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SAN FRANCISCO - One year ago, Archbishop George H. Niederauer bought a one-way ticket to the City by the Bay, where he traded the expansive Utah landscape for territory not much larger than Luxembourg.
Its Catholic population is nearly three times Utah's, with even more ethnic diversity, served by at least four times as many priests. While Niederauer's day-to-day workload has increased dramatically, he remains as gregarious and at ease as ever.
Niederauer, who led the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City for 11 years, is still a witty raconteur whose sermons and conversations are peppered with allusions to T.S. Eliot and Cardinal Newman. He still plays bridge when he can and subscribes to Netflix so he doesn't have to miss any movies ("The Queen" gets the nod as his favorite film of 2006).
The new assignment isn't all that different from what he did in Utah.
"There are more meetings to go to, more boards and commissions, and sometimes they last longer," Niederauer says. "We deal with the same kinds of questions and issues, but with different emphases."
In a wide-ranging interview, Niederauer reflected on his first year as archbishop, the differences between his old and new homes, and the challenges that face him. He returns to Utah on Wednesday to participate in the installation of his successor as Salt Lake City's Catholic leader - Bishop John Wester, who coincidentally has served as Niederauer's auxiliary bishop in San Francisco.
Niederauer has spent the past 12 months traveling among the 90 parishes, meeting people, celebrating Mass with different ethnic groups, learning the cultural traditions, giving sermons and overseeing the massive education system, which includes 30,000 students attending the 63 elementary schools and 14 high schools.
Among Niederauer's most pressing problems is fixing the church's inner-city schools. It takes 225 children to keep an elementary school open, but several have fallen below 200. The students are usually African Americans or Latinos who cannot afford to pay a lot. Some of the schools may have to be closed to preserve resources and provide the best education, says Monsignor Harry Schlitt, a longtime administrator in the diocese. "But then we're stuck with old buildings."
San Francisco is one of the "least family-friendly cities in the U.S.," says Maurice Healy, longtime editor of Catholic San Francisco, the diocesan paper. "Only about 14 percent of families have children under 18. There is an increasing gap between rich and poor. The lack of affordable housing is a crisis."
All of these responsibilities weigh on Niederauer. Ever the optimist, he has forced himself to take Mondays off as a way to be "intentional" about time.
Luckily, the archbishop has no trouble delegating assignments to others on the large diocesan staff and seems comfortable in his new role.
"George seeks a lot of advice. He doesn't make decisions on his own," says Schlitt, Niederauer's first housemate in a decade.
They live in a large, 11-room former convent behind St. Mary's Cathedral, not quite as palatial as Niederauer's home in Salt Lake City, the 10,000-square-foot former residence of Sam Skaggs.
The archbishop is given to symphony, theater and foreign films, while the monsignor prefers baseball, football and fishing. Schlitt cooks breakfast, Niederauer cooks nothing, so they have a chef five days a week. Both agree "The Odd Couple" arrangement has been a success.
Schlitt used to live with Cardinal William Levada, Niederauer's predecessor. "George is more relaxed," he says.
Critics on the right: The first year has not been without bumps.
Utahns might be surprised to learn that their former bishop earned a reputation as "gay-friendly" during his time in the Beehive State. It is based on the fact that he refused to blame the church's sex-abuse scandal on homosexuality, wasn't in favor of barring all gay men from seminaries and didn't support Utah's amendment to ban same-sex marriage. His were nuanced positions, but Bay Area conservative Catholics were wary.
Then, shortly before he was installed as archbishop on Feb. 16, 2006, Niederauer told The San Francisco Chronicle that "Brokeback Mountain" was "powerful" and that "one of the lessons [of the film] is the destructiveness of not being honest with yourself and not honest with other people and not being faithful, trying to live a double life."
That made him the first American bishop to state publicly that he'd even seen the film, let alone liked it. It also gave conservatives more reason to take aim at him.
"The announcement of [Niederauer's] appointment to San Francisco was met with great public rejoicing by Dignity, New Ways Ministry and other gay advocacy groups," wrote the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the influential magazine First Things.
It was "troubling," Neuhaus wrote in the February 2006 issue, and could indicate the pope's softening on homosexuality.
Within months of his installation, Niederauer faced the question of what to do with Catholic Charities' adoption program, a problem first raised by Levada. State law prohibited any agency from discriminating on the basis of sex, meaning same-sex couples had to be considered on par with heterosexual couples. Catholic teachings oppose placing children with gay couples.
With the help of Catholic Charities/CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), Niederauer worked out a compromise. The church discontinued its adoption program, but provided some personnel and resources to California Kids Connection, an Internet service that helps families, including gays, find and adopt children.
"The Lord works in mysterious ways," San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, a gay Jew who was a consultant to Catholic Charities, told the Chronicle. "In the interests of the children and for prospective parents, this will be a great improvement. Two years from now, we will look back and see what a big step this was in getting children placed."
Schlitt says his boss handled the situation "very deftly," but it didn't satisfy conservatives.
"I really admire the man, but I was very disappointed with the compromise," says the Rev. Erik Richtsteig of St. James Catholic Church in Ogden.
Then, in a Feb. 4 radio interview, Niederauer said he wasn't inclined to withhold Communion from Catholic politicians who disagree with church teachings.
"I am not there principally as a gatekeeper," he told KCBS radio. He also declined to criticize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a member of the archdiocese, claiming he wasn't aware of her views on abortion and that he preferred dialogue on controversial issues.
Niederauer has met Pelosi once, he says, in a courtesy call before she was speaker, and the only political issue they discussed was the urgent need for immigration reform.
That explanation didn't satisfy traditionalists.
It contradicts the Vatican's directives that Catholic politicians who have been "instructed and warned and still persist in the sin . . . must be denied Communion," writes John-Henry Westen at LifeSite, a Web portal dedicated to issues of culture, life and family.
"How could he be unaware of Nancy Pelosi's position on abortion," Richtsteig wonders, "when it's a great matter of public opinion?"
Rhythms of reform: For much of the year, Niederauer's activities were dictated by the liturgical calendar. From the annual Chinese Ministry Dinner in March to the Filipino Easter traditions to the Ethnic Mass to the Christmas Vigil, the archbishop was on hand to participate and enjoy.
In between, he did lots of writing, speaking, traveling, retreating and marching.
In April, he led an interfaith prayer service calling for just and humane immigration legislation; he also met with Catholic labor leaders at a massive rally. In May, he spoke at a Darfur rally and wrote a scathing and oft-quoted critique of The Da Vinci Code, "How dark the con of Dan," that was used by many Catholic bishops and parishioners.
In June, he went to Rome to receive his pallium, or circular band of white wool "symbolizing an archbishop's authority and unity with the pope," according to a report in Catholic San Francisco. He also spoke at Stanford University's Interfaith Baccalaureate Celebration on the topic "On a cruise or a pilgrimage?"
August brought the Catholic Charities compromise, October was the International Conference on Global Poverty the archdiocese hosted at St. Mary's, and in January it was the Walk for Life through the streets of San Francisco. In November, the U.S. Catholic Bishops chose him to head its Committee on Communication, which will direct the church's media efforts in the years to come.
Niederauer misses the seasons, mountains and people of Utah. He enjoyed his interfaith work, his association with Mormon leaders, his neighbors and his priests, he says, and is looking forward to the upcoming reunion.
San Franciscans know all too well Niederauer's love for his former home.
"George uses too many allusions to his Utah diocese in his meetings," Schlitt jokes. "We're getting tired of hearing about it."
Get to know Utah's new Catholic bishop
* Read a profile of John Wester, Utah's new Catholic bishop, online today at http://www.sltrib.com or in Sunday's newspaper.