Proclaiming and teaching the faith to all
February 17, 2006
 
Catholic San Francisco, the weekly newspaper of the San Francisco archdiocese, interviews Archbishop George H. Niederauer in this article.
 
In his first statement after being named the Eighth Archbishop of San Francisco by Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop George H. Niederauer spoke of the role of a bishop.
 
"The Second Vatican Council tells us that the bishop serves as priest, prophet and shepherd: as priest, he is concerned with Catholic worship and prayer, especially the Eucharist and the Sacraments, and the life of the Spirit in the People of God; as prophet, he is concerned with the proclaiming and leaching of the faith to all, as it sheds the light that is Christ on all reality; as shepherd, the bishop promotes the whole life of Catholics together as Church, in stewardship and ministry to one another and to the world at large, especially to the most vulnerable and needy."
 
In early February, Archbishop Niederauer shared additional thoughts in an interview with Catholic San Francisco.
 
CSF: What would you want the people of the Archdiocese of San Francisco to know about you?
 
ABN: I've rather carefully chosen the motto for my coat of arms -- "To serve and to give" -- because servant leadership in the Church is a very nervous concept. What I'm most concerned about in terms of my vocation is that I heed the call and that I hear very strongly what is in Matthew chapter 20 and Mark chapter 10, which will be the Gospel for the installation Mass on the 15th. James and John ask for special places in the throne room and Jesus says that's not mine to give. Jesus says the one who would "be first among you must be the servant of the rest because the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the many."
 
Leadership in the Church must always be of service and not be lording it over. The sign of the kingdom is to lead and serve as Jesus did. Jesus at the Last Supper washes the feet of the disciples. Jesus says if I as your master and teacher wash your feet how much more must be your wash each others feet. Most of the leaders in our world drive around in long limousines with very smoky glass and Pope John Paul II went around in a jeep. He could stand up and see people and people could see him and I think that's very much of a difference. It's very much leading by serving. It's easily misunderstood, but it seems central to me.
 
If I come to the people of the Archdiocese of San Francisco as a leader I want most of all for them to know that I am coming to them as a servant.
 
CSF: Is Sin Francisco a particularly daunting challenge for a bishop?
 
ABN: I think each place has its own challenges. Sometimes you start characterizing and end up caricaturing. There are a lot of caricatures of Los Angeles and a lot of caricatures of San Francisco. In Los Angeles, for instance, people die after long and happy lives without ever seeing a movie star. It's not all about movie-town. There's a lot more going on. Some images of San Francisco are very simplistic too.
 
CSF: Do you have any immediate plans when you come to San Francisco?
 
ABN: I really want to get to know the priests very well. Not that priests matter and nobody else does, but the priests are your closest co-workers, the priests and the deacons.
 
I want to get to know the staff because those are people who are very important. I want to get out into the parishes and the schools.
 
I was told that one of the best things Archbishop Levada did was get out and around pretty quickly and since in the fullness of time I will have to submit my resignation at the age of 75 on June 14, 2011, I probably better not take too many years to get around. So I really want to get out to the parishes and the schools.
 
CSF: Do yon have things you want to accomplish after you are installed as Archbishop of San Francisco?
 
ABN: I don't feel that should go into the Archdiocese of San Francisco with an agenda. This happens to the new president of a college or principal of a high school where you come in charge and on the first day you know less about the operation than a whole lot of people already there. So there is a learning curve and it is important to listen and pay attention and not impose some kind of calculated agenda that was formulated without being there yet.
 
CSF: What are the challenges today of being a bishop or the priesthood?
 
ABN: There are a lot of them. The challenge always is to proclaim the Word that is not very congenial to the people who are hearing it -- maybe not particularly welcome -- by some. It is to be in a sense making a difference for Christ and certainly proclaiming the truth that is Christ, but to people who maybe are not particularly interested. Father Robert Barron says a very simple thing, "The sign of being a grown up disciple of Jesus Christ is when you realize your life is not about you." Yet American culture, American advertising, American media screams at us that our lives are about us. The psychobabble self-help books at Borders and Barnes and Noble are all screaming that at us. But what Jesus is saying is your life is not about you. That doesn't mean you don't matter, but your life is not about you. God is love. God loves you and your life is about accepting this love from God and returning it to him and returning it especially through your brothers and sisters.
 
Peter says to Jesus at one point, don't talk about your death like this. Jesus says to him "get behind me Satan." Jesus says anyone who would follow me must deny himself, pick up his cross daily and follow in my steps. In present day printings of the New American Bible, there is sometimes a title printed right before that passage saying "the cost of discipleship." Then comes that paradox passage -- the one who would find his life will lose it.
 
The priest's challenge is to tell that very unwelcome, almost undecipherable truth. He has to not only proclaim it, he has to live it, he has to be a sign of it. That's a real challenge to live that word, when it's not a very welcome word -- one that's seen as unnatural, seems to be pulling people down, neither of which it is, but it's still that struggle.
 
CSF: You've said with regard to the abuse crisis, "the lessons of the past 25 years have not been lost on me." Are we through this crisis?
 
ABN: Someone once said of the Bourbon monarchs in France that they never learned anything and they never forgot anything. We have to be careful not to be like that. We have to remember, but we have to have learned. We have to be changed because of what we've been through. We cannot go back to business as usual. We must reach out to those who have been harmed and help them in their recovery and their healing. We must put in place safe environment programs and other measures which will guard against this ever happening again.
 
That said, and people don't want to hear this part of it, we're not going to repeal sin. Will crimes and sins continue to be committed? Yes, but we must be sure that we're guarding as much as possible against it within the Church and among Church people. Churches and schools must very much be places of safety and security for our children. That is a lesson we have to permanently learn and put into effect.
 
I think it's true to say that the larger society still has a lesson to learn about this. One form denial takes is for those outside the Church to say it's a particularly Catholic problem. It's a human problem and it is on the rise. To ignore it is to continue its spread and it is worsening. We sometimes can be accused of not having paid attention, or the right kind of attention, to it. People harmed because of that and the rest of society need to pay attention too.
 
We have offended and we need healing and we need to find a way to renew. Our conversion must take the form of being particularly vigilant about this matter.
 
CSF: You write a lot about the call to discipleship. Is discipleship easier in Utah where Catholics are a minority?
 
ABN: There are two big things I've noticed about being a Catholic in an overwhelmingly non-Catholic environment. We're not divided into little turf wars among right and left because we can't afford to be. My western image is that when your wagons arc in a circle you don't turn your rifles on each other. That is probably too violent an image, but people really pull together as Catholics.
 
Another thing is that you have to work at being Catholic, you can't just walk through it because everyone else is. The danger is often that we belong to the Catholic Church the way we belong to Rotary. And it doesn't make a whole lot of difference except Tuesdays at noon when we go to lunch or Sunday at 10 when we go to Mass. It can't be like Rotary. A lot of times we're a lot more convinced and convincing and passionate about being a Republican or Democrat than we are about being Christian and that's not the way it should be.
 
CSF: Some people say Catholics are a counterculture group in a prevailing culture that is evil, making the situation sound very much like a battle. Others say our role is to be in the secular world -- not to be of the world but to be in the world. What is the role of the laity in that dichotomy?
 
ABN: It's a delicate balance. There is the parable of Jesus that really puts the challenge very well and that is the yeast in the midst of dough. If we are to be the yeast then we cannot stay on the shelf and protect our purity by saying that we don't want to associate with that lowly dough and say "we're yeast and after all it's just dough." That kind of pharisaical approach is wrong because Jesus says the kingdom is like the measure of yeast, which the woman kneaded into the dough until it all rose.
 
The other thing we can't do is to be so eager to mix in with and fit in with the dough that we cease being yeast and become just so  much more dough, because that way nothing rises -- and that's betrayal.
 
You have to be yeast in the midst of the dough, but remain yeast. That's the trick of your life.
 
CSF: What are your thoughts on Deus Caritas Est?
 
ABN: I think it is beautiful and powerful and central to the Christian message. I think we should all look at it and study it and frankly pray about it.
 
This is a man who writes very well, prays very well and teaches very well. [He's given] a lifetime of wisdom and holiness into understanding that powerful, central truth that we find in John's first letter -- God is love.
 
What's important for us as Catholics, in the world in which we live, is that the reverse is not true. Love is not God . . .God is Love. This is personified -- It is from the three Persons of the Trinity that comes our life and our love and it is for us to respond to it and to share it.
 
CSF: Were you thinking about the priesthood in high school and during the year you were at Stanford?
 
ABN: Yes. I wasn't sure enough after high school and my parents were pleased by my being  admitted to Stanford. I think it seemed better to do that. I never regretted it and loved going to Stanford.
 
I came home for Christmas after the first quarter at Stanford and I got together with my friends who went on to seminary and I thought they're really doing what I would prefer to do. So I finished die year at Stanford, but I went down and sought my high school religion teacher and spoke to my pastor and visited the seminary, and then I went to the seminary for the second year of college.
 
CSF: How did you get interested in English literature?
 
ABN: My great love in high school was history. I devoured biographies. I thought they were fascinating. It was the English classes at Stanford that really turned me as they say in the CIA. I went into Stanford liking history and I left Stanford liking English literature even more. We had very demanding composition teachers. They really wanted your writing to be better than it was. When I was in the seminary I went to get a master's during the summers. And then I was  ordained a year and served a year in a parish. Then I was sent to get a doctorate in English literature at USC and then I was sent to teach at the seminary.
 
CSF: You've said you are a fan of Flannery O'Connor. Is there something particular in her work that inspires you?
 
ABN: Yes I think so. She had a very strong sense of how countercultural Christianity is. People said her stories were so grotesque and violent at times and she said "for people who are deaf you sometimes have to shout and for people who can't see very well you have to write in big letters." So she had to exaggerate some plot twists and some character traits to make the point of how cultural Christianity isn't Christianity. That's a lot of the Christianity she saw in the South, both Catholic and Protestant.
 
She had a character in one of her stories who is a good country woman and she owns her own property and she looks out on all the "white trash" and she says that you shouldn't talk about God the way this one woman she knows does. Because, she thinks, words about religion are like words about sex -- They should only be used in the bathroom or the bedroom and they don't belong in polite society. And this woman thought she was as good a Christian as anybody and she went to church on Sunday and such and such -- of course she didn't believe a word of it was true. And I think that is the thing that Flanders O'Connor is trying to wake people to -- that we can't just sleepwalk our way through Christianity. We can't just talk a good game. We can't just plug into the cultural context. We have to let Jesus Christ make a difference in our lives -- the way we look at ourselves and the way we look at other people. That kind of clash between cultural Christianity and the real Word is what's very strong in her stories.
 
CSF: What are your fondest memories of the past 11 years as bishop?
 
ABN: I think visiting the parishes, celebrating Sunday mass, celebrating confirmations. I think I feel most one with what I'm doing and with what I'm supposed to be doing when celebrating the sacraments with the people.
 
Being with priests -- I enjoy that a lot because it's like docs talking to docs. You talk each other's language. You know what you're talking about. You have this sense of freedom and ease and you have a lot of respect for people trying to do the same thing you're trying to do.
 
I also enjoy preaching, because I really enjoy explaining the Word and proclaiming the Word.