Thursday, December 15, 2005


As if you needed any further proof that George Hugh Niederauer, San Francisco's archbishop-elect, has the intellectual, human and cultural gifts necessary to lead one of the US' most challenging episcopal assignments, know this: He spent his first year of college at Stanford.

Thanks be to God: Bernard Law (Harvard Class of '53) has finally been replaced as the poster-bishop for secular academia. I'm dizzy with happiness.

Just the other day, Niederauer hiked with a group of high school students to a Salt Lake plaque honoring Judaism which had been vandalized.
Niederauer told the students that it is not enough to not make discriminatory remarks yourself, to not deface a plaque yourself.

He said we fail each other when we sit by when someone else tells a racist joke or scratches hateful words.

Speaking up against hateful speech is like exercise, he told the students. "Other people can't exercise for us, or worship for us, or defend freedom for us.'' Perhaps the defacing was done in the dark, the bishop said. Now, "in the daylight, we're up here saying 'this will not do."
And more from a profile culled from the archives of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City -- the paper of the LDS church (or, as they're commonly known, The Mormons):
[O]n the formal occasion of his ordination as bishop, while wearing robes decorated with the new insignias of his office, the first words out of his mouth were, "I hope none of this falls off."

"I can always tell when his New Yorker (magazine) has come," says Dan John, director of religious education at the Utah Catholic diocese. "He'll call me and say, 'Dan, come down here a moment.' It'll be to show me cartoons he's marked in the magazine." ...

Bishop Niederauer grew up in the Los Angeles area. He was a sickly child and missed school frequently in his early years — a thyroid condition cost him a year of grade school, forcing him to repeat a grade — but he had an unusual love for studying and learning. He was an avid reader, a devoted student with a special fondness for European history, a stamp collector and member of the school band. ("I was a very bad trombonist. When there were four trombones, I was fourth; when there were five, I was fifth.")

"I was an indoors kind of kid," says the bishop. "My poor father wanted a third baseman, and he got an English teacher." ...

"We were a devout Catholic family," he says. "We had religious art in our home, and there was a St. Christopher medal in the car, and my father carried a rosary. We went to Mass on Sunday. We would keep the seasons of the year, especially Lent. My poor father would give up smoking every Lent, and my mother and I would pray for Easter to come so he would be human again." ...

Bishop Niederauer favors Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O'Connor (the bishop was a guest speaker at a BYU symposium on the subject of O'Connor), William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Williams and Henry James, among others.

Taking his seminary mentor's advice, he sows literary allusions and quotes throughout sermons and conversations to illuminate a point. During the course of a casual conversation, he will quote from a wide variety of sources, from Thomas Jefferson to St. Thomas Aquinas to Jesus Christ to any figure in the Bible to Calvin Coolidge to Chaucer to Shakespeare. . . . All of which has helped him gain a wide reputation for meeting the greatest challenge for all men behind the pulpit: Not being boring....

The story of the collapsing bookshelves might say more about the bishop's reading habits than a conspiracy. As [SLC diocese education director] Dan John notes, "If you're going to sit with the bishop, you better go read up."

One day John was in Bishop Niederauer's office anguishing over an administrative decision. John was hoping the bishop would make the decision for him, but the bishop wanted John to do it. Finally, the bishop leaned over to John and said, "Dan, I'm not going to command the tides to stop." John, a fellow bookworm, understood the obscure 1,000-year-old reference to the English King Canute, who once commanded the tides to stop and ended up getting wet.

"He has a quote for everything," says John. "He has amazing recall. He can quote Othello for five minutes."...

Heaven help the man who draws Bishop Niederauer into a debate, given the literary weapons and vast knowledge he has at his disposal. A few years ago, he took exception with the Los Angeles Times' review of a book by Gore Vidal and wrote a letter to the editor in which he scorched the author and the reviewer. To wit:

Jonathan Raban's review of Gore Vidal's "United States: Essays 1952-1992" (May 23) struck me as an uncritical endorsement of Vidal as the voice of not-so-sweet reason in a world of hypocrisy. In particular I challenge the apparent agreement with Vidal's portrayal of monotheistic religion as "the greatest unmentionable evil at the center of our culture. . . ."

Raban describes Vidal as "cogent" in this regard. Not so. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are human religious institutions as well as popularly held beliefs. As such, they are flawed, often seriously, as are human systems of civil government. But they are not therefore evil incarnate. To damn Christianity, for instance, is to write off the hospitals, the schools, the care for the poor, the art and the music along with the Grand Inquisitors.

And "the past (Vidal) appeals to" won't wash either: it is disingenuous to praise "the sexy, literate, secular society of Rome before the later Caesars corrupted it with their tyranny." At best, this is warmed-over Edward Gibbon. That society led to and brought about that tyranny, a truth both Vidal and Raban ignore because of its inconvenience.

Intellectual shame on both of them. — George Niederauer, West Hollywood

Bishop Niederauer still collects stamps, owns season tickets to the symphony and likes to play bridge, listen to classical music — especially baroque — and see plays and movies. He is still an indoors kind of kid. The demands of his job — the endless committee meetings, luncheons, meetings with various church organizations, social gatherings, office appointments and the responsibility for overseeing the state's 200,000-plus Catholics — only feed his other joy in life.

"I am a people person," he says. "Extroverts are energized by being with people."

That much is clear one afternoon at a Salt Lake hotel, where Bishop Niederauer has the crowd in the palm of his hand. He is addressing the Rotary Club about faith-based initiatives. He gives several such speeches every week on a variety of subjects to community and church groups. As Monsignor Terry Fitzgerald notes, "He likes to be on the go."

He opens with an anecdote about Calvin Coolidge being a man of few words, which brings loud laughter. In the middle of his speech, he casually notes, "The government has set aside a nice fat pot of money for religious charities." (Long pause.) "Not." More laughter. On the pitfalls of interest groups accepting government money, he notes dryly, "It takes about three seconds to get used to public money . . . that's on a slow day." Near the end of his talk, he goes for his favorite humor — the self-deprecating type. "Unlike President Coolidge, I was not a man of few words. (Pause.) But they're over."

During his speech, Bishop Niederauer mentions something he learned just that morning while watching TV "during my shave." This is a man who moves through the world with his antenna up. He keeps abreast of social and political issues, as well as monitors the pulse of his religion.

In a wide-ranging Deseret News interview, the bishop expressed his concern for "the casual selfishness that comes with affluence," breezed through nearly verbatim quotes from Thomas Aquinas about beauty, artistry and prudence, noted several stories and passages from the Bible, offered insights into the nature of man's prayers, quoted C.S. Lewis' views of theology and did all of the above with no more effort that it takes to recite a grocery list.
Get me some champagne!