Thursday, April 30, 2009

Archbishop Nienstedt reflects on the joys and the challenges of his first year as our "Good Shepherd."

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As shepherd of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop John Nienstedt keeps a demanding schedule. Fridays are supposed to be his day off, but when you are the leader of more than 650,000 Catholics, it doesn’t always work out that way.

On a recent Friday, for example, the archbishop met with members of the archdiocesan Comprehensive Personnel Board. Then there was a lunch appointment followed by an interview with a reporter. Later that day, he would attend a basketball tournament in Chaska between priests and seminarians.

Some Fridays, he heads to the Catholic Charities Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul to help serve meals and talk to the people who drop by.

Most days “there isn’t a whole lot of leisure time,” admits Archbishop Nien­stedt, who will mark one year as leader of the archdiocese on May 2. He spoke with The Catholic Spirit recently about his time in the archdiocese and his hopes for the future.


Keeping pace

After Archbishop Harry Flynn’s retirement last year and auxiliary Bishop Richard Pates’ appointment last April to the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, Archbishop Nienstedt has had to shoulder a demanding ministry load.

But he has kept pace with the parish and school visits he initiated when he was first appointed as coadjutor archbishop in April 2007. So far, Archbishop Nienstedt has been to 107 of the archdiocese’s 216 parishes, all 14 of its Catholic high schools and 56 of 97 Catholic elementary schools, as well as a host of other Catholic facilities and agencies.

He said the visits have been one of the joys of shepherding this archdiocese, along with celebrating confirmations — he has 37 of them this year, and during the Easter season he typically is confirming youth three or four times a week.

“For me, these are great family celebrations,” Archbishop Nienstedt said. “But more than that, since we ask most of our confirmation candidates and their sponsors to come to the cathedral [in St. Paul] and the basilica [in Minneapolis], they really are ecclesial celebrations as well. I think that’s a good thing because being confirmed should be more than being confirmed in the faith of this parish, this local community. It’s really being confirmed in the wider church.”

The chrism Mass, at which the oils that are used for the sacraments throughout the year are blessed, was also a great source of joy, Archbishop Nienstedt said.

“We had over 200 priests there. We had over 200 seminarians there. It was just very, very impressive,” Archbishop Nienstedt said about the March 31 Mass. “The presence of so many deacons, religious women, confirmation candidates and catechumens, as well as those candidates who were going to be fully received into the church at the Easter Vigil, it was all so overwhelming. I got goose bumps during the ceremony and especially afterward when I started calling these different groups to stand up.”

Challenges along the way

Archbishop Nienstedt said he also has had to confront some challenges along the way, especially those related to the transition of leaving the smaller Diocese of New Ulm to come to the much larger archdiocese.

“I would say one of the biggest accomplishments is just surviving the e-mails,” he said. “I used to get e-mails in New Ulm, but nothing to the extent I get here.”

The archbishop said he also had to overcome negative media publicity after his arrival. And then he had to cope with the death of both of his parents in the course of six weeks in late 2007 and early 2008.

“Change is always difficult for people when you introduce a new person into a situation,” Archbishop Nienstedt said. “And obviously, having been here for 13 years, Archbishop Flynn was a very successful pastor of this local church. And so I had some pretty big shoes to fill.”

But, Archbishop Nienstedt added, “I feel much more at home, and I think people are getting to know me better.”

One of the constant questions Archbishop Nienstedt said he received when he first arrived in the archdiocese was: “What is your agenda?” It was a question to which he took exception, he said, because “I don’t feel a bishop coming into a diocese should have his own agenda.”

A bishop’s agenda, he said, should be the church’s agenda — preaching the Word, celebrating the sacraments, caring for the poor.

But bishops do set priorities.

One of Archbishop Nienstedt’s priorities is the Strategic Task Force for Parish and School Planning, which will deliver recommendations to him in 12 to 18 months after gathering input from across the archdiocese. The archbishop wrote about the work of the task force in his March 26 column in The Catholic Spirit.

“We’ve had significant demographic changes,” he said. “We’ve had changes in our resources, particularly in our personnel resources. So we have to take a look at this.”

Having overseen the formation of a plan for parishes in the Diocese of New Ulm, however, Archbishop Nienstedt said he comes to the archdiocesan planning process not with fear and trepidation, but hope and expectation.

“I think it can be done, and it can be done well,” he said. “But obviously the biggest thing is it’s a collaborative process. My mantra in New Ulm was: Let’s build on our strengths and not duplicate our efforts.”

Another priority is the morale of the archdiocese’s priests and their ongoing education and formation, Archbishop Nienstedt said.

“I’m very pleased we had two study days for the clergy, both the priests and the deacons, which I think were very well attended and very well received,” he said.

“And so I hope to continue to do that.”

The archbishop said he is also very aware of the difficulties posed by the current economic crisis.

“Our parishes are finding that people aren’t able to give to the level they have given before,” he said. “Thanks be to God we seem to be doing OK with our Catholic Services Appeal.

“But there are so many challenging situations out there, particularly with our Catholic schools,” he added. “As you know, we’ve had to close three grade schools. That just breaks my heart. But those weren’t done easily or quickly. There’s lots of discussion, lots of trial and error in trying to find ways to remedy the situation. But given this overall economic downturn, it just seemed to be inevitable that those kinds of things would happen.”

Finding the balance

Despite his busy schedule, Archbishop Nienstedt said he takes time to exercise every morning, read (he is currently reading “The Joy of Knowing Christ” by Pope Benedict XVI) and stay in touch with family and friends.

He has found a little restaurant on a lake about 40 minutes from St. Paul, where he likes to visit and do some reading if he has a free afternoon.

And, he added, “I try to make sure I’ve been going to bed a little bit earlier. Instead of watching the 10 o’clock news, I force myself to turn it off and go to bed.

“I think I’ve learned to balance things pretty well. But I will very much appreciate the presence of a new auxiliary bishop whenever the Holy Father deems it proper for us to have one.”

Sources of hope

Archbishop Nienstedt said there are a number of things that give him hope as he ministers in the archdiocese and looks toward the future:

• “What gives me hope is the joy that I have in knowing Jesus Christ. What gives me hope in knowing him is the visits to the high schools. I like to do questions and answers, and I ask them to think about those questions a week ahead of time. They give them to me — they’re not identified at all — but it gives them a chance to ask me things that might be on their hearts or in their minds.”

• “I would say at the Easter Vigil, baptizing eight catechumens and bringing 22 candidates into the church. Confirming 30 of them brought a great sense of joy and gives me great hope because I can see right before my very eyes the faith of our Catholic Church being passed on to another generation.”

• “Having a full cathedral of dedicated marchers on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade — that gave me great hope. There was standing room only there when we came together for that prayer service [in January].”

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Anne Taylor, of St. Michael and St. Mary in Stillwater, greets Archbishop John Nienstedt March 1 during the Rite of Election at the Cathedral of St. Paul, as Patti Watkins, faith formation director, looks on. At right is Taylor’s sponsor, Eugenia Junker. - Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit
• “Being able to converse with a homeless person down at the [Catholic Charities] Dorothy Day Center. I like to go down on Fridays when I have an opportunity to help serve meals there. They begin to recognize you, and they come up and talk to you.”

• “To be able to share some of their grief [at the Dorothy Day Center]. One night I was there and a couple had just had their house burn down. They were lucky enough that somebody came in and got them out before the fire took off. But they said they lost everything. It’s so hard to believe. I mean I was robbed last June, but I didn’t lose everything. But I know the feeling of [desperation] that you have in a situation like that. Being able to give them a word of hope is a hopeful thing for me.”

• “Visiting the seminary every month. I go over on Sunday night and spend the night. Then I get up and do an hour of reflection with the seminarians at St. John Vianney and I celebrate Mass for them. Then I usually have breakfast with our guys from the archdiocese. I stay there and try to get some work done and at 10:30 I go over and visit with Msgr. [Aloysius] Callaghan [St. Paul Seminary rector] and then take the 11:30 Mass and stay for lunch. So it’s a whole morning, but I enjoy it, and they’ve been telling me they enjoy it as well.”

• “Visiting with our Missionaries of Charity. Such wonderful, dedicated women, and so joyful. Seeing them work among the poorest of the poor in Minneapolis really gives me great hope.”

• “And I would also say the work that we have been doing through the Center for Mission in our Venezuelan mission parish. I see such tremendous awareness [and] consciousness of the church in the mission territory and people wanting to volunteer to go down and see what that’s all about.” The Catholic Spirit
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