Bishop John T. Steinbock sat near a crucifix and regularly looked at the image of Christ on the cross as he thought deeply and responded to my series of questions. A thin man of medium height, he has dark, thinning hair and dark brown eyes. In his forties, he wore a short-sleeved black shirt and a white Roman collar. His manner is humble, his countenance peaceful. He speaks softly and simply, calling himself “just a parish priest.”
My assistant, Kali Devi, a former magazine writer, interviewed Bishop Steinbock at his office in Orange, California. Most of this chapter is based on his recorded answers and Kali Devi’s remarks.
Bishop Steinbock has spent his whole ministry among the poor. He studied for the priesthood very early in his life. He began his service in East Los Angeles and then served on skid row in downtown Los Angeles for eleven years. His apostleship was mainly with the men and women of the streets, families living in the U.S. without immigration documents, and people with broken lives. At the time of this interview he was the Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Orange in Orange County, California.
The interview originally began in the offices of Archbishop Tomas Clavel who sent us to speak with Bishop Steinbock. Archbishop Clavel preferred we discuss these questions with someone who had a better command of the English language than he did. However, Archbishop Clavel was very eloquent in his own way and I include several of his comments at the end of this chapter.
KD: What is Christianity?
“I’d say the first thing that distinguishes Christianity from other major religions is that most other religions, I think, are searching for God,” he said. “Christianity, we believe, is God reaching down and revealing himself to man. This is an essential difference between, say, Christianity and other major religions. We believe that God has revealed himself, both through the Old Testament, the prophets of old, and finally through the Lord Jesus, his own divine son. We believe that Christianity is God becoming man and showing us the way to eternal life. He shows us the way to truth, peace, and love in this world — through the example of his own life and his call to follow him. I believe that’s basically what Christianity is.”
KD: Do you believe that people can experience this descent of God to man in a very personal way?
“Yes,” the Bishop affirmed. “I believe you certainly can experience this in a very personal way because the basis of Christianity is a relationship, a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus whom we believe is our personal Lord and saviour, who reveals Himself to us not simply through the Word of God in a holy scripture (especially the New Testament) but he reveals himself in the happenings and events of our every day lives — and through the people around us. We come to a very deep realization and consciousness that through his Holy Spirit Jesus’ very presence will be received into our hearts and lives.”
KD: What, then, is the goal of Christianity?
“I believe the goal of Christianity is what the goal of God is for man — to have union of man with God and union of man with one another. When we call God our heavenly father, we have this call that we live as brothers and sisters, one with another, in true love, unity, and peace. And then, the final goal is — as we follow the Lord Jesus in this life and try to live in love, unity and peace with our brothers and sisters — that we come to eternal life.”
KD: And, how does one have union with God? Fascinatingly, yoga is often defined as union with God and man, also. So, please tell me, how do you have union?
Bishop Steinbock replied, “Through faith in God and faith that he has revealed himself. In confidence that his spirit is with us in our lives, we have union. Then, through taking all those means that God gives us to realize his presence with us. Times of prayer are so important, for example. In prayer we try to be led by the spirit of the Lord; and being alone with the Lord enables us to see him present in those around us.”
KD: How do you know if you’ve had union with God?
“Through faith. A person may or may not have an emotional experience of that union, which we believe would be, certainly, the grace of God. People can have times in their lives when they feel the closeness of God but other times they just live through the everyday routine part of life. Faith means this union is with us just as much during the routine times as when we personally feel his presence. That’s what faith is all about.”
KD: And what is Roman Catholicism?
“Roman Catholicism,” he repeated. “Well, we believe that the Lord Jesus in this world sent forth his apostles to continue to teach and preach in his name. He founded a Church, and we believe that Roman Catholicism is the Church that’s been brought down to us through the centuries, to this very day. We believe that the Lord Jesus continues to teach and preach, alive in our midst, especially through the visible sign of the church and the visible signs within the church which we believe Jesus gave us himself — particularly the sacraments which we have in Roman Catholicism. Not only the visible structure which we believe has developed from the apostles, but also the sacraments, enable us to keep faithful to the teaching of the Lord.”
KD: And what are those sacraments?
“The sacraments are visible signs that the Lord Jesus has given to us to enable us to realize his loving presence within us. For example, Baptism: a person receives baptism through water, a visible sign, to realize the eternal life and the new life that we receive through the Lord Jesus. Communion: under the signs of bread and wine, we believe we are nourished truly with the very presence of the Lord Jesus coming to us. And so we have within the church seven sacraments that have always been within the church since the time of the apostles. The sacraments continue as visible signs of the invisible presence the Lord has with us through his spirit.”
KD: The sacraments help the people be more aware of their union with God?
“Definitely,” the Bishop replied. “That’s the whole idea of the sacraments — to help us realize his living presence with us, through visible signs. The seven sacraments are:
Bishop Steinbock continued, “The Seven Sacraments are:
KD: Is it necessary for a person to experience a number of these sacraments in order to have union with God?
“Within the Catholic faith,” Bishop Steinbock explained, “one is naturally going to be receiving some of these particular sacraments. It’s part of being a Catholic. But if we are talking about other people who are not Catholics, I think God reveals himself to everybody in this world. Everybody is able to realize the existence and the love of God through the created things around them. So people who are not Christians certainly are able to experience the presence of God in their lives in many other ways. The Holy Spirit works in this world not simply alone through the sacraments, but he reveals himself through everything created. He reveals himself to us through other people around us, in many different ways.
KD: How would God reveal himself, say, through somebody else?
Bishop Steinbock spoke tenderly, “I would say the main way I came to know God’s love is through people loving me. And the way I came to know of God’s forgiveness is through people forgiving me. And so, in turn, through my forgiving other people, I think those other people will know God’s forgiveness, too. We experience the Lord through people in our lives.”
“Is it your belief, then, that people of all the various faiths are touched by the Holy Spirit in some way?”
“The Second Vatican Council of the church was very strong in the spirit that God would reveal himself in many, many different ways in this world. God isn’t limited by the structure of the church which we believe he founded himself; but God doesn’t limit himself to the structure of the church,” the Bishop explained.
As I later wrote this chapter, I wondered why the whole world wasn’t dancing in joy about the great love expressed in Vatican II.
KD: Please go on, what are the specific goals of Catholicism?
“The goal of Catholicism is, first of all, evangelization — to bring the knowledge of Jesus to all peoples of the world. We also have the goal of the ongoing evangelization of those who themselves are Catholics; we have a continuing eternal conversion of the heart to bring us into union with God and follow God’s will in our life — and then we seek union with one another, living as brothers and sisters in the world.”
KD: You mentioned ‘conversion of the heart.’ Do you mean becoming a better person?
“Yes,” Bishop Steinbock agreed. “Becoming a better person, overcoming hardness of heart — hatred, envy, jealousy, selfishness. A Catholic struggles with this, seeks to have internal conversion. Also, Catholics wish to be able to live more in love, peace and forgiveness with their fellow man and woman.
KD: How does a person overcome these negative states?
“In Catholicism a person believes that Jesus is with him or her and is trying to be led by the will of God. He or she tries to come to know that will of God, especially through the scriptures, the holy Word of God — especially the Gospels in the New Testament — to know how Jesus acted, what Jesus said, how Jesus directs us as we try to follow him. In trying to follow the Lord Jesus and in trying to let his spirit enter into us, we are enabled to have a continuing conversion of the heart to overcome our problems and limitations in life. The power of God enables us to do this; not our own human power. This is a very important point. If we are left to our own human power, there is very little hope for mankind. It has to be the power of God that really changes people’s hearts.”
KD: And, how can you have more of the power of God in your life?
Bishop Steinbock gazed at the crucifix. “I think one comes to realize the power of God in one’s life the more one lives in the consciousness of God’s living presence. For us Catholics, one is only going to have the consciousness of God’s presence especially with him through the sacraments, through personal prayer, public prayer, and communal prayer — all the different kinds of prayer in our life. If we don’t have a time of prayer — aloneness with God — it’s going to be very difficult to realize God’s presence in a world that’s so hectic.” He smiled.
KD: And then, how does a Catholic become fulfilled?
“By following God’s will and loving God and his fellow man and woman.
KD: But how does a person know God’s will? This is the constant question of so many seekers on so many paths.
“Again, as I said before,” the Bishop smiled, “through the scriptures, through the teachings of the church, through their own conscience which God gives each man and woman — through conscience. Being led by conscience and by what we believe about how God has revealed himself through Christ and the scriptures ….”
KD: Would you say that God’s will for each person is some specific thing? That God wants each of us to do something very specifically, or do you mean something more general, like becoming a better person?
“I think it’s both,” the Bishop responded, “I mean, each person in his own circumstances is called to bring the knowledge of God and God’s love to those around him, or her. So it becomes very specific when you think, ‘Who’s around me? Around me are my family, my children, my wife, my husband, the people I work with.’ Thus, it becomes very specific that God wants people to manifest his love, goodness, kindness, and forgiveness, and to try to work for justice in this world amongst those who are deprived in so many ways — whether economically, politically, or socially.”
KD: Please, what is the process by which a person becomes fulfilled or gets to live in God’s will?
“The process is living in faith, faith in God: trying to be led by the Word of God — scripture — personal prayer and prayer within the church; also, hearing the Word of God proclaimed and spoken and explained, and trying to reflect on these things in your own personal life. You should consider how God is trying to lead you in your particular circumstances of life.”
KD: Are there different levels or stages that people go through as they get more of the power of God in their life? The lives of Catholic Christian saints — Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and others — indicate that Catholicism has much to share about spiritual stages and states.
“Old-time writers in spirituality brought out that there are three stages in spiritual life. We don’t hear much about them nowadays but they’re more or less still there in our people’s lives. First is the purgative stage. Then the virtuous stage. And the third stage is the contemplative stage.
“In other words, the idea is that the first stage of the spiritual life is purgative. At this level you are really trying to root out sin from your life — selfishness, greed, avarice, and all these things.
“Then, in coming into union with the Lord, struggling hard to pass through the purgative way, you enter into the second stage: virtue. Once you’ve rooted out a good amount of sin within you, you begin to live more in a realization of God’s presence. You live with the idea of virtue in your life. The first stage’s emphasis is overcoming evil. Then the second stage is one of living more with virtue in your life — whether it be kindness, patience, forgiveness, or other virtues.
“And then, if you continue and grow spiritually, you’re going to come to the contemplative stage where you realize even more the presence of the Lord Jesus and his overwhelming love. You live more consciously in the presence of God. This stage is one of greater joy as you become aware of the continuing presence of the Lord.”
KD: What are some signs that a person is in this contemplative stage?
“Ah,” Bishop Steinbock reflected, “through aloneness and quietness with the Lord, they really realize his presence. First of all, they’re going to have prayer every day of their life. It’s not something they do once a month or once a week, but prayer is in their daily life. They just have an openness to God. The spirit of the Lord is with them and that sense of God’s presence and pervasiveness in their life enters into everything they do or say. It enters into their total life. It’s a spirit that begins to bring joy into everything.”
He went on, “A characteristic, I think, of a Christian is that he’s meant to be a joyful person. We are redeemed by the Lord Jesus, our hope is in eternal life. We realize the love of God. Someone said that joy is the echo of God’s love within us, and joy is comprehensive of everything in one’s life. You know, all kinds of sadness — tragedy, hurt, pain — enter into everybody’s life. But these are not expansive things which can enter into the total being of the person. On the other hand, joy enters the total being of the person. When tragedy or times of sadness come, they’re not comprehensive or expansive but only fill a small area of life where suffering can be felt. These sorrows do not pervade the whole person’s being. Love and joy do.”
KD: And does everyone have an opportunity to go through all these stages?
“It’s first of all!” he raised his voice. “Growth in one’s spiritual life is first of all. But, everything in this world is a gift of God. Our very being is a gift of God, and everybody’s life is different. Some people’s lives aren’t even going to have the possibility of going through those three stages because there are many, many problems in this world. It depends on how a person is brought up and what that person has experienced. God’s grace goes to every man and woman but a lot of people’s lives are bound by their environment and many other things. It could be very difficult for many people to grow through those different stages; many people are cut off in their lives, through tragedies or in different ways. So, certainly, people are not necessarily going to go through all three levels. But growth in spiritual life is most important.
“We believe God’s love goes out to every man and woman wherever they are. God loves the sinner as well as the person that can pray and contemplate, too. That’s why we have the Lord Jesus. Jesus didn’t come because we’re good; he came because we needed him, because we are sinners. Jesus is God’s love known. We know that he came for us even when we were not worthy of his love.”
KD: What do you think of other religions? Do you feel that everyone in the other faiths has the same opportunities of, say, going through these three stages of spiritual life?
Bishop Steinbock smiled. “The very first thing I said was that I think the difference between Christianity and other religions is that other religions are searching for God while I think in Christianity God is searching for man. But I believe, certainly, that God’s spirit works in all religions, and even though man is searching for God in so many other religions, at the same time God is searching for man too. And God’s spirit is going to be working through all religions. There is only one God. Whether we worship him with different names, there’s only one God, the Lord and Creator of everything.
“So, what do I think of other religions?” He beamed, and spoke slowly, “I think other religions are beautiful, and wonderful. I think God’s spirit is working through them. At the same time, I believe very strongly that God reveals himself through the Lord Jesus who came into this world and wills all men to come to eternal life, or to the Father through the Son — even though a lot of people may not know the Son. So, a lot of people die in this world never even hearing of the Lord Jesus, perhaps. But at the same time, we believe that through the Son’s death and resurrection that those very people who never heard of him will come to eternal life if they’re trying to understand God and love God in their life — however their own religion may lead them.”
KD: Turning to another subject, what do you think are the main problems of the United States? And from your perspective, what solutions do you see?
“I think the main problem of the U.S.A., the number one problem, is God has been put aside. God having been put aside, some very basic things in life are forgotten — like the sacredness of marriage, the permanency of the marriage commitment, and love. Also, values like forgiveness and patience, which are so essential in a marriage that’s going to be a life commitment, are put aside. I think the breakdown of the family comes from this.
“With the breakdown of the family, which comes from a lack of faith in God, I think we’re seeing a lot of related problems in our society. There is the problem of drugs, drinking, and everything else. I mean, I experienced an awful lot of misery, pain and hurt in skid row, both in the lives of those who are drinking and those who are taking drugs. Because of my experiences on skid row, I saw an awful lot of the abuse of people by other people. People are not following God’s will so much as they are seeking their own self-interest and their own self-will. When you seek your own self-interest and will, you use and abuse people. You do not respect people.
“I think self-interest and self-will have infiltrated into our American society, and that’s the reason we have so much abuse of people, so much closing one’s eyes to the hurt and pain of so many people who are deprived economically and socially. Basically, it all goes with loss of faith in God, and this starts touching everything in society, naturally.
“From these problems stem an awful lot of prejudice and poverty in our country,” he continued. “I think our country is beautiful and wonderful and I’m one hundred percent for America. There’s not a better country in the world, but at the same time we can’t close our eyes to the evils and ills within our society. That would be living with blinders. I think we have to constantly emphasize that people respect other people and be open to the hurts and pains of others.”
KD: Do you think that faith in God will be the thing to help turn us around?
“Faith in God, with an openness to God’s will. Somebody can believe in God (some say that even the Devil believes in God) but I mean you have to want to follow God’s will, too,” the kindly Bishop answered.
KD: Lastly, how do you think world peace could be achieved?
Bishop Steinbock again studied the crucifix. “I think world peace is only going to be achieved, first of all, through internal conversion of people’s hearts. We’re not going to achieve world peace simply through political means. We’ve been trying to use political means to achieve peace since mankind has been here, and political peace is only as good as the people. People are prone to forget what they say and selfishness starts taking over. So, I think, first of all, that world peace is only going to come through God’s doing.
“Unless people have an internal conversion of the heart to God, we’re never going to build peace on politics. Politics is essential for working toward world peace but really, people have to try to have an openness to other people: respect, care, love and concern for others. Otherwise, world peace will only be words. Peace has to come from people working for justice and trying to bring justice into this world; people trying to be open to God’s love in their life. That’s the only thing that’s going to bring people together at once.”
RA: I’m grateful that Archbishop Clavel directed me to Bishop Steinbock who in all likelihood could inspire the whole world if given the chance. However, the Archbishop himself, despite his modesty about his English, is widely known as a great man of God.
Archbishop Tomas Clavel has a broad, unforgettable smile. His hair is dark with flashes of gray and rich brown eyes glint beneath bushy eyebrows. Clad in a black suit with Roman collar, a special copper ring given him by Pope Pius XII adorns his strong right hand. In his fifties, he is about five feet, seven inches tall and bears authority confidently.
Archbishop Clavel lives among the poor, in a simple house in Santa Ana, California. At the same time he is a world traveler and has been a close friend of Pope Pius XII, Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II.
Archbishop Clavel’s work is mainly among the three hundred thousand Spanish-speaking people in his diocese in Southern California. People come by his house night and day. They simply knock on his door. He strives to help those who are fleeing economic and political persecutions in Mexico and Central America to find food, shelter, clothing, and proper documentation from the authorities. Through the help of two Catholic hospitals, he also arranges medical services which are badly needed.
Last year the Archbishop and his staff were able to give four million pounds of food to the needy. The demand is increasing and so are Archbishop Clavel’s concerns and duties.
Archbishop Clavel is the former Archbishop of Panama and was President of the Bishops in Central America. He knows firsthand the problems of Central and South America. He also joined Pope John Paul II and traveled with him on the Holy Father’s visit to several Central American countries.
RA: What are some of the issues people in Central and South America face?
Archbishop Clavel said that people in Central and South America really don’t want communism. They want freedom, freedom. The poor don’t want to be communists.”
He went on, “I have been involved in many things, and in Panama we worked with the poor, too, but the communists are very strict in the discipline and in the work. When I was in my diocese I helped some boys who were revolutionary communists to go to Cuba. Later, they came back because they didn’t want to be communists. They had thought it would be an easy life in Cuba — that they wouldn’t have to work. They felt they would have money and be able to enjoy life. It’s not true. In Cuba there is a tremendous discipline and a lot of work. The Cubans work and work. I have a boy with me from Cuba. He said he was working for one hundred fifty Cuban pesos a month, and that the people in Cuba are working all day long but have only a little food with which to live.”
Archbishop Clavel feels that the United Nations should become more involved in Central and South America. For whenever democracies are established, the communists and leftists use the freedom within the democratic society to organize their guerilla bands and to press their aims through violence. It’s a very common story that in Central and South America, as well as worldwide, the leftists tend to de-stabilize any democracy. Archbishop Clavel feels that Americans who try to go forth and do something to assist democratic nations are regularly criticized and scandalized, even by American citizens, and that for this reason the assistance to democracies should be done through the United Nations; the United Nations should be given some power to help governments to maintain true democracies and respect for democracy.
RA: What, in your view, is the hope for overcoming the bloodshed and pain?
The only way to overcome the pain and bloodshed is to assist and protect the democracies.
RA: Is it true that most people in Latin America are Catholics?
In Latin America most people are thought to be practicing Catholics. The majority of religious people in Latin America are, after all, called Roman Catholics. However, Archbishop Clavel says that vast numbers of people who are considered Catholics are not practicing Catholics at all. They were baptized as infants but many millions of them are not truly practicing their religion.
Also, many non-Catholics express the opinion and conviction that there is a Roman Catholic conspiracy to take over the world through Catholic propagation. The fear is that Roman Catholics, who are so prohibited in their practice of birth control, will one day be the vast majority in any country they’re allowed to live in.
The Archbishop remarked, “We don’t say the number of children that a man or woman should have, but we say that you should only have the number of children that you can support and educate. And if you cannot support and educate your children, you should practice birth control and wait until you are able to look after them.
“We have no problem with the idea and practice of birth control. But we do have a problem with the method. We recommend the natural method and say people should not use artificial birth control. However, we understand it is necessary to control the population.
“But, the population is usually not the problem and birth control is not the only solution because sometimes people have plenty of money for other things but not for their family. The rich people are using the birth control, not the poor. The poor don’t want to use it.”
I turned to another subject, “As you look at the world, do you see any emerging hope for people who love freedom to have a better world — a world where people are eating every day and have a place to sleep? Do you see emerging possibilities? Is life getting better or worse?”
“I think that while I am not a pessimist — I don’t want to be a pessimist — I don’t see any solution,” the Archbishop answered. “Only God could send us a solution. Only God, because I don’t see much from the people.”
RA: If you don’t see any immediate solution or any long-range solution,” I persisted, “have you a clear view of what the problem is? Why is it that we can’t find a solution? What is the main problem, as you see it?
“The problem is the corruption,” Archbishop Clavel replied. “It’s not really the ideas, the philosophies that communists are fighting for this and the democrats are fighting for that. There is the same problem in the capitalist countries as in the communist countries — materialism. Everything is resolved by money, by business. All the exploitation today is by business. Everything is business. And they are destroying the children, the youth, the women — abusing and taking the women as instruments of sex. So that is why the corruption here in the democratic countries and the corruption in the communist countries is the same — the materialism of life. So, the solution is to come back from materialism.”
“What’s the conclusion, then, Archbishop Clavel? What can people who seek to be of service to others and who are awakening their consciousness do?”
The Archbishop spoke with great force. “The conclusion should be that all religions, all the different religions, have to be united in one point. We should not fight about theology, about our differences. No, everybody should believe in what they really believe. But we have to be united in the way that’s necessary to bring people to God and to enable people to love one another — and understand one another. It’s so important for religious people to respect each other. We need to respect the best things in many religions.
“But we are fighting and dividing ourselves — like the Arabs and Jews who say they are fighting for religion, and the Irish who say they are fighting for religion. 2 And, in other countries there is the same problem.” He spoke sorrowfully.
“So,” he looked into my eyes and then, raising his gaze in a contemplative manner, went on, “we religious people around the world — all of us — must always think about what we should respect in one another. All of us, in all the religions! We have to be united together in one main way — to love God and to love one another,” he exclaimed.
“If we could join in love and respect, we could help humanity. We could help the world! Together,” the Archbishop concluded, “together.”
Yes, Chris and I nodded. It was the only way the world could be helped.
Unfortunately, Archbishop Clavel passed on shortly after our interview, but he left me with a very warm memory, for he had said to me of this book, “What a wonderful thing for the world!”
1 I’ve yet to meet Bishop Steinbock. Both of us were so busy we couldn’t arrange a meeting despite several tries. When he was later transferred to the Diocese of Santa Rosa, in Northern California, I went there in hope of seeing him; however, a death in Bishop Steinbock’s family required him to leave abruptly. I’m grateful that my assistant was able to ask the Bishop my questions, share her observations, and that Bishop Steinbock reviewed the draft of this chapter.
2 See also Reverend Pelletier’s comments on politicized religions in the section of Baptists.
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