Catholic San Francisco


Archbishop Niederauer is pictured at his residence April 5 in a portrait by Jose Luis Aguirre.

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April 18th, 2012
By George Raine

A look at the life and 50-year priestly career of Archbishop George Niederauer.

Following his ordination in 1962, young Father George Niederauer had begun his first assignment, at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Claremont, when the Archdiocese of Los Angeles began to map his future: He would be sent for further study, get a Ph.D. in education, and take a seat in the archdiocese’s education office.

It happened that he had earned a master of arts degree in English that same year, at Loyola University, and he and the archdiocese learned that the doctoral program would take a year less if he earned the degree in English.

“Thank you, God,” said San Francisco Archbishop Niederauer, telling the story 50 years later of how the master plan for his role in education administration simply went away, and how the stars were aligned to allow him to earn the degree in English at the University of Southern California and go on to teach English literature, with relish, for 27 years at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo.

He has always been drawn to storytelling, and story has been at the heart of his 50 years as a priest, the anniversary being celebrated on April 30, just as Jesus was a storyteller, he noted. “The kingdom of God is like yeast … The kingdom of God is like … The kingdom of God is like … When they wrote the Gospels that is what they wrote,” said Archbishop Niederauer. “What they remember are the stories and the images.”

He added, “Jesus just doesn’t talk about it, he shows it. It is the portrayal of truth.”

There is much more on the teacher’s resume, of course: He is the eighth archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, installed Feb. 15, 2006, and was the bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City for 11 years prior to that.

He’s regarded as a master homilist, a wit, a holy and keenly intelligent and well read man. 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.

Christ and the truth are found in many of the stories the archbishop tells because that’s what has driven him these 50 years – that and knowing the church is his family in faith.

Of his 50 years as a priest, Archbishop Niederauer said, “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. I really woke up to this reality at my mother’s funeral, after I had been ordained 20 years. The parish church was full of people but, because my only aunt was having emergency surgery, there was not a single blood relative among those hundreds of people. I said to myself, ‘This is your family,’ and that made sense for me out of Jesus saying about the crowd of people listening to him, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers.’” (Matthew 12:50.

Msgr. J. Terrence Fitzgerald, the retired vicar general at the Diocese of Salt Lake City and a friend of the archbishop for 25 years, said of him, “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.”

When he turned 75 on June 14, 2011, Archbishop Niederauer dutifully offered his resignation as archbishop to Pope Benedict XVI. He continues to serve until a successor is named and installed.

He was born June 14, 1936, in Los Angeles, the son of a banker-turned homebuilder and a homemaker. At St. Anthony High School in Long Beach, he and William J. Levada – now Cardinal Levada, the former archbishop here and now head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican – were close friends, and band mates.

Cardinal Levada enrolled at St. John’s after high school, and Archbishop Niederauer was off to Stanford University for his freshman year. The stirrings of a vocation were there, however: The priests at St. Anthony were very well educated, they gave a very good education “and, as far as I could tell, they were uniformly happy and effective men,” said Archbishop Niederauer. “They loved being priests. They were very good at it. People respected them, looked up to them.”

During a break at Stanford he visited the seminary. The deal was closed. “I enjoyed myself at Stanford. I just figured, well, they (seminarians) are doing what I want to do. So why not join them,” the archbishop reasoned. He arrived for his second year of college.

The St. John’s years were rich, as seminarian, teacher and administrator. He was also a spiritual director, taught spiritual theology and was rector from 1987 to 1992, his last five years at the seminary.

“He knew the foils of the spiritual life as well as the gifts of it and I think when he saw people like myself being challenged he nurtured us when we were in need and challenged us when we needed to be challenged, and he has a great caring heart and a great sense of humor,” said Father Leon M. Hutton, assistant professor of church history and director of human formation and evaluation at St. John’s, a student and friend of the archbishop’s for 40 years. He also said the archbishop loaded them down with homework.

“Oh pobrecito,” said the archbishop.
What he drilled into Father Hutton and every other seminarian he has known, said Archbishop Niederauer, is service, just as Matthew pointed out in his Gospel: “Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve …”

“If we are self-serving in ministry, we are countersigns to Christ. We show what not to do if we lord it over people,” said the archbishop.

The current seminarians for the archdiocese are “engaging, authentic, real people, and happy at what they are doing,” he said. “I see them as trying to be Christ-centered and trying to see Christ in others and serve Christ in others. And to be the love of Christ for people, not just the authority of Christ.”

Archbishop Niederauer has long bemoaned the fact that humility is in short supply and the rampant twin evils of entitlement and victimhood.

His 2005 commencement address at the University of Utah is a mirror of his values: He told the graduates that in the Old West, there were three classes of stagecoach tickets – first, second and third. People with a first-class ticket could remain seated if the rig was stuck in the mud or otherwise out of commission. Those with second-class tickets could get off and watch as others fixed the problem. Third-class passengers got out and worked to get the coach moving again.

“Congratulations to you graduates on completing your first-class education … and earning yourself your third-class tickets to community. Welcome aboard the coach,” he said, meaning we are all issued those lesser tickets as we’re expected make our communities better places.

“It’s easy for us in America, culturally, to be casually arrogant and for us to buy into entitlement and victimhood and that is really unhealthy,” said Archbishop Niederauer.

He said he’s uncomfortable with the word legacy – it’s too much like a monument and lofty, he said – but that’s the word Auxiliary Bishop William J. Justice used when he said of the archbishop, “I think his legacy is that he truly cares about people. He truly cares about them hearing the Gospel and whatever he can do to help them live it but also to be there when there is pain and when there is suffering and when there is confusion. I think that is his biggest legacy.”

If that is so, said the archbishop, it comes from his parents, other priests and others “who have taught me to be a priest for 50 years, and it took 50 years, and it will take 51 I am sure.” But, of course, a priest deals with so many intangibles, he said, that it’s difficult to know what works best.

“I can’t evaluate,” he said. “What if, at the final judgment, Jesus likes much more what I said to some woman in confession – I’m making this up – when I was hearing confessions at an advent service in 1973 at St. Bernardine of Siena Church in Woodland Hills, and that is more important to Jesus than any homily I ever preached. Because I don’t know. And that is fine with me because I trust in God. More than I trust in me.”


From April 20, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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