Proclaiming and teaching the faith to
February 17, 2006
Catholic San Francisco, the weekly newspaper of the San
Francisco archdiocese, interviews Archbishop George H. Niederauer in this
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
CSF: Is Sin Francisco a particularly daunting challenge for a
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
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
CSF: What are the challenges today of being a bishop or the
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
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
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
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
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
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
CSF: How did you get interested in English
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
CSF: What are your fondest memories of the past 11 years as
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.