Archbishop John Nienstedt, center, walks in the World Apostolate of Fatima’s 61st annual rosary procession May 4. The procession began at the Minnesota State Capitol and ended with a homily and Benediction at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Back from exile, Father Robert Altier has a place of honor on the Archbishop's right hand. The guy in the middle, I don't know his name, but he is generally up front at all of the Nativity of Our Lord liturgies.
Archbishop John Nienstedt assumed leadership of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on May 2, the day the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI accepted the retirement of Archbishop Harry Flynn.
Catholic Spirit editor Joe Towalski interviewed Archbishop Nienstedt at the chancery in St. Paul last week about his year as coadjutor archbishop and his plans for the future. Following are excerpts of the interview.
You've spent a lot of time over the last 12 months visiting parishes and schools and attending a lot of meetings. What are you learning about the archdiocese? Has anything surprised you?
I see the very role of the bishop of a diocese to be one of pastoral concern for the people. I've been to 64 parishes so far. I've been to 13 of our 14 high schools. I've been to 21 of our grade schools. . . . I like going into those school situations and being able to teach the students. That gives me energy. That gives me excitement. . . .
I think I said on the day I was announced here that I was coming not as a CEO, but as a pastor. Not as a politician, but as a priest. I truly believe that. Of course, there is an enormous amount of administration here. My mail has more than doubled on any given day. Coming in new, you don't have the advantage of how to filter everything. But I would say my reception in the parishes and at the question-and-answer [sessions] I do in the schools have all been very positive. So I really appreciate the welcome the people have extended to me. It's been very generous.
With regard to surprises, I guess my biggest surprise was how critical I was received, especially in the media, when I first arrived. I don't perceive myself in the way they tried to paint me. I'm glad that people have suspended their judgment and have given me a chance to be myself. . . .
Having said that, I know the bishop is the person who has to unify the diocese, particularly around what we teach and preach, the way we worship and our constant vigilance for the poor, for the sick and for the stranger in our midst.
Hence, the reason I took for my episcopal motto: "Ut omnes unum sint" - "That they might all be one." I truly believe that was the most heartfelt prayer that I have found of Jesus in the New Testament.
There will be an added challenge with no auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese after Bishop Pates is installed in Des Moines at the end of May. How will you handle that?
That was a real blow. When the [papal] nuncio called me, I said I certainly wouldn't want to stand in Bishop Pates' way because he's been a great bishop, and I know he will be good for the Diocese of Des Moines. But I said, "Your Excellency, that really puts me in a very difficult position, at least for the short term." I'll have to ask for people's understanding as we go through the schedule.
Will you draw on Archbishop Flynn to help with some things?
Of course, I will. But Archbishop Flynn has already indicated he will be doing a lot of retreat work, which he loves and should be free to do. After all, that's what retirement is all about.
You've drawn quite a bit of media attention since you've been here, some of it in reaction to columns you've written. The reaction in some quarters hasn't been favorable. Does that bother you? In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
Every morning I get up and I say my prayers, and I ask the Lord to be with me and to guide me. I try to work as hard as I can during the day to do what I think is right.
Then, at the end of the day, when I examine my conscience, sure there are things I might do differently. I have to go to confession regularly like everybody else does - I'm not a perfect man.
With regard to the columns in particular, you'll notice I have been very careful to reference the Catechism of the Catholic Church every time. If I have an agenda, it's the teaching of the church. I don't want to be seen as proposing my own teaching or my own interpretation of the teaching. But the teaching has to be taught.
I think you'll recognize that there is a lot of confusion out there, especially in the area of moral theology and morality. Particularly with young people who are very, very impressionable - high school- and college-age students - they have to know the difference between right and wrong. They have to be able to know what the church teaches and why. That is not going to go well in front of the many different aspects of our society. But I think the church has to be clear, and the church has to be consistent, and the church has to offer a compelling explanation for why she believes what she believes in the name of Christ.
If I get into a little hot water by proclaiming what the truth of our Catholic faith is, that just goes with the territory. The bishop or priest is called to be prophet, priest and king. The priest is that bridge with people and God. The prophetic part is telling the truth in love, and being consistent, and trying to be as clear as you can about those teachings. Whether people like it or not, they need to hear it because their salvation depends upon it.
But it isn't always easy to do, is it?
Being a bishop isn't supposed to be easy. Being a priest isn't easy. Being a parent isn't easy. No, it's not always easy to do that, but that's the responsibility we have before God in relationship to the calls that we have.
One question people have is: How will things change in the archdiocese and in my parish now that Archbishop Nienstedt is in charge? Will Catholics notice any changes in the near future?When I came back from my service to the Holy See, I was made pastor of a large parish in Union Lake - it's now White Lake - Michigan, St. Patrick's Church. It was my first pastorate, and my mentor, [Detroit] Cardinal [John] Dearden, said to me: "I want to give you some advice. Wait six months before you change anything. And then wait another six months before you do anything."
I thought that was good advice. I remember going into the parish saying I'm not going to change anything that doesn't have to be changed, at least for six months and hopefully a year. Three months after I was there, a lady came in who told me one Sunday after Mass that her husband was being relocated and that they were moving out of town and how bad she felt about that. But she said, "I just wanted you to know, Father John, I love the changes you brought here." I said, "What changes? I really haven't done anything."
Then I realized by the very fact that I didn't walk like the last pastor, I didn't talk like the last pastor, I didn't preach like the last pastor, I didn't react like the last pastor reacted, that this was a big change for people. Psychologists tell us that when you bring a new person into any group, it's going to change the dynamics of that group.
So, will there be changes? Yes. I'm not Archbishop Flynn, and I can't be him. But am I going to build on the great legacy that Archbishop Flynn has given us? I hope so. I certainly don't want to see a discontinuity. My hope is that we will build on what Archbishop Flynn has done for the last 13 years here and become more and more articulate in our faith, more and more practiced in our faith, more and more Catholic. That's what my great hope is.
You talked in a meeting with the parish administrators [April 10] about maybe developing a long-term plan for parishes. Is that something you will be initiating in the near future?
I think so, and this is not a big secret. I have since January been sitting in on the Comprehensive Assignment Board, just so I could find out how [pastoral] assignments are being done and how they get recommended. . . . I try to just be a listener there, but one day I couldn't help myself because we had all these parishes that needed to be filled on one side of the board, and we had a few priests [on the other side]. I said, "Did anybody notice we don't have quite enough people over here for the positions we're going to have over here?" And they said, "Yes, we know that." I said: "Doesn't that bother anybody?"
We've been very blessed with the number of priests that we have and the number of priests who have come to join us as religious or as missionaries for a particular period of time. But it does seem to me, we're going to have to start some kind of plan for our parishes. . . .
I think if I offer anything to this situation, it is the last seven years I was in New Ulm, where we had a very difficult position when I got there. We had 82 parishes and 46 priests. We had already been through three plans, and they had kind of clustered to the nth degree. We had come up with, after a period of three years, a plan that I promulgated - a 5-year plan, which is in the process of being redone now - trying to address the situation so that we had a guideline.
We had 15 different drafts of this plan, and after every draft we had a meeting of all the pastoral leaders. Through the process, it gave everybody ownership of that. Because of that, I believe it went much more smoothly than it might have otherwise. But it takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. But, inevitably, once I had published it, there just seemed to be kind of a huge collective sigh of relief. At least we knew now what we would do.
There has been some mixed reaction to the Parish Service Teams. Is that something that could change or be abandoned altogether?
It could. That's why I'm engaging these discussions. As I go around to the deaneries next fall, that's going to be one of my big questions. I'm going to bring to them the same three questions I brought to the business administrators: How can I most effectively reach the parishes? What should that relationship look like? Where do they see the Parish Service Teams helping them?
I would think in this parish planning that [team members] could be very effective because they could work with a broader number of parishes to see how we could come together in a collaborative way . . . and, as I used to say in New Ulm, so that we could limit the duplication we're doing and build on our strengths.
The University of St. Thomas board of trustees has been in the news, with the university moving to change its bylaws so that the sitting archbishop is no longer the automatic chairman of the board. It's generated a lot of conversation. Is this change in the bylaws a concern to you? If so, how are you addressing that?
It does concern me, and I have been in dialogue with Archbishop Flynn on the matter. It's been very difficult to do anything up until now because I have not been the archbishop up to now. Being a coadjutor, you really have no authority to address a structural question such as we now have before us. . . . I'm looking forward to engaging the administration and the board on that topic, but up to now I haven't been able to do it as effectively as I hope I will be able to do in the next month or two months or so.
Members of the Rainbow Sash [gay rights movement] are planning to make their annual visit to the Cathedral of St. Paul on Pentecost Sunday, May 11. How will you handle that this year?
The Cathedral staff is going to continue to insist upon the policy that Archbishop Flynn put in before - that if somebody is wearing a rainbow sash, they won't be permitted to receive holy Communion. It's the same thing as if somebody came walking into the Cathedral with a placard saying, "I'm in favor of abortion." You wouldn't give Communion to that person either. It's a public act of defiance against church teaching, and therefore we don't give Communion to people who have broken communion with the faith.
There are a lot of challenges facing the archdiocese. I think of the economy, the influx of immigrants and the burgeoning senior population among others. What issue do you think poses the biggest challenge to the archdiocese right now?
I'd say all those things you mentioned are concerns, and the church has to be involved because they concern people. . . . Being a bishop, you not only have to have concern for your Catholic population but, according to canon law, you have responsibility for everyone that's in your diocese, whether they be Catholic or not, whether they even be Christian or not. So I would say all of those issues and probably more would be issues we would want to weigh in on and help people.
In terms of the work of the Minnesota Catholic Conference at the Legislature, some people are wondering what the change in leadership will have on the work that gets done there. Some wonder if there will be a shift toward a more intense focus on issues like abortion, marriage and bioethics. Do you think there is going to be a shift in some of the focus?
You never really know what the agenda of the legislators is going to be until they arrive. Over the years, the bishops throughout the state have been very attentive to all the key issues, whether it be a just wage, whether it be a question of abortion, whether it be a question of embryonic stem-cell research, or immigration. All of those questions are big questions for us.
We're not a one-issue group, and that's why I'm so grateful we do have the Minnesota Catholic Conference because they're able to, on a day-to-day basis, see where things are moving and what the moral concerns are [that] we should be aware of. I don't see anything changing radically in that regard. I think the bishops, including Archbishop Flynn, have been very attentive to those issues, and I hope to be as well.
Some good things are happening at our seminaries - St. Paul Seminary and St. John Vianney Seminary. They certainly seem to be very healthy and thriving. Would you agree?
I think they are. I've been going over there once a month to do the holy hour at St. John Vianney at 6 in the morning and then take Mass at 7. And usually that same day I try to work it so I can take the 11:35 [Mass] for the St. Paul Seminary.
That has been good. I did that because in reading the biography of Archbishop Ireland, he took a very direct interest in the seminary, often going over for lunch and then going for walks with seminarians . . . . I said to them when I was first appointed that I wanted to be involved in their lives, but I didn't want to meddle. I certainly didn't want to take anything away from the rector or the faculty. I wanted to be as supportive as I could, but at the same time, I hoped that I would be some kind of an influence for them.
Obviously, your priests are your right hand. The bishop can't do anything without his priests. So he needs to have a close relationship with them and get to know them as well as he can, which is a great challenge. It was much easier in New Ulm when I had only 46 priests to get to know well. It's going to take a little longer to do that here. But I'm intent on doing that, and by knowing these young men in their formative years, that will build up a sense of trust and confidence.
So many of the things you talked about in this interview really concern trust. I think that's a most valuable commodity for any spiritual leader or any other kind of leader to have. I understand that when you come in new, people don't know you, and so they really can't trust you. But I would hope that in my work in Detroit and my work in New Ulm, people would say, "Well, he seemed to be accepted there. He seemed to work well with the people there, and they weren't any worse for the wear for it." It's that trust element I surely have to work on and hope that people will give me a chance to establish that kind of a relationship.
You have focused a lot on young people. You're visiting schools and doing "lectio divina" prayer with the students at St. Thomas. Do you have some thoughts or plans about outreach to young people, especially young adults in their 20s and 30s?
Our main job as a church in any generation is to pass the faith on to the next generation and to make sure the faith is as strong as when we received it ourselves. In this day and age, I tell parents my hat is always off to them because I think it's more difficult to parent kids in this society, with cell phone and Internet pornography and all the things that they see and hear in the print media, on television and in the movies. It's a very difficult context in which to raise young people who are going to be morally healthy and spiritually sound.
Is there anything I haven't covered that you would like to talk about?
I was so impressed by the Holy Father's talk to us bishops [during his U.S. visit]. There were a number of talks that I thought were great. . . but when he was speaking to the bishops, he called for a new Catholic vision of reality - one that would penetrate all of our thinking and all of our acting. He went on to say that this new vision of reality had to take in a certain amount of eschatology. In other words, it had to raise our minds up to the things of heaven like St. Paul says, rather than the things of earth.
I think if there is any agenda the pope left us with, it is that. In terms of what I hope to see happen in this archdiocese, [it] would be that - that we would be able to generate a new Catholic vision of reality. It's idealistic perhaps, but not unobtainable. Catholic Spirit