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For release in weekend editions June 23-24

Archbishop-elect Nienstedt’s record inspires speculation

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Star Tribune of Minneapolis

NEW ULM, Minn. (AP) — In the Roman Catholic confirmation season, and churches are packed with shiny teenagers and beaming parents. At St. Pius X in Glencoe, part of the New Ulm Diocese, outgoing Bishop John Nienstedt presided at a recent confirmation, speaking directly to the young people as he blessed them, then patiently posing for photo after photo.

Controversy was nowhere to be found.

That stands in stark contrast to the buzz in the parking lots of Twin Cities churches and in the hodgepodge of blogs driven by Catholics. Many believe that when Nienstedt takes the reins of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in a few months, change will sweep in like a relentless prairie wind.

Will Nienstedt’s strict adherence to orthodox doctrine, strongly evidenced in his writings and actions, eclipse outgoing Archbishop Harry Flynn’s culture of relative tolerance of diverse views? Will liberal parishes face crackdowns? Will he be, as one priest suggested, "a strong-arm corrector?"

Nienstedt himseln expressed dismay at speculation that he’ll overhaul the archdiocese. "I do not come as a politician but as a priest, as one who sees his life as being a bridge between God and his people," he said in an e-mail, the only way he agreed to be interviewed for this story.

All Roman Catholic bishops are expected to support church doctrine. But the issues they emphasize lead observers to characterize them as conservative, moderate or liberal.


Flynn has been considered moderate by Catholic standards. For instance, although in 2005 he advised parishes to deny communion to worshippers wearing rainbow sashes, a symbol of support for gay rights, he did not punish a parish that defied him.

Nienstedt’s record in New Ulm, where he will continue to preside until his replacement is named, has been unequivocally orthodox. Supporters and critics alike cite the following:

After succeeding Bishop Ray Lucker, who died in 2001, Nienstedt denounced Lucker’s call for dialogue on opening the priesthood to women.

He rebuked the Rev. Harry Behan, a priest in St. Peter, for worshipping with Lutherans on several Easters after a 1998 tornado destroyed the town’s Catholic church.

He led last year’s drive to have Catholics pepper legislators with postcards supporting a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

He has written that homosexuality stems from childhood events rather than biology.

He has decried "the contraceptive mentality" and urged Catholics to have more children if they want to help Catholic schools and provide more priests.

Nienstedt, 60, a tall, athletic man with a rich speaking and singing voice who came to New Ulm from Detroit, was relaxed as he spoke to the teens at St. Pius, joking that he was confirmed "in the Middle Ages."


Mary Ann Thalmann, 61, of Plato, looked on approvingly. Nienstedt "took us back to basics after Bishop Lucker, and given the way the world is going these days, that’s a good thing," shesaid.

Kathy Sonnek, a member of St. Mary’s in New Ulm, said his approach "is not conservative so much as it is authentic. For instance, while his predecessor said, ’There are not enough priests, so let’s ordain women,’ he said, ’No, let’s pray, fast and talk to young men about becoming priests,"’ she said. "That is truer to what the church really is."

The Rev. Phil Schotzko, who succeeded Behan in St. Peter, said Twin Cities Catholics will find Nienstedt "a strong leader and a good organizer. There may be some conversations about things he’d like to see changed. You will know what to expect with him. There will be no curveballs."

In the Twin Cities, reaction has ranged from delight to dismay, with many taking a wait-and-see attitude.

The Rev. Tom Ubel of St. Agnes, a traditional congregation in St. Paul, is distressed by criticism of Nienstedt.

"It is contrary to the demands of Christian charity and justice to judge someone’s intentions or motives before that person even begins his ministry in the archdiocese," he said.

Nienstedt’s most vocal critic has been the Rev. Michael Tegeder of St. Edward’s in Bloomington.

"Ray Lucker was a wonderful man, and for Nienstedt to come in and denounce his writings was horrible," he said. "And for him to come into our state and right away spearhead a campaign to change our Constitution without any opportunity for discussion — why did he have to be a strong-arm corrector right from the start?"

The Rev. David Smith, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, said he has heard many expressions of concern at the college. The postcard campaign is one sore point, he said. Another is Nienstedt’s beliefs about the origins of homosexuality, "which have no scientific support," he said.

The Rev. Patrick Kennedy of Pax Christi in Eden Prairie said some believe Nienstedt "has pastored his diocese in a way that indicates some rigidity.

"I’m not so bothered by the fact that someone is liberal or conservative, but rigidity on either spectrum would not be a good sign," he said. "I hope he will consult broadly before making decisions that affect the entire church."

At St. Stephen’s, which deacon Bob Wagner called "a last-chance gas station of faith for Catholics leaving or re-entering the church," worshippers expect Nienstedt to curb heavy lay participation in liturgical roles.

"Mostly, though, we wonder how ardently he’ll be involved in social justice," Wagner said. "We certainly hope he’ll be as engaged as Flynn" in immigration reform and similar issues.

Back in 1994, Flynn’s appointment to replace Archbishop John Roach set off a similar frenzy of speculation, Kennedy said. He urged Catholics to give Nienstedt "time to get his arms around his new role."

For his part, Nienstedt said this won’t be the first time people have assumed he’ll be an agent of change. He told the story of how a woman at a Michigan parish — where he had deliberately refrained from making any changes — thanked him for changing things.

"I realized the sheer difference of my personality from the previous pastor had been interpreted as introducing changes," he said. "Since I did not look like the previous pastor, walk like him, preach like him ... all this seemed different to the people and was looked upon ... as so many ’changes."’


Information from: Star Tribune,

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