New Ulm bishop chosen to succeed Harry Flynnby Greta Cunningham, Minnesota Public Radio
Pope Benedict has named the bishop of the Diocese of New Ulm successor to the current archbishop of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese. Bishop John Nienstedt will serve as coadjutor archbishop, and will share duties with the current Archbishop Harry Flynn, as he begins planning for his retirement in 2008.
St. Paul, Minn. — Archbishop Harry Flynn says he's confident Bishop John Nienstedt is the right man to lead the 646,000 members of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese.
Archbishop Flynn introduced his successor at a news conference Tuesday and spoke of Bishop Nienstadt's background as a parish priest, a professor and his experience as an auxiliary bishop in Detroit.
"I think you will agree that Bishop Nienstadt comes to us as an experienced, well-prepared leader," Flynn said.
When Nienstedt takes over for Flynn, he'll take charge of 654 priests and 220 parishes in 12 counties. When pressed to describe his philosophy, Nienstedt wouldn't describe himself as either conservative or liberal.
"The traditional categories of liberal and conservative are political terms," he said. "And to the extent that we can -- I realize that we don't live in a perfect world -- I try to avoid those terms," he said.
Nienstedt, 60, describes himself as a parish priest. He joked that the Vatican's call for him to take on this leadership role had no resemblance to Jesus talking to the Apostles.
On April 2, the Vatican telephoned Neinstedt on his cell phone to offer him the post, as he was driving near Marshall, Minnesota. Neinstedt says the cell phone signal in the area was not strong, and the calls from the Vatican kept dropping.
"Nothing! No one is there, and I'm saying, 'Hello, hello.' And I can see it's the Nuncio calling, but there was no connection."
It took Nienstedt 45 minutes to finally establish a clear connection, and to learn the pope had appointed him to lead the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese.
Nienstedt has been seen as a rising conservative leader in the church for several years, said Paul Lakeland, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
"He was cultivated all through the past 10 years of John Paul's time," Lakeland said, who noted Nienstedt's doctorate -- on the morality of some reproductive science -- from the Pontifical Institute of Saint Alphonsus in Rome.
In Rome, Nienstedt also worked for several years with former Vatican diplomat Cardinal Justin Rigali, now of Philadelphia.
"I consider him a close friend, whose human and priestly qualities I admire," Rigali said in a prepared statement.
Pope John Paul made Nienstedt a bishop, and later in 2001 sent him to the Diocese of New Ulm to replace Bishop Raymond Lucker, who retired for health reasons. At the time, Lucker was considered one of the most liberal bishops in the nation, according to Lakeland.
Nienstedt "fits the mold of John Paul II's episcopal appointees," Lakeland said. "He's a cautious conservative."
He also said Nienstedt was "distinctly more conservative than Flynn."
Russell Shaw, a writer on Catholic issues who spent 18 years as a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Bishops, was less sure about that.
"The difference between Lucker and Nienstedt was much wider than Flynn and Nienstedt," he said.
He predicted no radical change when Nienstedt becomes archbishop.
Nienstedt himself said he does not expect to make any changes in the archdiocese immediately.
"I think the archdiocese is going in a good direction," Nienstedt said.
He said he's focused on bringing young men to the priesthood and keeping the church vital.
Nienstedt, who described himself as a big hockey fan, said one of the perks of moving to St. Paul will be his close proximity to the Xcel Energy Center and the Minnesota Wild's home ice.
"While they did not make it to the second round of the playoffs this year, nevertheless I have seen them provide solid, consistent play, a collaborative ethic of working as a team, and a determination to stick to the fundamentals of the game," said Nienstedt. "Their style is one that I hope to emulate in my role as your coadjutor archbishop."
One local Catholic leader who knows Nienstedt is pleased with his selection. Monsignor Aloysius Callaghan, the rector of The St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas, knows Nienstedt well from their days studying in Rome.
"He's a man of the church. He's a youthful bishop who is eager to proclaim the Gospel, and he'll bring all of that to this new challenge," said Callaghan. "And together with Archbishop Flynn, who for me is a model of what a good shepherd should be, I think we're doubly blessed here."
Monsignor Callaghan says Flynn and Nienstedt share some characteristics, including a sense of humor.
"I think they both have a strong and ardent love for the church. Their whole life is the priesthood," said Callaghan. "They know that the seminary is the heart of the church, and preparing men in the best possible way to be shepherds for the people. I think that's something they both have in common. They both do it so very well."
Harry Flynn became archbishop in 1995, and is perhaps best known for his role leading a committee of U.S. bishops that helped the church deal with the sex-abuse scandal that broke in 2002.
A statement from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, SNAP, accuses both Flynn and Nienstedt of consistently using a legalistic rather than a pastoral approach to the church's crisis.
Archbishop Flynn is scheduled to retire sometime in 2008, after he turns 75. Flynn joked with Nienstedt that he, too, was a coadjutor twice, and he knows what it's like to be the man in waiting.
"The coadjutor," Flynn said, "when he meets the archbishop in the morning, he says, 'How do you feel?'"
"And then he takes his pulse," Nienstedt finished the joke.
Nienstedt will continue some of his duties at the Diocese of New Ulm until his replacement is named.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
- All Things Considered, 04/24/2007, 5:24 p.m.