home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted January 30, 2008

Archbishop Niederauer on cathedral ministries

All Things Catholic by John L. Allen, Jr.

I was in Saint Augustine, Fla., this week, speaking at a national “Cathedral Ministry Conference.” For American Catholics, Saint Augustine is, in a sense, where it all began; it was here on Sept. 8, 1565, that a Spanish missionary priest celebrated the first Mass in what would eventually become the United States.

A rustic altar in a small park billed as “America’s most sacred acre,” located across a footbridge from Prince of Peace Catholic Church, marks the site where Fr. Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales said that Mass some 442 years ago. Today an 11-foot bronze statue of Lopez looks out over the harbor, arms outstretched.

In that hallowed place and tried to hear echoes of the Catholic past. Among other things, it’s a reminder that the first stirrings of Catholicism in this country were part of historical forces that shaped what we call today Hispanic culture. Given the rising demographic profile of Hispanics in the American church -- according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 39 percent of the Catholic population in the U.S. is now Hispanic -- this aspect of our past is clearly also prologue.

* * *

Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco keynoted the conference on Wednesday, which brings together rectors, pastors, and other leaders from cathedrals around the country. He based his reflections on his episcopal motto, drawn from the words of Jesus in Mark 10: “To serve and to give.”

Niederauer joked that he had managed to go 13 years as a bishop without ever basing a talk on his motto -- he was proud, he said, “of that kind of humility.” Yet he always knew the day would come when a group asked him to speak on their area of expertise, and he would fall back on the motto in the absence of any other way to get into the subject.

“You are that group, and this is that talk,” he deadpanned.

Niederauer argued that cathedrals should be models of “servant leadership,” rooted in service and humility rather than self-aggrandizement and power. He said the qualities of a good cathedral are the same as those of a good bishop, which he listed as “courage, fidelity, strength, zeal, pastoral outreach, accessibility, defending the rights and welfare of all the faithful, humility, patience in the face of adversity, and concern for the entire community of God’s children.”

The “counter-signs” of an effective bishop or cathedral, on the other hand, according to Niederauer, include becoming “isolated, arrogant, inaccessible, all take and no give, feared and dreaded rather than loved and respected.”

An aspect of servant leadership growing in importance today, Niederauer said, is active concern for the entire community in which one serves, rather than just the Catholic population.

“We have travelled a long distance,” he joked, “from the vision of that 1950s Catholic newspaper in the Midwest that once carried the following headline: ‘No Catholics killed in Oklahoma storms.’ ”

In terms of translating servant leadership into practice, Niederauer urged cathedrals to exercise imagination. One of his most poignant asides came in discussing how cathedrals might engage the immigration issue.

Anti-immigrant prejudice, he said, “is not just a failure in charity, but a failure in imagination.”

“When I hear anti-immigrant people speak, I often wonder what it would be like to get them into a room with their parents and grandparents who came to this country, and to have a conversation,” Niederauer said. “That’s about imagination -- moving them to understand what it was like for their ancestors to be defenseless, helpless, feeling lost in a place where they don’t speak the language.”

Niederauer holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Southern California, and he closed off this line of reflection with a bit of literary flourish from poet E.E. Cummings: “And down they forgot, as up they grew.”

“I think we’ve down forgot, as up we grew,” Niederauer said, referring to the present ambivalence about immigration in the United States.

Niederauer was asked how a cathedral can engage issues of community concern without getting pulled into partisan political disputes. He said he had no magic formula, but advised working with ecumenical and inter-faith partners because “there’s strength in numbers.”

Most importantly, he said, cathedrals should not avoid difficult or high-profile challenges for fear of being used.

“We have to take risks,” he said, counseling against an approach of “we don’t want our skirts to get dirty, so we won’t go outside.