Call to San Francisco pulls bishop from cozy home
Bishop George H. Niederauer was talking about King David in his Sunday sermon at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, but he might just as well have been telling his own story.
David was so successful as a king, warrior and administrator that he thought he would do something nice for God, such as build him a temple. A heavenly messenger had news for the cocky king: "God has plans for you, not the other way around."
If you want to make God laugh, Niederauer quipped, tell him your plans.
The bishop, who is 69, had his own turnabout this week. He was expecting to live out his years of active service ministering to the 200,000-member Diocese of Salt Lake City since bishops traditionally are asked to resign on or around their 75th birthday. But it was not to be.
On Thursday, the Vatican plucked Niederauer from his comfortable home of nearly 11 years and plopped him down as the new archbishop of San Francisco, an archdiocese that claims 425,000 Catholics from Marin, San Mateo and San Francisco counties, and many more times the headaches and responsibilities.
Niederauer fills the vacancy created when his longtime friend and seminary classmate, Archbishop William Levada, became head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.
When Niederauer asked him for advice about running his new archdiocese, Levada reportedly said, "Take courage."
Those who know Niederauer said Thursday that he was well-suited for his new assignment, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle.
They cited his criticism of the Iraq war, his opposition to guns in churches and on campus, and his outreach to ethnic minorities, particularly Latinos.
They also appreciated his tolerance on the question of homosexuality and gay priests.
"He is central casting's ideal type to be the archbishop of San Francisco," Rocco Palmo, a church politics expert for The Tablet, an international Catholic paper published in London, told the Chronicle. "He is witty, urbane, cultured - he drops literature references that aren't just from Scripture. He's the perfect person to get Catholics a seat at the table in San Francisco."
On Sunday, Niederauer and Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald were at the exquisite, Spanish-style church on the west side of Salt Lake City to dedicate its shrine to Guadalupe, the vision of the Virgin Mary seen by Juan Diego, a 16th century Mexican peasant.
Our Lady of Guadalupe was one of the first congregations to hear Niederauer speak of his impending departure since he returned to Utah on Friday.
"A funny thing happened on the way to retirement . . . ." Niederauer said with characteristic humor.
His voice quivering with emotion, he told the more than 100 people in the pews: "I ask you to pray for me as I will continue to pray for you. I will miss you all so much. . . . [Utah] is my home."
Niederauer then moved from the chancel, festooned with candles and poinsettias, to dedicate the shrine, a statue of the Virgin in a nearby alcove. The bishop solemnly intoned his prayer in English and Spanish for the largely Latino congregation.
Our Lady of Guadalupe's pastor, the Rev. Wayne Epperley, noted this could be the bishop's last visit to the parish before Niederauer is installed as archbishop in a ceremony at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco on Feb. 15. So after Mass parishioners lined up to greet, congratulate and embrace their bishop one more time.
Corwin Jackson said it was sad to see him go, but that he will be a gift to the people of San Francisco.
Kay Carferelli, a member of the parish since 1951, said, "We've all needed him here, but now they need him there." Then she snapped his picture with her little camera to remember the moment.
A few shed a tear. Some joked with him. Others touched his hand or stroked his purple-robed arm. One woman asked him to bless her pink-clad daughter who just had a birthday. He did so willingly.
He laughed, joked and exchanged pleasantries with each person as he or she passed him.
When Vatican officials first told him of the California appointment, Niederauer protested that he was too old. "They said, '70 is not what it used to be.' "
With a shrug of resignation, he said, "When you are called, you go. That's it."