Interview with Bishop George H. Niederauer, Jan. 27, 2006

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Tribune: What have you learned during your 11 years in Utah? What did you not expect to find here?

Niederauer: Something that I have seen as a challenge and a learning experience is the church in what we would call a missionary land, in other words, where the church is not most of the people, not extensive in terms of its institutions, in a sense that Catholicism is still growing more than it is in the Eastern seaboard.

That's pretty much true of the Rocky Mountain states or Southern states. And that was very different for me coming from Southern California where the church is well established. I think having small missions and small towns and priests having to travel a long way to celebrate Mass on Sunday in a smaller community is a good thing. Those were things I knew about but had never experienced.

The blessing was to be in an area where the faith is very alive and growing. You are not talking about closing parishes, but opening them. You are not talking about getting people to Mass on Sunday, you are talking about not having enough room for them. An example of that kind of expansion, the supreme example, would be the Skaggs Catholic Center in Draper. Not only the wonder and nature of the enormously generous gift, but that so many people have made use of it. If you count those in childcare, you'd probably have 1,700 to 1,800 children on that campus.

A challenge and a blessing related to that is the enormous increase in number of Latino Catholics. From the founding of diocese in 1890 to 1980, it took 90 years to bring 75,000 Catholics to Utah. It took only 25 years to triple that to 225,000 so the growth just zoomed up.

Tribune: Is that largely Latinos?

Niederauer: Yes it is. Not exclusively, but largely.

Tribune: Would you want to see a Latino bishop here?

Niederauer: I think that would be a good thing. I'm not trying to have any allusions that I am going to be a bishop maker. In the practice of the church, the previous bishop does have some input in terms of explaining the needs of the diocese, etc. nut you don't make the decision.

Tribune; But you have some friends in Rome. . .

Niederauer: There you go. . .

Tribune: Anything else you will take away from your experience in Utah?

Niederauer: Well, of course, the church is people. This church is the people of God, according to the Second Vatican Council. I had a much more academic existence. It was pastoral, too, because you lived with the people you taught at the seminary. But working with deacons, religious, lay cathechists, lay ministers, administors at parishes and with priests, especially. It's been very rewarding. You really see the church as it operates at the parish level.

I've learned how important it is for the pastoral center here to constantly remember that we exist for the service of the church in the parishes, which is where church really happens.

I would dare to say that that's a lesson that any church headquarters has to keep reminding itself - [LDS] downtown, Presbyterians, Episcopalians - everybody has to pay attention to where church happens. It's in [LDS] wards and stakes or in parishes. . .

That's been a good lesson.

I must say, too, one of the first things I noticed was how un-ideological and unpolitical, in the worst sense of those terms, the Catholic Church is here. Are there people more to the left or to the right in their opinions? Sure. But do we have little embattled groups? Really not. I think people really do want to pull together for the good of the parishes.

Tribune: Maybe that's a function again of the church's minority status here.

Niederauer: Well, exactly. I think that's true. You don't have the luxury of being divided. And you know each other better. There's a lot to being in a smaller diocese, having been in a larger one for most of my priesthood.

For instance, I have taught classes in all three of our high schools here. But that's because there are only three high schools. Where I'm going I'm probably not going to be able to teach classes in all the high schools.

Tribune: During your tenure here, the priest abuse scandal [sweeping the American church] has touched Utah so little.

Niederauer: Relatively little when you look at the headlines elsewhere. There has been a lot of self monitoring.

But for American society this is not over.

It was a dreadful thing. We must devote ourselves to the healing of the victims. We must put safeguards in place like the "Safe Environment" program. That said, there's a certain amount of denial in America that this is just a Catholic priest problem.

Tribune: You are going to be walking into a situation in San Francisco quite different from Utah. Do you know what percentage of the population is Catholic?

Niederauer: Yes. 25 percent Latino and - this might surprise you - 25 percent Filipino in the Catholic diocese. Education in the Philippines. English is very strong. A lot of medical technologies, teachers. . .

Tribune: What percentage of the general population is Catholic?

Niederauer: 25 percent. I'm losing square miles, going from 85,000 square miles to a little over 1,000, because there's just those three counties. Marin to the north, San Mateo to the south and San Francisco itself. It doesn't even go down as far as Stanford.

Every bishop is directly responsible to the Pope. The total population of those counties is 1.7 million but of that 435,000 are Catholic, which is right at 25 percent.

Tribune: So already your job is going to be dramatically different. You are not going to be as hands on as you have been here.

Niederauer; Right. You don't do all the confirmations, for example. There are two auxiliary bishops to help.

Life is highly politicized in San Francisco - even more than it was 40 or 50 years ago.

I think, too, that they participate in the general polarizing, especially political, in America. My guess is I'm going from a red city to a blue city.

I don't get the feeling from being there thus far or from visiting Archbishop Levada, because I would go there a couple times a year. I don't believe there are armed camps within the archdiocese. But I may find out people do have strong feelings.

Tribune: But here there are no victim advocate groups, for example. There there are such groups, very active ones. Lawsuits pending. This has not been a lawsuit city.

Niederauer: That's right. It may be a more litigious society. . .

Tribune: Well, maybe you double the number of Catholics. You are walking into financial issues, emotional issues. What's your feeling about all this? You charmed them at that first press conference.

Niederauer: You can't charm your way out of everything. Try to be human, try to reach out to people and get past labels. There are going to be stands to be taken and honest disagreements.

I'll have to deal with that. But I don't have to court it either. I think it's important to stand for what you stand for but nevertheless. . .Pres Hinckley [said it]: "We can disagree without being disagreeable." That's his phrase.

Tribune: It's one thing to disagree intellectually. You are talking about deep wounds. . .

Niederauer: Yes, and decisions that affect people's lives.

Tribune: Do you have trepidation? What are you feelings?

Niederauer: I don't know. I suppose I do in the sense of the unknown. But I'm in my 70th year. I don't mean this complacently but I know what I know. I can do what I can do, I am what I am. I have to give the best that I can, but then I have to meet and deal with the consequences whatever they are. I have to do that with the grace of Christ. Even as a young priest, I was impressed with Pope John XXIII when he said at night, "It's your church, Lord, I'm going to bed."

You do the best you can all day long and then say your prayers and go to bed and then you get up, say your prayers and you try to do the best you can.

Tribune: Sounds like you are at peace with this move?

Niederauer: Yes. I've been telling groups I wouldn't have sought it out - I didn't enlist, I was drafted - but having been drafted, I think you should do the Lord's will and he will carry you through.

Tribune: Are you looking forward to this challenge?

Niederauer: Well, not in the sense that, "Whoopee, at last a challenge." Everything here is very much a challenge. I have been stretched by what I was asked to do here. I enjoyed it.

I think I can be at peace with [this new assignment.] I think that's important. If you are at peace with what the Lord wants you to do, then you can be joyful about it.

As a mother, you don't say, I wish I had some other kind of children. You say, these are the children I have. God has given them to me. I love them. This is my life. I'm not yearning for another life.

I think that's true for a priest. I don't say, oh if only I were in New York. if only I were in Paris. No. This is where God wants me and where God can use me. And being used by the Lord is really terrific.

Tribune: I wish everyone felt that way.

Niederauer: I wish I felt that way every moment.

Tribune: What will you miss about Utah?

Niederauer: People. My bridge groups. My Catholic and my LDS friends. Diversity is a good thing. People say, "Don't you wish the whole city was Catholic?" Well, no. Yes I believe in the Catholic Church and I want people to believe in Catholicism. But am I happy to be in the midst of diversity? Is it kind of exciting and challenging and vibrant? Yes it is.

Jay Shelledy used to say, "We're in a state where religion matters to people.0 Religion is not ho-hum to people and that's a good thing."

Tribune: Interfaith activities are so important here.

Niederauer: Yes, everybody's the richer.

Tribune: I don't know if you are going to have as much of that in San Francisco because you'll have such a big flock.

Niederauer: I don't know either.

Tribune: It isn't that it's impossible.

Niederauer: I think there will be centers that will be interesting. The fact that there's several Catholic colleges and one large Catholic university will be different from here. University of San Francisco is a Jesuit school.

Tribune: So the diocese oversees USF?

Niederauer: No the Jesuits run it, but obviously there's a lot of interface and interaction. . . It will be a different thing to be in that kind of academic Catholic community.

Tribune: Any religious orders there?

Niederauer: Quite a few of the parishes in hands of Dominicans and Franciscans.

Tribune: Anything else you want to say about Utah?

Niederauer: I will miss the beauty of the state. And the welcoming, positive and friendly atmosphere.

Tribune: Thank you for your time.