A profile of Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis
By Jeff Ziegler
The Archdiocese of Detroit suffered steep losses between 1966 and 1976: in just a decade, the archdiocese lost 179 diocesan priests, 160 religious-order priests, and 1,439 women religious, according to statistics published in the Annuario Pontificio. In 1976, representatives from every US diocese met in Detroit at the Call to Action conference. They passed resolutions calling for women’s ordination, expressing anguish over Humanae Vitae, and affirming the group Dignity in its dissent from Catholic teaching on homosexuality.
In this inauspicious climate, a Detroit-area native, born in 1947 and the second of six children, persevered in the seminary and served as a priest. Decades later, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis is lauded by some and vilified by others for his robust defense of Catholic teaching, particularly on marriage.
“I have always striven, since the time of my ordination, to be very loyal to the Church,” Archbishop Nienstedt told CWR. “I try to lead by example in teaching, preaching, and addressing pastoral concerns. I believe that I do think with the mind of the Church and my hope, as our episcopal leader, is that others will follow that lead.”
DETROIT AND ROME
In a 2004 column, Nienstedt recalled that in high school he “dated quite regularly,” and eventually “[fell] in love with a rather mature and beautiful young lady.” But the future prelate renounced his desire for marriage and family and entered the college seminary, receiving his bachelor’s degree from Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary in 1969. “The first two years of my college seminary experience were very disciplined in terms of a rule of life,” he recalls. “We had grand silence and were virtually under a rule of discipline seven days a week. During my junior and senior years in college, things began to loosen up. With those changes, there came difficulties with seminarians going out at night and some even dating while they were still in the seminary.”
The archbishop then attended major seminary at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. “When I got [there],” he says, “there was a rather loose structure in place. But we arrived with Bishop (and later Cardinal) James Hickey, who began to enforce a rule of life for all seminarians. I think that I was very fortunate that the seminary culture of my time was so supportive of my vocational discernment.”
Ordained to the priesthood in 1974, Father Nienstedt served as an associate pastor before going back to Rome to earn a licentiate in moral theology at the Alphonsian Academy. In 1977, he returned to Detroit to become secretary to Cardinal John Dearden, described as a “leading liberal voice in the Church” in his 1988 New York Times obituary.
“Cardinal Dearden was a very shy man, and I believe that he has been misjudged by those who did not appreciate the depth of his centrist views towards issues in the Church,” Archbishop Nienstedt says. “Having been his secretary, I can say he personally always thought ‘with the mind of the Church.’” In 1979, at the age of 32, Father Nienstedt was named vicar general of the 1.4-million member Archdiocese of Detroit.
The following year, as Cardinal Dearden retired, Father Nienstedt began five years of work at the Vatican, where he served as an official in the Secretariat of State while concurrently working as a hospital chaplain, a boys’ high school chaplain, and a First Communion instructor. While in Rome, he also earned a doctorate at the Alphonsian Academy, devoting his dissertation to the subjects of in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer.
Upon his return to Detroit, Father Nienstedt served as a pastor and moral theology instructor before Cardinal Edmund Szoka named him rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, a position he held from 1988 to 1994.
“One of the most challenging assignments that I ever had was being named as the rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary at a time when corrections were needed in its education and formation programs,” the archbishop says. “With the grace of God, such needed reforms did take place.”
“Nienstedt was always faithful to the Church because he was always striving for the truth,” recalls Dr. Mark Latkovic, who has taught at the seminary since 1990. “I remember three challenges that he had to face as rector: dealing with the refounding of the seminary…; overseeing the multi-million dollar renovation of the seminary; and fighting the occasional outside opposition to the seminary being an institution faithful to the Magisterium,” Latkovic said. “It took great dedication, steely determination, and a pastoral heart to meet all of them.”
“For the faculty at Sacred Heart, the archbishop chose people who supported and promoted Church teaching,” adds Father Daniel Trapp, who joined the faculty in 1989. “That support and promotion are taken for granted these days, but required more fortitude and direction when Sacred Heart was being refounded.”
“I remember that the rector gave clear directions about expectations for priest faculty: we were to eat with the students, be at the house liturgies, pray with the students,” Father Trapp says. “[Nienstedt] wanted us to form a strong community among ourselves and with the students. Seminarians look to see whether the seminary faculty members walk the talk. The archbishop was very regular in making his own holy hour in the Eucharistic chapel, after morning prayer.”
In 1994, Cardinal Adam Maida named Msgr. Nienstedt pastor of the famed National Shrine of the Little Flower Parish in Royal Oak. Two years later, Pope John Paul II appointed him auxiliary bishop of Detroit.
In 2001, Pope John Paul II named Bishop Nienstedt the shepherd of the Diocese of New Ulm. The west-central Minnesota diocese had been led for a quarter-century by Bishop Raymond Lucker, a member of Call to Action who had reacted to a 1997 Vatican document on women’s ordination with the comment, “How can we support that which has no reasons?” The following year, Bishop Lucker publicly called for the ordination of married men as a solution to his diocese’s acute priest shortage.
“I met Bishop Nienstedt at the airport and drove him to New Ulm when he first came to visit the diocese,” recounts Msgr. Francis Garvey, who supervised the diocese’s seminarians during Nienstedt’s tenure there. Calling Nienstedt “a very prayerful, sincere man with great pastoral skills,” Msgr. Garvey says that “in working under his leadership, one of the things that quickly became evident was that he was in charge, and being the insightful, hardworking person that he is, you knew you had to meet his expectations, but he was always professional and respectful. Some staff and priests did not accept this.”
“Archbishop Nienstedt is remembered with fondness,” adds Father Todd Petersen, the diocese’s vocation director. “He is a warm and compassionate man, a man of the Church, with a love of Christ. Unfortunately, he has his detractors. Without fail, though, they have an agenda, preconceived ideas, or a stance that is not exactly that of the Church.”
“He is a man who gets things done,” notes Msgr. Garvey, who credits Archbishop Nienstedt with launching the permanent diaconate and restarting Catholic Charities in the diocese. “From the day of his installation, he challenged all of us to join him in not eating meat on Fridays to promote vocations to the priesthood.… He instilled in all of us [an awareness of] the crisis we faced and a solution to the problem.”
“Archbishop Nienstedt took personal interest in the seminarians, calling them, sending them notes to encourage their continued discernment,” adds Father Petersen. “When any seminarian discontinued, he remained in contact. One returned and in fact was ordained in July.”
“My biggest and most profound memory of then-Bishop Nienstedt was the last confirmation at St. Boniface in Stewart [a town of fewer than 600 people],” says Alejandro Barraza, now coordinator of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Fresno. “The class consisted of a handful of young people. On the day of the confirmation, there had been a very bad snowstorm. We all thought he was not going to be able to come…but as bishop he felt that his sense of commitment was stronger than the weather, and he enlisted the help of his Lutheran neighbor to dig him out of the snow, and he made it to the confirmation on time. I was very impressed by his willingness to be present, even to a small group of young people.”
In his six years in New Ulm, Bishop Nienstedt addressed a wide range of topics in his diocesan newspaper columns, from the Decalogue and the sacred liturgy to poverty and immigration. Father Petersen tells CWR that Bishop Nienstedt
appropriately disciplined a priest who attempted concelebrating Mass with Protestant pastors, limited the use of general absolution by teaching about the personal encounter with Christ in the sacraments, and correctly taught about the bishop’s role in presiding at Liturgy of the Hours and Mass in retreats and pastoral leader gatherings. He was accused of contradicting his predecessor, Bishop Lucker. Those with a sense of the Church would realize that Bishop Nienstedt was teaching with the Church.
Archbishop Nienstedt, for his part, speaks charitably of his predecessor in New Ulm. “Bishop Lucker believed that some of the disciplines of the Church could change—for example, the ordination of celibate men only,” the archbishop said. “Yet, at the same time, he was very intent on making sure that the youth of the diocese were properly catechized. He also never allowed the tabernacle to be moved from the back wall behind the altar. He argued that our rural churches were Eucharistic chapels. There were many other helpful policies that this bishop put in place during his 25 years as ordinary. He told me, before he died, that he had always been a loyal son of the Church.”
ST. PAUL AND MINNEAPOLIS
Pope Benedict appointed Bishop Nienstedt as coadjutor archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2007. The following year, he succeeded Archbishop Harry Flynn.
Archbishop Nienstedt inherited an archdiocese with pockets of vocal dissent; in 2006, for example, 28 priests had blasted Archbishop Flynn for his support of a state marriage amendment. “I believe that the dissent and theological speculation of the 60s and 70s is on the wane,” Nienstedt says. “I have seen a coming together of priests, deacons, and seminarians to support the teaching Magisterium of the Church. I am optimistic for the future, knowing that the Church is always in a state of being reformed, being ever purified, being ever perfected. True, there continue to be dissenting voices within the Church, but I see a number of those literally dying out…I believe the new ‘springtime’ predicted by the great Pope John Paul II can be seen on the horizon.”
A harbinger of this springtime is the culture of vocations that has developed in the archdiocese over the past decade. The archdiocese, which boasts one of the highest ratios of seminarians to Catholics of any similarly large diocese in the country, has had at least 62 seminarians each of the past four years.
“My predecessor, Archbishop Flynn, was very intentional about getting to know the seminarians and their families and showing interest in them,” says Archbishop Nienstedt. “I have tried to do the same.… We encourage our pastors to be proactive in identifying young men whom they think may have a vocation. I have to admit that our younger priests are more intentional about this than some of our older priests.”
“Once a year,” he adds, “I have a retreat at our archdiocesan retreat house for those who have shown interest in pursuing discernment. This year, we had 22 young men make that retreat…I meet individually with each man.”
In the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, as in the Diocese of New Ulm, Nienstedt has addressed problems, provoking the opposition of media and dissenting Catholics:
• Archbishop Nienstedt’s support of Courage, an organization that helps those who struggle with same-sex attractions to live chastely, provoked the wrath of the local Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities. “[Retired Archbishop] Harry Flynn came to us…in the late 1990s and asked us to serve as resource people for the Church,” the committee’s executive coordinator Michael Bayly told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Now “the archdiocese won’t even take our phone calls.”
• Under the archbishop’s leadership, the archdiocese issued a new speaker policy for all Catholic institutions in the archdiocese. “The speaker’s writings and previous public presentations must also be in harmony with the teaching and discipline of the Church,” the policy states. “A priest who left the ministerial priesthood without dispensation would not be eligible for consideration. Those in irregular marriages or those living a lifestyle at variance with Church teaching would also not be eligible.”
• A month after becoming archbishop, Nienstedt ordered St. Joan of Arc Parish to stop hosting its annual “LGBT Pride Prayer Service.” The Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities denounced the decision as “yet another volley of dehumanizing spiritual violence directed at GLBT persons and their families under Archbishop Nienstedt’s reign of homophobic hatred.”
• When the University of Notre Dame announced it would award President Barack Obama an honorary degree, Archbishop Nienstedt wrote “to protest this egregious decision.… It is a travesty that the University of Notre Dame, considered by many to be a Catholic university, should give its public support to such an anti-Catholic politician.… Please do not expect me to support your university in the future.”
• In 2010, the archdiocese stated that a “synod” organized by the local Catholic Coalition for Church Reform was not legitimate, and emphasized the “need to shun any contrary doctrines, and instead to embrace and retain, to safeguard reverently and expound faithfully, the doctrine of faith and morals proposed definitively by the Magisterium of the Church.”
• Archbishop Nienstedt has denied Holy Communion to Rainbow Sash Alliance members and students from St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict who publicly manifested their dissent from Catholic teaching on homosexuality. “With regard to the dialogue you request, it would first be essential that you state clearly that you hold with the conviction all that the Church teaches on matters of human sexuality,” he wrote the head of Rainbow Sash Alliance USA. “If you do not believe, then there cannot be dialogue, but only debate. The truths of our faith are not open to debate.”
In fall 2010, Archbishop Nienstedt faced vocal opposition because of his efforts to explain Catholic teaching on marriage and to encourage the passage of a state marriage amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. In September, with the assistance of an anonymous donor, the archdiocese mailed a DVD to 400,000 Catholic households. The archbishop’s efforts in defense of marriage were met with public criticism by Father Michael Tegeder, one of his parish priests, and Lucinda Naylor, the Minneapolis co-cathedral’s artist in residence.
“I defended my dissertation on the moral dimensions of in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer in 1984,” the archbishop reflects. “In 1984, I could not have foreseen the increasing distance that our society would move in a direction away from a natural law ethics, especially in regard to the legalization of so-called same-sex marriages, stem-cell research, and especially the question of late-term abortions.”
“In my recent attempt to catechize our Catholic people on the question of the theology of marriage, I have been quite surprised at the overt rejection to the teaching of the Church by a number of people who consider themselves good Catholics,” he added. “They appear to have been seriously impacted by the secularization of our time and the influence of the media. For example, when the media scooped the mailing of our DVD on marriage, the most hostile letters I received were within the first week of the media announcement. The DVD did not actually arrive in the homes of our Catholic people until later because we had sent it bulk mail in order to save money. This indicated to me that the people who wrote such negative commentaries had not even viewed the DVD before condemning it…I never thought that I would see in my lifetime a new persecution of the Church in this country. But there are signs around us that this is certainly a possibility.”
In the midst of these concerns, Archbishop Nienstedt continues to be praised for his care for individual souls. “One popular program that Archbishop Nienstedt established in the fall of 2007 when he was coadjutor archbishop is lectio divina, the ancient tradition of praying with Scripture,” says Father Dennis Dease, president of the University of St. Thomas. “The archbishop participates in these reflection-and-prayer sessions in our university chapel one Sunday evening a month during the academic year. That is an extraordinary commitment of his time and reveals not only his dedication to this time-honored practice, but also his pastoral concern for helping students find meaning in the Word of God.”
“I know that he truly cares about each and every [person] of the archdiocese, and wants to make sure that they are getting the spiritual nourishment that they need,” adds Father Alex Carlson, a newly ordained priest. “As a result of this, he tries to get to know all of the priests and seminarians so that he can know who is ministering to the flock.… He always came and celebrated a Mass for us and would have lunch with the seminarians afterwards. Eventually, it felt like he really knew me, and I know that he truly cares for my well-being, and the well-being of the people that I serve.”
Mary Ann Kuharski, director of Prolife Across America and mother of a seminarian, adds:
Wherever he is, he gives 100 percent of himself.… He’s found time to attend prayerful protests in front of abortion establishments, such as the new mega-million-[dollar] Planned Parenthood facility in St. Paul, as well as offer closing prayer at a recent 40 Days for Life rally. His priorities are clear and most everyone in this archdiocese knows it: he’s traditional, centered in prayer, and deeply committed to supporting family and life issues. I heard through the “seminary grapevine” that on the morning he was named archbishop, he was ringing the seminary doorbell at 6:00 AM to pray a holy hour with the seminary students, something he still finds time to do every month! … We are grateful and blessed indeed to have such a wonderful shepherd guiding us.
Jeff Ziegler writes from North Carolina. This article appears in the February 2011 issue of CWR.