The Most Rev. R. Walker Nickless, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sioux City, is still adjusting to his celebrity status."I go to the grocery store and people come up to me and say, 'Hi Bishop!'," he marveled. "I'm thinking, 'How do they know me?'.
"Even as pastor of one of the larger parishes in Lakewood, Colo. and holding a visible position as vicar for clergy and seminarians for the Archdiocese of Denver, Nickless could experience anonymity in a metro area of over a half-million people.
Not so in Sioux City. Even dressed in civilian clothes -- shorts and a T-shirt -- at an X's game, individuals approached the Denver native, welcoming him to Siouxland, wishing him well and promising prayers. Perhaps most astonishing to the 59-year-old, whose grey hair is edging its way up his temples, is the reverence accorded to his station in life. "I'm still not used to people calling me 'Your Excellency,'" he said, referring to the title which accompanies the office of bishop. "Some even take my hand and will kiss my ring."
Nickless was appointed bishop on Nov. 10, 2005, filling a 22-month vacancy (at that time the longest in the nation) for the Northwest Iowa diocese. He was ordained and installed as the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Sioux City on Jan. 20.
The joy of that moment was tempered less than two weeks later, when Nickless was called back home to Denver by the illness of his mother. E. Margaret Nickless died three days later."Peggy" Nickless was in the congregation on Jan. 20 in Sioux City, looking on as archbishops, bishops and more than a hundred priests performed the rites and rituals of episcopal ordination, elevating her son to his new role as shepherd of the 24-county diocese. A photo in the next day's Journal showed the new bishop pausing to speak to his mother as he walked among the worshippers wearing the bishop's miter and carrying the shepherd's staff for the first time.
Nickless resisted labels like liberal, conservative, traditional or radical in typifying his religious beliefs."I don't worry about labels, because you're either with the church or you're not," he said matter-of-factly. "The whole point of being a Catholic is to grow in holiness." But the times he's energized revolve around the priesthood, particularly when the bishop participates in parish life. "I love celebrating Mass, especially with the kids," he said with an obvious warmth for the exuberance of youth. "You see their enthusiasm for life and it's contagious."And I think it's good for them to see me alive in the Lord," he continued with a glimmer of mischief. "Although afterwards, I find myself totally exhausted from their energy."
As with most individuals in administrative positions, the number of meetings takes a toll as does the leadership that goes along with the job."What I've noticed is that a bishop's life is not your own," Nickless said in a reflective moment. "It seems I always have to be 'on,' because people look to me for direction. It's like being on display."Listening to Nickless bravely share that he's discovered bishops don't have any friends was like hearing the innermost thoughts of a personal confidante."People put you on a pedestal, like the ones who call me Your Excellency and kiss my ring," he said in referring to that previous personal anecdote."No one calls me Nick," the bishop added, noting the nickname his siblings bestowed on him. "I'd like to be an ordinary Iowan, but I know I have a role to play here."
"I've found as a bishop, prayer has become far more important in my life, because my responsibilities are so much more."He added with a touch of comedic timing, "I love what Pope John XXIII said as he'd approach the tabernacle (the receptacle which holds the Blessed Sacrament) at the end of the day. He's say, 'Lord, it's your church. I'm going to bed." [....Snip] Sioux City Journal