When the Levee Breaks, Sioux City Edition
For the really curious, the fingerprints on this appointment are those of the Major Penitentiary. Cardinal James Francis Stafford, the holder of that office, the former archbishop of Denver (1986-1996) and a current member of the Congregation for Bishops, has flexed muscle in this new pontificate and successfully advanced one of his chancery recruits to the fulness of the priesthood.
Bishop-elect Nickless is a Stafford protege: he assisted the now-cardinal as Vicar for Clergy and Seminarians from 1988-93, at which point he became Vicar General of Denver, serving in that office until this morning. Walker Nickless was named a monsignor on Stafford's farewell list of papal honors before he left for Rome to take the reins of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in 1996.
The Denver team is happy. While waiting for a new auxiliary/ies, an ordination in Iowa -- slated for January 20 at the Sioux City cathedral -- is a pleasant diversion... From Rome, a source chimes in that he knew Nickless when; "a very nice man" who, according to his recollection, was on "the liberal side of moderate." (For the record, this assessment comes from before 1997.)
But as to his own qualities, and what we can cull from this as an indicator for the road ahead, there is a commentary on the state of priestly morale in this country and the role of the bishops in it. Nickless served a cumulative total of seven years as vicar for priests and seminarians in Denver, so he's exceptionally attuned to sensitivities involving priestly life and ministry, vocations strategy, and the continuing formation of priests.
When first appointed to the vicar for priests post, Nickless said in a 2002 interview with the Denver Catholic Register, he "had no idea what ministering to priests would mean."
Nickless is the third priest of Denver to receive a diocese in four years -- seminary rector Sam Aquila went to Fargo in 2001, auxiliary Bishop Jose Gomez became archbishop of San Antonio last year. And Stafford has one more in mind....
His tenure has been "humbling" the monsignor said, as he described experiencing "the pains, healing and grace" of his brother priests.
"I discovered very quickly that I would become heavily involved in the lives and ministry of priests - both the good and the bad," he said. "I found some extraordinary and heroic priests giving their lives in tremendous ways for the Church in the archdiocese and the Lord. I also became aware of the weaknesses, failures and disappointments of our priests."
The highs included receiving thanks from pastors and their parishioners for good fits. The lows, dealing with priests who were experiencing problems, including those alleged to have committed sexual misconduct."When a priest was having trouble, for whatever reason, it was painful for me and for him, but it also was an opportunity for growth," Msgr. Nickless said. "It certainly has reinforced my commitment to the priesthood and increased my prayer life. Prayer became much more important to me and daily Eucharist that gave me nourishment and strength. That's the only way I could have handled the difficult decisions that had to be made." Msgr. Nickless said he is proud of the way the archdiocese has handled complaints against priests. "Every one of them was addressed and followed up on during my tenure," he said, adding that he strove always to treat the accused and alleged victims "with respect and Christian outreach."