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Archbishop George H. Niederauer, 1936-2017: Eighth archbishop of San Francisco

01 tier.1.2006.10-11 Niederauer-Press 700pxWith a smile on his face and his hand over his heart, Archbishop George H. Niederauer passes media cameras as he approaches the doors of St. Mary’s Cathedral on Feb. 15, 2006, for his installation as eighth archbishop of San Francisco. (Photo by catholic san francisco)

May 11, 2017

Friends, faithful, priests and brother bishops remembered retired San Francisco Archbishop George H. Niederauer as a gentle shepherd who led the archdiocese with wit, intelligence and a thoroughly pastoral but at times unapologetically countercultural proclamation of the Gospel.

“To follow the Gospel is to swim against the current,” Archbishop Niederauer told an October 2008 gathering of young adult Catholics at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in San Francisco, two weeks before an election that included church-supported Proposition 8 on the California ballot.

Archbishop Niederauer, 80, who served as the eighth archbishop of San Francisco from 2006-12 and led Utah Catholics for 11 years before that following a career as an English professor, died May 2. He had been living at Nazareth House in San Rafael for several months following a diagnosis of interstitial lung disease.

Viewing hours are Thursday, May 11, from 4-7 p.m. at Mission Dolores Basilica, 3321 16th St., San Francisco, followed by a vigil with San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy as homilist. Bishop McElroy served with Archbishop Niederauer as an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, May 12, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1111 Gough St., San Francisco, followed by a procession to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma and interment. Cardinal William J. Levada, the seventh archbishop of San Francisco and a lifelong friend of the late archbishop, will be principal celebrant and homilist.

“Archbishop Niederauer was known for his spiritual leadership, intelligence and wisdom, compassion and humor, and was always focused on his responsibility to live and teach the faith,” San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone said in a May 2 announcement to the priests of the archdiocese.

“When he was named archbishop, he was asked what he would want the people of the Archdiocese of San Francisco to know about him,” Archbishop Cordileone said. “He answered, ‘I’ve chosen the motto for my coat of arms, ‘to serve and to give’, because I am convinced servant leadership in the church defines the role of the bishop. This is the message of the Gospel, as in the reading from Mark, Chapter 10, which was included in my installation Mass. There we hear James and John asking for special places next to Jesus. He says to all his apostles that 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.’ Leading by serving: it’s easily misunderstood, but it seems central to me.”

At his inaugural press conference on Dec. 15, 2005, Archbishop Niederauer said he sees the role of bishop as “priest, prophet and shepherd” and was immediately asked by reporters how he would reconcile the “conservative” positions of the church with the “liberal” city of San Francisco, the National Catholic Register reported at the time. “I want to get past labels,” Archbishop Niederauer said. “I think the ministry of Christ, the ministry of Christ in his church is to meet men, women and children everywhere ... to teach the good news which is good news for right, left, and center.”

Former Los Angeles archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony remembered his longtime friend and seminary classmate for his “engaging wit and humor” that “became hallmarks of his open and loving personality, and he always had just the right words and the turn of a phrase to help defuse tensions and to uplift people – no matter what cloud was overhead.”

On the celebration of his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination at St. Mary’s Cathedral in 2012, former San Francisco auxiliary bishop and Salt Lake City bishop and now – Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester commented on how Archbishop Niederauer’s motto “to serve and to give” matched the archbishop’s approach to his vocation.

The motto “is perfect because that’s what he does,” Archbishop Wester told Salt Lake City’s Intermountain Catholic newspaper. “He’s a real pastor and I admire him greatly. He’s a real servant of Christ. He’s been an inspiration to me in my own ministry.”

Msgr. J. Terrence Fitzgerald, the retired vicar general at the Diocese of Salt Lake City and a friend of Archbishop Niederauer for 25 years, said of him at that time, “He is one of the most authentic human people that I have known. St. Thomas Aquinas said grace builds on nature. And I think that is really true in the archbishop’s case because he is such a good, warm, personable individual. His presence reflects a certain grace of the church’s presence.”

Msgr. Jack Stoeger, director of the Cardinal Manning House of Prayer for Priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and a longtime friend, recalled the archbishop as “a very sought-after and admired spiritual director,” distinguished as available to everyone and non-judgmental. He said Archbishop Niederauer was “a wonderful discerner” who “knew how to make decisions that would reflect a belief in God -- common-sense, rooted in the Earth and in the world but very committed to doing the right thing.”

He also had “this incredible capacity for friendship,” Father Stoeger told Catholic San Francisco. “I don’t know of anybody who had as many friends as he had.”

On his 50th ordination anniversary, Archbishop Niederauer told Catholic San Francisco reporter George Raine, “I am grateful to God for calling me to spend my life meeting and serving Jesus Christ in my sisters and brothers in the church. The church is truly my family in faith.”

Raine captured Archbishop Niederauer in the following passage in the April 20, 2012, issue of Catholic San Francisco.

“He’s regarded as a master homilist, a wit, a holy and keenly intelligent and well-read man,” Raine wrote. “He’s as likely to quote the Gospels’ parables as he is the poetry of paradox – perhaps the story of the Pharisee’s braggadocio as he gives God thanks that he is not like the rest of men and the prayerful tax collector who admits he’s a sinner (it’s the lone Gospel passage in which Jesus is a satirist, the teacher notes, referring to the Pharisee’s bad prayer) or perhaps Oscar Hammerstein II in ‘The Sound of Music’ on giving in order to have: ‘A bell’s not a bell ‘til you ring it, A song’s not a song ‘til you sing it, Love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay, Love isn’t love ‘til you give it away.’ Both tell the truth.”

Raine wrote that Archbishop Niederauer’s favorite short story by the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor was “Revelation,” which tells of a smug woman who looks down on people of a lower class but at story’s end sees them at the front of the line “climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

As archbishop of San Francisco, Archbishop Niederauer left behind a Utah diocese in an area heavily influenced by the traditional values of the Church of the Latter-day Saints to grapple with a number of controversial issues. In 2008, he supported the California ballot measure Proposition 8 defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The measure passed but was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The policy director for the Mormons credited Archbishop Niederauer’s outreach to the Church of Latter-day Saints with its decision to commit door-to-door campaigning and $20 million to the Yes on 8 campaign, the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time.

While the ballot measure was approved by California voters, it was later overturned by a federal court in 2010. That ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

The campaign was so divisive that Archbishop Niederauer published an open letter in the Dec. 5, 2008, Catholic San Francisco titled, “With God’s grace and much prayer, we can all move forward together.”

“Tolerance, respect, and trust are always two-way streets, and tolerance, respect and trust often do not include agreement, or even approval,” he wrote. “We need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. We need to stop talking as if we are experts on the real motives of people with whom we have never even spoken. We need to stop hurling names like ‘bigot’ and ‘pervert’ at each other. And we need to stop it now.”

Earlier, in 2006, Archbishop Niederauer ended the archdiocese’s 99-year Catholic Charities adoption agency, and in 2008 severed ties with a contracted adoption agency after the Vatican directed an end to adoptions by gay families. During that period, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution urging Archbishop Niederauer to “defy” the Vatican and accused the Vatican of being a “meddling … foreign country.”

In 2009, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi contended in a Newsweek interview that freedom of conscience meant her advocacy for abortion rights was compatible with her Catholic faith. Archbishop Niederauer responded in a January 2010 column in Catholic San Francisco. “While we deeply respect the freedom of our fellow citizens, we nevertheless are profoundly convinced that free will cannot be cited as justification for society to allow moral choices that strike at the most fundamental rights of others,” he wrote. “Such a choice is abortion, which constitutes the taking of innocent human life, and cannot be justified by any Catholic notion of freedom.”

Archbishop Niederauer also defended religious freedom, opposing a proposed ban on circumcision by the Board of Supervisors. He regularly attended the Walk for Life West Coast.

“Throughout his episcopate he joined us at the Walk for Life West Coast in promoting the culture of life and defending the littlest among us, and we will never forget it,” said Eva Muntean, co-chair of the Walk for Life West Coast.

Archbishop Niederauer actively supported immigrant rights.

“Because we are a nation of immigrants, one of my unfulfillable fantasies by way of a time machine would be to get our Catholics who are very intolerant of immigration alone in a room with their great-grandparents, and talk about immigration,” he told Catholic San Francisco in 2012.

Born June 14, 1936, in Los Angeles, the only son of a banker-turned homebuilder and a homemaker, George Hugh Niederauer graduated from St. Anthony High School in Long Beach and attended Stanford University for a year before entering the seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood April 30, 1962, for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

He earned a doctorate in English from the University of Southern California in 1966, and spent 27 years as English professor, spiritual director, theology teacher and rector at the seminary and at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Los Angeles before his 1994 appointment by Pope John Paul II to serve Catholics throughout Utah as bishop of Salt Lake City.

Archbishop Niederauer earned a Bachelor of Philosophy degree at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Loyola University Los Angeles in 1962. He also earned a Ph.D. in English Literature at University of Southern California in 1966.

In retirement, Cardinal Levada and Archbishop Niederauer shared a home on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park, where Archbishop Niederauer frequently ate in the dining room with the seminarians, joshing and chatting. During his nearly five years of retirement, he generously responded to frequent requests to give retreats – to bishops, priests, deacons, men and women religious and seminarians. In January this year, he moved to Nazareth House during his final illness.

During his active ministry, Archbishop Niederauer served as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Communication and as a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He is the author of “Precious as Silver: Imagining Your Life with God” (Ave Maria Press, 2003), which explores biblical images of Christian life and reflects on spirituality centered on Jesus.

12-13 deportation 700pxArchbishop Niederauer at St. Mary’s Cathedral at a 2012 interfaith conference opposing federal policy on deportations. Auxiliary Bishop William J. Justice is at the archbishop’s right. (Catholic San Francisco)

 

01 SMC_Assumpta Award Dinner2013_700pxArchbishop Niederauer with then-St. Mary’s Cathedral rector Msgr. John Talesfore and Archbishop Cordileone at the cathedral’s 2013 Assumpta Awards ceremony. (Photo by Dennis Callahan/Catholic San Francisco)

 

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