Interests may signal goals of next archbishop

  • Article by: Pamela Miller
  • Star Tribune
  • April 25, 2007 - 4:11 PM

The man who will be the next leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis could bring changes in style and focus over time, church observers said Tuesday.

New Ulm Bishop John Nienstedt, 60, was introduced as Pope Benedict's choice to succeed Archbishop Harry Flynn, whom Nienstedt will shadow until Flynn retires in about a year.

Nienstedt, a Michigan native, said he intends to carry on Flynn's work on behalf of immigrants and the poor.

Observers said it's too early to tell whether the newcomer will shift direction at the archdiocese, which has been relatively free of controversy under Flynn's moderate leadership. But they saw Nienstedt's passion for bioethics and moral theology as a clue that he may take a stronger stand on such issues as contraception and gay marriage.

In an interview before Tuesday's news conference in St. Paul, Nienstedt -- a tall, athletic man with a crisp manner whose official title will be coadjutor archbishop -- said his priorities will include vigorous recruiting for the priesthood, working with the archdiocese's priests to strengthen their churches and improving training for lay workers.

He has pushed for an amendment to the state Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman and has taken conservative stances on issues ranging from Terri Schiavo to the causes of homosexuality. But he skirted questions about whether he will be liberal or conservative, calling such labels "too political" and saying that "the Holy Spirit, not I" will mediate disagreements among Catholics.

"The church is like a football field with goalposts and boundaries, but a good many things can be accomplished within the structure of the game," he said. "Jesus has given us instructions, and we have to be faithful to them, so if someone is out of bounds, they may be whistled down. But yes, we can always talk about issues."

Broader public role predicted

Prof. Robert Kennedy, head of the Catholic Studies Department at the University of St. Thomas, said he wouldn't be surprised if Nienstedt, given his background as a moral theologian, were more outspoken than Flynn on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and stem-cell research.

But Nienstedt's chief challenges, Kennedy predicted, will be demographic changes: a surge of Hispanic newcomers changing the face of the U.S. church even as they ensure its growth and "this period in which a lot of people are becoming more casual about their faith."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington, said that although Nienstedt may be considered conservative by some, he took a cautious stance while serving as chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on priestly formation. "He was chair when all hell broke loose with the sex abuse crisis and looked hard at what we were doing wrong," Reese said. "And priests are better trained now, and there is a better screening process."

A 'contraceptive mentality'

At the news conference, Nienstedt lamented "the contraceptive mentality in this country" that has made Catholic families smaller, saying it has made parents more reluctant to encourage their sons to become priests and imperiled some Catholic schools. "If we want to keep the schools alive, we have to tell Catholics to have more babies," he said.

He acknowledged that one challenge to recruiting new priests was the pall cast over the priesthood's image by the sex abuse scandal.

He said he intends to spend as much time as possible at Catholic seminaries and schools to seek out new church leaders and hear the concerns of young people.

He's "deeply honored" by the appointment, which he learned of April 2. Flynn, who will be 74 on May 2, requested a coadjutor last year.

Kennedy said that although Nienstedt is clearly more businesslike than Flynn, who is widely admired for his warmth, "it would be a mistake to conclude that he is less caring or concerned than Flynn."He's been a very solid bishop, and he's had time to get acquainted with Minnesota and this archdiocese," he said. "He'll be working closely with Flynn for a full year, and only after that will we see if they differ greatly."

'Very fine leader'

Sister Katarina Schuth, a professor at St. Paul Seminary who has known Nienstedt for years, said he's "a very fine leader and very knowledgeable about how to encourage young men into the priesthood."We're all fond of Flynn, but it's exciting whenever a new leader comes in," Schuth said. "Personally, I hope to hear him speak out on how we can bring peace to this troubled world."

Bishop Peter Rogness of the St. Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said he hopes Nienstedt will share Flynn's focus on social-justice issues.

"Lutherans and Catholics have a healthy relationship in the Twin Cities around those issues," Rogness said.

In the mirror, 'a parish priest'

Nienstedt grew up in a Detroit family of six children and was ordained in 1974 at Sacred Heart Church in Dearborn, Mich., after studies at Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary and in Rome.

He served several parishes in Detroit and as president of Sacred Heart Seminary. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Detroit in 1996, where he was praised for improving Catholic-Jewish ties, and bishop of Dearborn and other Michigan communities later that year. Nienstedt was named bishop of the Diocese of New Ulm in 2001.

"When I get up in the morning and look in the mirror, I see a parish priest," he said. "That is how I hope to lead."

It'll be some time before Catholics in the pews have a sense of what that means.

"Our people have appreciated Archbishop Flynn's visits and personal warmth, and we hope to see Bishop Nienstedt out here, too," said the Rev. Michael Van Sloun at St. Stephen's in Anoka. "We have a large umbrella here, with many spiritualities that feel at home. But we all wish for a good, strong leader, a firm hand at the wheel."

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290 •

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