Catholic ritual, pageantry and prayer ushered in a new era for the Diocese of Stockton on Thursday as Central Valley native Myron Cotta was installed as its new bishop during a ceremony in Modesto.
More than 1,200 people filled St. Stanislaus Catholic Church to watch Cotta, who turns 65 on Wednesday, become the sixth bishop of the six-county Roman Catholic diocese.
Church leaders and dignitaries from throughout California and beyond attended the invitation-only installation and Mass, which included a presentation by the Most Reverend Christophe Pierre, Pope Francis' representative in the United States; Most Reverend Salvatore Cordileone, metropolitan archbishop of San Francisco; and Cardinal Roger Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles. Mahony was bishop of the Stockton Diocese from 1980 to 1985.
"We are very confident you will be a good father," Pierre said to Cotta as he began the rite of installation.
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Cotta — who has served as Vicar General in the Diocese of Fresno and most recently as Auxiliary Bishop in the Diocese of Sacramento — takes over from retiring Bishop Stephen Blaire, who has led the region's Catholics since 1999.
Blaire, 76, has suffered various infections since breaking his leg in October and recently had to undergo amputation, according to diocese Communications Director Joseph Dondero. "He is in great spirits and health now as he recovers from his latest surgery. He will soon be fitted for a prosthetic leg and hopes to be walking and driving by early summer. "
Blaire received a standing ovation from the crowd after being thanked for his long leadership by Pierre, who kept the audience entertained with often humorous remarks. Pierre then read the "Apostolic Mandate," a letter from Pope Francis appointing Cotta as bishop, who also saw the crowd rise to their feet and applaud his installation.
A full Mass officiated by Cotta followed the installation rites. During his homily, the Dos Palos native who was raised on a dairy there spoke of his grandparents and their journey from the Azores to the United States, where they settled in the small Merced County town. It was through them and the rest of his family that he developed his deep faith, he said.
"Their (his grandparents) faith was integrated in all that they did — it was what we call a lived faith," he said. "Along with the gift of faith, there is the gift of family and it was and continues to be a fundamental strength in my life."
He connected growing up in the agricultural region and its dependence on water to the spiritual need for the "living water" of Christ.
People in the Central Valley "are aware of the precious treasure of living water, the liquid gold that we have. That liquid gold that continues to have an essential impact on California," Cotta said. "Just as we need the physical element of water to nourish the fertile agricultural region ... more importantly, we as God's people need a supernatural life-giving living water that is Christ Jesus."
Many of the family members he grew up with in Merced County were in attendance Thursday, he noted, along with the invited guests filling the pews.
Among those were Marco Martinez and his uncle, Jaime Martinez — both parishioners at Modesto's St. Joseph's Church and members of the Knights of Columbus — who said they had the honor of picking up Pierre from the airport and providing his transportation during his stay in Modesto. Both felt grateful to be at Thursday's service.
"It's an honor, it's a privilege," Jaime Martinez said of Cotta's installation. "You don't get to see this often, it's special."
Irma Navarro, a member of Patterson's Sacred Heart parish, agreed. "It's very emotional, a once-in-a-lifetime event for me."
While installations traditionally have been held at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Stockton, Modesto's 26,250-square-foot St. Stanislaus was chosen for Cotta's rites mainly because of its capacity, according to Dondero.
A reception followed the services at the Mark Gallo Health and Fitness Center at the adjacent Central Catholic High School.
The Diocese of Stockton was formed in 1962 from parts of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and the Diocese of Sacramento. It serves more than 300,000 Catholics in churches throughout Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Calaveras, Tuolumne, Mono and Alpine counties. Cotta assured those in attendance that he was prepared to lead them all.
"As your bishop, I am ready for the journey with you as we embrace the present and move forward into the future as the church in the diocese of Stockton."