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 contrast to the buzz in the parking lots of Twin Cities churches and in the hodgepodge of blogs driven by Catholics. Many believe that when Nienstedt takes the reins of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis next year, change will sweep in 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:
• After succeeding Bishop Ray Lucker, who died in 2001, Nienstedt denounced Lucker's call for dialogue on opening the priesthood to women.
• He rebuked the Rev. Harry Behan, a priest in St. Peter, Minn., for sharing communion with Lutherans on several Easters after a 1998 tornado destroyed the town's Catholic church.
• He led last year's drive to have Catholics pepper legislators with postcards supporting a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
• He has written that homosexuality stems from childhood events rather than biology.
• He has decried "the contraceptive mentality" and urged Catholics to have more children if they want to help Catholic schools and provide more priests.
Changing course in New Ulm
Nienstedt, 60, a tall, athletic man with a rich speaking and singing 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, Minn., looked on approvingly. Nienstedt "took us back to 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 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. David Smith, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, said he has heard many expressions of concern at the college. The postcard campaign is one sore point, he said. Another is Nienstedt's beliefs about the origins of homosexuality, "which have no scientific support," he said.
The Rev. Patrick Kennedy of Pax Christi in Eden Prairie said some believe Nienstedt "has pastored his diocese in a way that indicates some rigidity.
"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.' " StarTribune, courtesy of Chrism Cathy at Recovering Dissident Catholic tip. Read her analysis of the article here.
Full text of Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt's answers to questions from Star Tribune reporter Pamela Miller
Q Do you view yourself as more conservative than Archbishop Flynn?
A I find it curious that persons both inside and outside the church, who maintain a strict separation of church and state, nevertheless find it necessary to define persons and activities within the church in political terms. Like St. Paul, I come to the archdiocese to "speak of nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:2.) The fathers of the Second Vatican Council tell us that the apostles left bishops as their successors and gave them their own position of teaching authority so that the apostolic preaching would be preserved continuously until the end of time. (Dei Verbum, no. 7 and 8.) Therefore, in accepting this incredibly challenging assignment from our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, my only agenda is to preach the Gospel and to witness to the joy, the love and the reconciliation that we find in Jesus Christ.
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. I do not come as a CEO, but as a pastor, as one who intends to teach the truth, to celebrate the sacraments, and to shepherd the people of God in the ways of Jesus Christ so that they might one day inherit eternal life. When I was named a bishop by Pope John Paul II in June 1996, I was asked to choose a motto that would characterize my Episcopal service. It did not take long for me to settle on "Ut Omnes Unum Sint" ("that they may all be one"). (John 17:21.) My hope in selecting this passage from Jesus' Last Supper discourse was that I might be an instrument of bringing about unity in our Catholic Church, unity among all Christian churches, and unity in our global society.
I also specified at my press conference on April 24, 2007, that I have the highest regard and personal esteem for Archbishop Harry Flynn. He has been a faithful successor to the apostles, a solid church leader locally as well as nationally, and one of the most gracious and charitable men that I have ever met. I hope to emulate these virtues that I find in him as I begin my work as his coadjutor next month and over the next year as well as in all the years to come.
Q Do you expect to be outspoken in defense of church doctrine when controversies arise?
A One of the things that I admire about Archbishop Flynn is the strong stands that he has taken in the midst of controversy, such as:
• His advocacy for the poor and the homeless in these Twin Cities.
• His strong support for immigration reform in order to allow the stranger in our midst to feel our nation's welcome.
• His prohibition of the illicit use of general absolution in celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
• His refusal to allow protesters to use the Holy Eucharist to propagate their dissent from church teaching.
• His determined leadership to establish in civil law the definition of marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman.
• And his having to discipline a religious congregation, who, while well-intentioned, nevertheless threatened the unity of the archdiocese with their activities.
In each of the circumstances surrounding these issues, the archbishop has been stalwart in his defense of church doctrine. I hope to follow his lead and to imitate the courage that he has shown.
Q Do you think that your tenure will feel and look different to archdiocesan Catholics than Archbishop Flynn's has?
A I wish to answer this question by telling you a little story of an event that happened during my first pastorate at the Church of St. Patrick in Union Lake, Mich. When I became a pastor for the first time, my mentor, John Cardinal Dearden, told me to wait six months before I made any changes in the parish administration. He then added that, at the end of the six-month period, I should take another six months before I implemented any of the changes that I wanted to make.
I thought this was good advice. Therefore, when I arrived at the parish, to the extent that I was able, I resisted introducing any new procedures or policies. I consciously took a "wait and see" posture.
About three months after my arrival, a woman came into the sacristy to tell me that her family was being relocated because of her husband's job and that they were moving the next week. She then added, "Thank you, Father John, for all the wonderful changes you have brought to our parish." I was startled and asked her, "Please, tell me, what changes have I made?"
I then realized the sheer difference of my personality from the previous pastor had been interpreted as introducing "changes." Since I did not look like the previous pastor, walk like him, preach like him, or respond in the same exact way that he would have, all this seemed different to the people and was looked upon by them as so many "changes."
I tell this little story on myself because it says something about most of the transitions that we have to make in a lifetime. When I came to the Diocese of New Ulm, many priests, religious and lay people wondered what I would be like, much like they wondered two years ago how Pope Benedict XVI would compare with the late, beloved Pope John Paul II. I assured the faithful of my diocese that I would work hard on their behalf. I believe I have kept that promise and that we have grown to appreciate, no really to love, one another.
This past year, we held our first ever Diocesan Ministries Appeal. The target was set at $600,000, but the total collection finished at $1.5 million. ($900,000 went back to the parishes.) I believe this is the kind of success one can have by working in a respectful and collaborative way.
I presume that whenever a new person enters a community of faith, there will be a period of "getting to know you, getting to know all about you." I think this is only natural. In charity, Catholics generally suspend their judgment in faith, demonstrating a willingness to work with whomever is appointed in order to strengthen our bonds of church unity and to build up the kingdom of God. It is my hope that I can build upon the solid foundation of faith, hope and love that Archbishop Flynn has so diligently and effectively established in this great archdiocese as well as to continue the good works that are a part of the legacy of this vibrant local church.
Like Archbishop Flynn, I, too, wish to be remembered as a good shepherd after the image and example of our great good shepherd who is Christ the Lord. StarTribune
Archbishop Nienstedt in His Own Words
As bishop in the Diocese of New Ulm, John Nienstedt often defended church doctrine in writings posted at www.dnu.org/bishop. Here are some excerpts:
"Vocations: Our Number One Priority"
"The answer to [the acute shortage of priests] does not lie in women or married men being ordained. Even though that controversy continues in some corners, it is not an option for our consideration."
"The Catholic Church's Policy on Sharing Communion Between Catholics and Non-Catholics"
"The Diocese of New Ulm follows the theologically grounded practice of the Roman Catholic Church that prohibits the sharing of 'Holy Communion' between Catholics and non-Catholics in the context of our celebration of the Holy Eucharist in the Mass as well as prohibiting the participation of Catholics in communion services of other Christian denominations, whether they be Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist or other evangelical Protestant churches."
MORE ON A7
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 the faithful, exclusive and lifelong union of one man and one woman joined through the mutual gift of each other in a 'two-for-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 complimentarity 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."
On the movie "Brokeback Mountain": "The story is about two lonely cowboys herding sheep on a mountain range. One night after a drinking binge, one makes a pass at the other and within seconds the latter mounts the former in an act of wanton anal sex. This sets off a lustful passion in both men that 'grabs hold of them' and which they find impossible to control. Rather than a sad symphony to a beautiful love that our homophobic society will not allow to show itself, this is a human tragedy. ... This is a story of lust gone bad."
On a Bloomington conference of Catholics about gays in the church: "[Attendants] have compromised their Catholic identity in rejecting the Church's constant teaching. Complicating this scene is the scheduled appearance of priests, religious sisters and even three retired bishops. ... Their very presence at this gathering is a source of grave scandal. ...
"Many behavioral scientists tell us that our unique sexual identity does not begin to be formed until 18 months and continues until 3 years of age (see www.cathmed.org). During that time, the child reacts to his or her environment and relationships. It is thought that the homosexual inclination is the result of some psychological trauma that occurs in those relationships." StarTribune