John Nienstedt, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Leading by the Book

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH
  • Star Tribune
  • October 27, 2010 - 6:34 AM

The man behind one of the loudest upheavals in Twin Cities Catholic history is a study in quiet control.

Since arriving nearly three years ago, Archbishop John Nienstedt, 63, has created a stir with his outspoken opposition to gay marriage, his strict support for orthodox doctrine and, now, his sweeping overhaul of the largest religious denomination in the metro area. For critics, he is the symbol of a deepening divide among the archdiocese's 800,000 members.

Through it all, Nienstedt has come across as a man of cool assurance, at times evoking the image of a CEO as he applies business-like language in describing the strategy behind the reorganization. He dismisses any notion that he may be rigid in his orthodoxy or steeped too deeply in politics.

"I don't have a political agenda," Nienstedt said. "I'm a churchman, I'm a priest. My big concern is to bridge the gap between God and his people."

Change, he notes, can be difficult for people.

"There's no question where he stands," said the Rev. Jim Debruycker, pastor at St. Joan of Arc, a liberal Minneapolis parish that has tangled with Nienstedt.

In 2007, initial word that Nienstedt would replace Archbishop Harry Flynn -- considered by many a more moderate-leaning bishop -- was met with alarm in some quarters. Nienstedt's past writings suggest strict adherence to more conservative Catholic teachings.

As bishop in New Ulm, he objected to Catholics in St. Peter celebrating communion with Lutherans after a 1998 tornado destroyed the Catholic church. He dismissed a predecessor's call for dialogue on allowing women to be priests. He was involved in a 2006 initiative to get Catholics to send legislators postcards supporting a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

In Nienstedt's first year as archbishop, the archdiocese also told St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church that it could not hold a gay pride prayer service in its sanctuary in conjunction with the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride festival. "Some people were upset, but most people know he minces no words when it comes to teaching what he believes the church teaches," Debruycker said.

His most public moves have involved gay rights. His latest denouncement of gay marriage came in the form of nearly 400,000 DVDs mailed to Minnesota Catholics this fall. In the DVD, he says it is time for Minnesotans -- not the "ruling elite" of legislators and judges -- to vote on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Nienstedt also was one of the Catholic bishops who publicly objected to President Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame in 2009 because Obama favors abortion rights.

Robert Kennedy, professor of Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas, sees a distinct difference of style between the previous archbishop and Nienstedt. Flynn was widely perceived as "more expressive and expansive," Kennedy said, while "it seems Archbishop Nienstedt in some instances is more direct."

Both have been very outspoken on Catholic life issues, such as opposition to abortion and euthanasia, Kennedy said, but Flynn was less vocal on same-sex issues. Kennedy said he doesn't see Nienstedt's decision to send out the DVDs just before the November election as politically motivated. "He [Nienstedt] wants to be clear about his commitment and responsibility as bishop, but I don't think he's looking to pick fights between liberals and conservatives," Kennedy said.

Ambitious beginnings

Those closest to Nienstedt say there's much more to him than his reserved public persona suggests. They say he cares deeply about the priests and parishioners he leads, has a sense of humor and a beautiful singing voice. He enjoys running, cooking pasta dishes and watching hockey.

Nienstedt knew early in his youth that he wanted to join the priesthood, friends say. Born in Detroit, he is the second-oldest of six children born to John and Elizabeth Nienstedt. Both were devout Catholics and sent their children to Catholic schools.

Corinne Nienstedt, a sister who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., said her brother played baseball and other sports, went to prom, made good grades and was president of the student council in high school. She and other close friends say Nienstedt has always been ambitious.

Following seminary studies in Detroit and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Nienstedt was ordained a priest in 1974.

He then served six years as rector and president of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. In 1996, he became auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit. While there, he worked to improve relations between Jews and Catholics.

In 2001, he was appointed bishop of the diocese of New Ulm, Minn. In 2007, Nienstedt was named coadjutor archbishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, a precursor position to archbishop.

The death of both of his parents a year after his arrival in the Twin Cities was one his most trying times, friends and family say. "I think he was close to both (parents), but especially my mom. She truly encouraged him all the time," Corinne Neinstedt said.

The Rev. Patrick Halfpenny, who has known Nienstedt since they were 18 and began seminary together in Detroit, said his friend has always stood up for what he believes. "As a pastor, one of his responsibilities is to make sure that the people whom he loves and for whose spiritual well-being he is responsible, that they know the truth," said Halfpenny. "He absolutely should be talking about moral issues and helping people form their consciences correctly.

"If you're going to take a position on a moral issue ... you've got to expect some blow back."

Critics: Listen more

Critics say that when Nienstedt takes a strong stance, he doesn't seem to hear those who disagree. Michael Bayly, executive coordinator for the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities, said Nienstedt "hasn't listened enough to Catholics, especially on the issue of homosexuality. It's all been dictating. A good teacher is also a good listener and he's not proven to be a good listener."

Many people in the 21 church parishes slated to merge with other parishes in the reorganization were distraught over the news unveiled a week ago. Archdiocese officials say they've received reports that some parishes are planning to appeal the mergers.

Nienstedt says he was serving in Detroit when its archdiocese reorganized several years ago, though he wasn't directly involved in the process. He also guided efforts to restructure the New Ulm diocese while he was bishop. Following those experiences, Nienstedt said, he thinks it's important that an appeals process be available for Twin Cities church parishes, who "may come forward with information we didn't have before and that can be very telling."

Looking to the future, he wants to create more youth-oriented programs as well as adult education. It is also a priority to stay active on one of the church's primary missions, to help the poor, marginalized and the immigrant community, he says. Implementing the reorganization plan, however, will remain much of his focus in the coming months and years.

"Nobody, including myself, enjoys closing down a parish or school because of the life those institutions give. But at the same time ... we know something has to be done because we're bogged down with so many buildings that are taking up our time and our efforts and our finances. In order to be the church we're called to be, we have to move forward with that."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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