By Fr. George Welzbacher
June 10, 2007
"Friendly" is not perhaps the word that comes at once to mind when one thinks of the coverage by the local press of the naming of John Nienstedt, Bishop of New Ulm, as the coadjutor archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Which is why I was pleased, as was, I am sure, many another Catholic, too, to come upon a sympathetic appraisal in the June fifth edition of the Star Tribune, right there, complete with dramatic photograph, smack in the middle of the front page. Reporter Pamela Miller provided her readers with a detailed account of a confirmation ceremony at which Bishop Nienstedt presided recently at Glencoe, Minnesota, and she quotes a number of parishioners and guests who attended the confirmation. What emerges from their words and from the comments of others cited by Ms. Miller from the Diocese of New Ulm and from our own archdiocese is the polar opposite of the caricature of Bishop Nienstedt promoted by a couple of maverick priests who have been basking in the spotlight of the media's attention. The assessment of their bishop offered by the parishioners at Glencoe is that of a dignified shepherd who is governed by a revelation that he knows full well he has no right to change, since not even Christ Himself, the Source of that revelation, was at liberty to change it: "The word which you have heard is not mine but is that of the Father who sent me." (John 14-24).
Let me share with you Ms. Miller's report, only slightly abridged, together with some of Bishop Nienstedt's own comments on important issues, comments that were included in a side bar to the Star Tribune story.
* * * * *'I do not come as a politician but as a priest...'
By Pamela Miller
It's the Roman Catholic confirmation season, and churches are packed with shiny teenagers and beaming parents.
At St. Pius X in Glencoe, part of the New Ulm Diocese, outgoing Bishop John Nienstedt presided at a recent confirmation, speaking directly to the young people as he blessed them, then patiently posing for photo after photo.
Controversy was nowhere to be found
That stands in stark contract to the buzz in the parking lots of Twin Cities churches and in the hodgepodge of like a relentless prairie wind.
Will Nienstedt's strict adherence to orthodox doctrine, strongly evidenced in his writings and actions, eclipse outgoing Archbishop Harry Flynn's culture of relative tolerance of diverse views? Will liberal parishes face crackdowns? Will he be, as one priest suggested, "a strong-arm corrector?"
Nienstedt himself expressed dismay at speculation that he'll overhaul the archdiocese. "I do not come as a politician but as a priest, as one who sees his life as being a bridge between God and his people," he said in an e-mail, the only way he agreed to be interviewed for this story.
A matter of emphasis
All Roman Catholic bishops are expected to support church doctrine. But the issues they emphasize lead observers to characterize them as conservative, moderate or liberal.
Flynn has been considered moderate by Catholic standards. For instance, although in 2005 he advised parishes to deny communion to worshipers wearing rainbow sashes, a symbol of support for gay rights, he did not punish a parish that defied him.
Nienstedt's record in New Ulm, where he will continue to preside until his replacement is named, has been unequivocally orthodox. Supporters and critics alike cite the following:
Changing course in New Ulm
Nienstedt, 60, a tall, athletic man with a rich voice who came to New Ulm from Detroit, was relaxed as he spoke to the teens at St. Pius, joking that he was confirmed "in the Middle Ages."
Mary Ann Thalmann, 61, of Plato, Minnesota, looked on approvingly. Nienstedt "took us back to the basics after Bishop Lucker, and given the way the world is going these days, that's a good thing," she said.
Kathy Sonnek, a member of St. Mary's in New Ulm, said his approach "is not conservative so much as it is authentic. For instance, while his predecessor said, 'There are not enough priests, so let's ordain women,' he said, 'No, Let's pray, fast and talk to young men about becoming priests," she said. That is truer to what the church really is."
The Rev. Phil Schotzko, who succeeded Behan in St. Peter, said Twin Cities Catholics will find Nienstedt "a strong leader and a good organizer. There may be some conversations about things he'd like to see changed. You will know what to expect with him. There will be no curveballs."
A flurry of speculation
In the Twin Cities, reaction has ranged from delight to dismay, with many taking a wait-and-see attitude.
The Rev. John Ubel of St. Agnes, a traditional congregation in St. Paul, is distressed by criticism of Nienstedt. "It is contrary to the demands of Christian charity and justice to judge someone's intentions or motives before that person even begins his ministry in the archdiocese," he said.
Nienstedt's most vocal critic has been the Rev. Michael Tegeder of St. Edward's in Bloomington.
"Ray Lucker was a wonderful man, and for Nienstedt to come in and denounce his writings was horrible," he said, "And for him to come into our state and right away [ after five years' residence?] spearhead a campaign to change our constitution without any opportunity for discussion-why did he have to be a strong-arm corrector right from the start?"...
The Rev. Patrick Kennedy of Pax Christi in Eden Prairie said some believe Nienstedt "has pastored his diocese in a way that indicates some ridigity."
"I'm not so bothered by the fact that someone is liberal or conservative, but rigidity on either spectrum would not be a good sign," he said, "I hope he will consult broadly before making decisions that affect the entire church."
At St. Stephen's, which deacon Bob Wagner called "a last-chance gas station of faith for Catholics leaving or reentering the Church," worshipers expect Nienstedt to curb heavy lay participation in liturgical roles.
"Mostly, though, we wonder how ardently he'll be involved in social justice." Wagner said.
"We certainly hope he'll be as engaged as Flynn" in immigration reform and similar issues.
Change and perception.
Back in 1994, Flynn's appointment to replace Archbishop John Roach set off a similar frenzy of speculation, Kennedy said. He urged Catholics to give Nienstedt "time to get his arms around his new role."
For his part, Nienstedt said this won't be the first time people have assumed he'll be an agent of change. He told the story of how a woman at a Michigan parish-where he had deliberately refrained from making any changes-thanked him for changing things.
"I realized the sheer difference of my personality from the previous pastor had been interpreted as introducing 'changes," he said. "Since I did not look like the previous pastor, walk like him, preach like him ... all this seemed different to the people and was looked upon ... as so many 'changes."'
* * * * *In His Own Words
Defending Marriage and the Family in the Light of Same-Sex Unions
"The teaching of the Catholic Church is quite clear that marriage is thefaithful, exclusive and lifelong union of one man and one woman joined through the mutual gift of each other in a 'two-in-one flesh' union that allows for sharing the gift of life in their children. It is equally clear that homosexual acts cannot achieve the two-in-one flesh union that either allows for the procreation of children or the true meaning of self-gift expressed through the complementarity of the body."
Mass of Thanksgiving for Pope Benedict XVI
"It seems to me that one of the greatest challenges for the present Holy Father is the conversion of the rather large number of our Catholic Population who are straddling the fence between belief and nonbelief ... If we are to be Catholic in a way that is worthy of the name we need to accept all that the Church teaches. Doing otherwise is to reject the share of Christ's Cross that is being offered to us."