A wonderful Easter gift for the Church

| April 24, 2014

NienstedtBlPope Francis will give the universal Church a great Easter gift in the canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27. I hope to be present in the Piazza San Pietro on that historic occasion. I have been told that for the first time ever, any and every bishop present is invited to concelebrate the Mass.

I was in the eighth grade of my parish Catholic grade school when I received news of the death of Pope Pius XII and, within a few days, the death of my own archbishop, Cardinal Edward Mooney.

I remember feeling that it was the end of the world! God had taken the only pope and archbishop I had ever known in my short life. My home parish took up a spiritual bouquet on behalf of the two spiritual leaders and I pledged to offer 100 Masses apiece for each of them. It took me a few years, well into high school, to redeem that pledge.

From the moment he was elected pope, John XXIII had an immediate positive impact on the Church and the world. He had a warm, smiling demeanor, which was quite a change from the rather austere but ever so proper comportment of his predecessor.

He was a heavyset man who reflected his simple, peasant origins. But we soon came to learn that behind that friendly exterior lay a seminary professor, a military chaplain, a diplomat and a pastor of souls. He served as apostolic delegate to Bulgaria, then Turkey and Greece. Later, he was named by Pope Pius XII to the prestigious position of apostolic nuncio to France, and from there he became Patriarch of Venice.

The rich diversity of these postings in both Eastern and Western Europe allowed for a rich education on the state of the Church in the contemporary world. Those insights, I believe, led him to call for the Second Vatican Council, the first of its kind to deal primarily with the pastoral concerns, as opposed to the dogmatic concerns, of the Universal Church.

It has been told that when a highly placed Vatican official told him that it would be “absolutely impossible” to open the Council in 1963, he responded, “Fine, we’ll open it in 1962.” And, he did. One of the best quotes that reflects the deep faith of “Good” Pope John still provides guidance for us today:

“Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”

I was standing in the crowd before St. Peter’s Basilica on the evening of Oct. 16, 1978, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was announced as Pope John Paul II. At the time, I was serving as priest secretary to Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit. I was with him for the election of Pope John Paul I a month before, and here I was back so soon for the election of the first non-Italian pope in many years.

At the young age of 58, the new “Polish” pope also had an extensive background. He was a poet, a playwright, a scholar, a campus minister and a zealous pastor of souls. He had lived through the Nazi occupation of his homeland and narrowly escaped arrest for clandestine activities.

I had the opportunity to meet him shortly after I had been assigned to the Vatican Secretariat of State. As he approached me, he asked, “What is your name?” I knew it wasn’t a trick question, but I couldn’t think of what to say, so caught up in the moment as I was. His secretary, Msgr. John McGee, stated, “This is Father Nienstedt from the English language Section.” The pope smiled at me ever so gently and said, “You will do good work!”

I followed closely the activities of this tireless pastor for the next five years. I watched from a window in the Vatican palace as the ambulance took him to the Gemelli Hospital after he was shot on May 3, 1981. I met him again in person when he began his pastoral visits to Roman parishes after a long recuperation. He had a great memory for faces as he would say to me, “I know you! But don’t I? Yes, yes, I know you!”

In 1996, he named me an auxiliary bishop in Detroit and five years later, he named me to be the third bishop of New Ulm.

I attended two “ad limina” visits under his tenure and participated in the World Youth Days in Denver and Toronto. And, of course, I was home in Detroit as rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary when he made his visit in 1987. It was there that I had yet another opportunity for a personal encounter. This time he said to me, “I know you, but you have abandoned me.” I answered, “No, Holy Father, I have not abandoned you. I’ve been given this important ministry and you must pray for me and for my seminarians.” He looked away and then turned back. “OK,” he said, “I will pray. I will pray.” And with that, he patted the side of my head.

The quote from the “Great” Pope John Paul that resonates with me still is: “There are no coincidences in God’s Plan for Salvation.”

Indeed, there are not! Just as it is no coincidence that these two great pastoral leaders will be canonized together on April 27!

God love you!


Identifying a new model for Catholic schools

Catholic schools are vital to sustaining the message of Jesus Christ in our world. All families desiring excellence in Catholic education for their children should have that option. However, many of our schools are struggling to balance the rising costs of education with keeping tuition affordable for all families.

I am pleased to announce that I have authorized and strongly support a broad and faith-filled group of leaders to initiate an archdiocesan schools sustainability study.  The study will focus on a variety of highly successful models for Catholic schools across our nation to identify what might best meet the needs of this archdiocese and our schools.

A committee of religious and lay leaders from across our community, all with a strong commitment to and passion for the mission of Catholic schools, will be formed in the coming weeks. Members of the Archdiocesan Catholic Schools Advisory Council will participate in the process.

This is a moment of hope for our Catholic schools and our local Church. I ask God’s blessing on this initiative, and I offer my prayers for its success.

Category: Only Jesus

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