Sunday, November 18, 2007

Necrologies and Martyrologies

Described as a "model person" by his former vicar-general, retired Bishop James Niedergeses of Nashville -- the first native son to lead the Tennessee diocese -- died Friday at 90.
Father Jim Mallett, who recently retired as pastor of Christ the King Parish, served as chancellor under Bishop Niedergeses and remembers how dedicated he was to the people of the diocese. “He relied on laypeople and listened carefully to their judgment,” Father Mallett said.

“He was probably the kindest man I’ve ever known. He was totally without guile or pretense,” Father Mallett added.

Those who worked closely with Bishop Niedergeses and knew him well say he rarely had any free time. As bishop, he maintained a heavy travel schedule to minister to the entire middle and eastern part of the state, before the Diocese of Knoxville was created. “One of the joys of my many years as bishop was administering ordinations, confirmations and dedicating new churches in both rural and city areas,” Bishop Niedergeses said in a 2004 interview with the Tennessee Register, reflecting on his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination.

A native of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., Bishop Niedergeses had a special interest in establishing a Catholic presence in outlying areas of the diocese. He started the Catholic Foundation of Tennessee, a still-vital organization which works to purchase land for new parishes in rural areas of the state. While serving as bishop from 1975-1992, he dedicated many new parishes in rural Tennessee.

More than a savvy fundraiser or an ambitious project manager, Bishop Niedergeses is remembered as an extremely spiritual man, a humble and dedicated priest....

Before he was appointed ninth bishop of Nashville, Bishop Niedergeses spent 11 years in Chattanooga, the majority of his time there as pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. During his tenure at OLPH, and later at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, he became one of the city’s best-known spokesmen for ecumenism, as well as for the poor and for ethnic minorities.

He was an active member of the Clergy Association of Greater Chattanooga, and was the first Catholic priest to be elected its president. He helped steer the organization toward more action on behalf of the poor, including organizing a poverty march in 1968, which lead participants through some of the most depressed areas of Chattanooga.

Bishop Niedergeses fostered OLPH’s on-going relationship with Monumental Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American church. They met and prayed together the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and Bishop Niedergeses recalled in 2004 that the unity between members of the black Protestant church and the white Catholic church that night “was a wonderful thing.”

Bishop Niedergeses’ work with Monumental Baptist Church was not only unusual because of the racial tensions in the South during the late 1960s, but also because it crossed denominational boundaries....

During the first years of his priesthood, he served as assistant pastor of the Cathedral and chaplain at Overbrook School. He was also a hospital and prison chaplain, often ministering to death row inmates just before their executions. “I’m very comfortable with those who are troubled in mind, body or spirit,” Bishop Niedergeses said.

Hospital ministry was often uplifting to him, and it was a job he relished until the very end of his life. After retiring as bishop in 1992, he worked for many years as a chaplain at Saint Thomas four days a week, remaining on-call at night. Only when his health no longer allowed him to minister to hospital patients did he step away from that calling.

Bishop Niedergeses was “very demanding of himself” Father Connor said, and was always working hard to meet the needs of those he served. He was “a totally generous person to the core.”
Shown above laying hands on the diocese's second native head -- current Nashville Bishop David Choby -- at his 2006 ordination, Niedergeses' Mass of Christian Burial will take place Tuesday morning in Oprytown's Cathedral of the Incarnation. The local metropolitan, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, will preside.

And across the Pond in Birmingham, the funeral likewise begins tomorrow for Archbishop-emeritus Maurice Couve de Murville. The scholarly, reserved cleric -- a Louvain favorite who retired in 1999 -- died on 3 November; final liturgy and burial are scheduled for Wednesday.

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On the other side of the gates, of course, there are the saints, and the Vatican official responsible for "making" them -- the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins CMF -- recently took the "Witness" chair on Salt + Light.

The stream is up... among the Portuguese prelate's musings: the legacy (and cause for canonization) of John Paul II; why saints matter in the church (and beatifications are now returning to the local churches...); and, with an eye to the beatification of Pius XII, the "black legend" surrounding the wartime pontiff.

PHOTO: Theresa Laurence/Tennessee Register