure I would want to go through it again," Wester says, "but I wouldn't want to take it back, either. It was a unique experience, unrepeatable . . . like living in a monastery."
While at the seminary, Wester worked as a cemetery landscaper, dug graves, drove a taxi and occasionally wondered if he should become a doctor or leave to get married. But he never seriously considered such options.
"As you get older in seminary, you do more pastoral activities. I enjoyed that and got confirmation that that was what God was calling me to do," he says. "One clear way of knowing if you're doing the right thing is if it makes you happy. I can honestly say each day of my priesthood is happier than the last."
Back into the world
Wester's training culminated on May 15, 1976, with his ordination to the priesthood at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco. It was an emotion-filled moment, one he had worked for much of his life.
"I was walking on air for a long time," he remembers.
Wester threw himself into his work as associate pastor at St. Raphael Parish in San Rafael, taking Communion to shut-ins (sometimes staying afterward to tidy up their houses); celebrating Mass; going to schools; officiating at baptisms, marriages and funerals. He relished it all, but one of his favorites was hospital ministry.
Terminal patients, especially, tend to be extremely honest, he says. "They bring us into their lives because they want [us] to be there as they say good-bye. It's a sacred, holy moment and a sacred trust."
Within a couple of years, Wester was plucked from the parish to teach religion and music appreciation at Marin Catholic High School. Without training or experience, the first year was rough. He had to learn quickly how to engage restless freshmen.
It didn't take long, though, before Wester became a student and faculty favorite. He entertained the kids by playing the piano and tinkering with electronics. At the same time, it was fun for him to observe the pace and social perils of a normal high school - football, dances, cheerleaders, cliques - things he never knew at the all-male seminary.
Wester worked as an educator until 1988, when then-Archbishop John Quinn tapped him to be his administrative assistant. Later, he would do the same for his successor, William Levada.
His superiors would call on the same skills again and again, says Annabelle Groh, Wester's own assistant. "There was such a variety of areas he had in hand, yet he still managed to do it all with patience, diligence and attention to detail. It was a pleasure to work for him."
On June 30, 1998, 10 years after assisting Quinn, Wester became an auxiliary bishop. The 45-year-old cleric stood before a packed cathedral, looked out and said into the microphone, "Wow."
Since then, the church has kept piling on responsibilities, and Wester has taken them in stride.
He has served the needs of hundreds of San Francisco priests, including those foreign-born, maladjusted or abusive; visited death row inmates at San Quentin; met with Buddhists in a joint project on prayer; protested the death penalty; and assessed the needs of refugees.
"He doesn't know how to say 'no,' '' says Sister Glen Ann McPhee, superintendent of Catholic schools in Oakland.
When Levada was named a cardinal and summoned to live in Rome, Wester became the archdiocese's interim administrator for a year until George H. Niederauer was installed as the new archbishop last year.
At Wester's own farewell Mass on Feb. 20, he again looked out on a crowd of friends. He spoke from notes, no scripted wordplay, no sense of self-importance. He told about Marty the barber who has been cutting his hair since the year he was born, the inmates who called him "Big John," the nuns who worked in the schools and soup kitchens, the priests who have mentored him and the staff at the diocese.
"You have corrected, comforted, challenged and loved me," he said. "The pastor I will be [in Utah] is the person and bishop you have helped me become here."
David Pettingill has heard Wester express that same self-effacing sentiment for 30 years.
"He is the same man I first met at Marin Catholic High School when he was a new priest," says Pettingill, the school's former principal. "He's the same man doing liturgy or sharing a cocktail."
* PEGGY FLETCHER STACK can be contacted at email@example.com or 801-257-8725.