Wednesday, January 14, 2015

For "The Hill," A Husker Hat – Omaha's Hanefeldt Gets Grand Island

A week since the Pontifical North American College made its latest splash with the dedication of a 10-story, 36,000 square foot tower atop the Gianicolo, the US' largest seminary just got a bit more to bask in – at Roman Noon, the Pope named Msgr Joseph Hanefeldt, 56, the NAC's lead spiritual director until 2012, until now pastor of Christ the King parish in his native Omaha, as eighth bishop of Grand Island, the 50,000-member, 40,000 square-mile church in Nebraska's sprawling northwest.

At the diocese's helm, Hanefeldt succeeds another "Paris" boy, Bishop William Dendinger, who reached the retirement age of 75 last May. Ordained to the post a decade ago last month, Dendinger spent the bulk of his priesthood in the Air Force, retiring from active duty as a two-star general and head of the branch's chaplain corps.

A NAC alum ordained in 1984, while most of the bishop-elect's own ministry has been in spent in Omaha's parishes, Hanefeldt's wider prominence dates to his return to Rome in 2007 when – after 11 years in his first pastorate – he became the first diocesan priest in recent times to lead the College's spiritual formation program. Notably, the Grand Island pick is the Hill's second spirituality chief in a row to be named a bishop – his predecessor, the Conventual Franciscan William Patrick Callahan, returned home as then-Archbishop Tim Dolan's auxiliary in Milwaukee in 2007 before being sent to LaCrosse in 2010. (Bobby Joe, pray for us.)

On top of leading a very active city parish (where he doubles as RCIA director), Hanefeldt has remained an in-demand presence in formation circles. Accordingly, before traveling last week to lead the midyear retreat for the students at Oregon's Mount Angel Seminary, he mused in his parish bulletin that "One of my greatest concerns for the future of the Church is our need for many more good and holy priests.

"The pastoral ministry of the Church, especially through the reception of the sacraments, is the chief source of sanctifying grace in our lives. By our participation in these sacraments we are being transformed by grace and grow in true holiness. As essential to our lives as physical health care is, so even more urgent is our need for priests to serve as spiritual physicians of our souls."

"If people took care of their souls to some degree in the way in which they take care of their bodies," he wrote, "then the people of God, the Lord’s Church, would need many more priests than we currently have to provide adequate pastoral care for the Church. So why don’t we have more priests? Some say it is because of the rule of celibacy, suggesting that if priests could get married it would solve the problem. Yes, some do not follow through on priestly ordination because they wish to marry. But far more, I believe, do not choose a life of priestly service because of materialism. How many times do people encourage their children to get a good education so that they can 'get ahead' in the world? Perhaps we should just as often encourage young people to imagine how the Lord might be asking them to make a difference for others in the world."

On this angle, the nominee will have his work cut out – at present, Grand Island has one seminarian.

While Hanefeldt's not the first Omaha pastor with a formation background to land the Francis Seal of Approval – that would be the archbishop of Chicago – there is something of a contrast of tone between the two. In one instance, taking up the USCCB's call to arms for religious freedom, in advance of last year's Fortnight the bishop-elect characterized the moment to his parish as one "where personal freedoms are being denied and those of religious institutions trampled upon by court rulings that require individuals and businesses to act against their consciences because someone claims a so-called right to have what they want!

"This is anarchy and the demise not only of religious liberty but also the foundation of a peaceful society, and it is escalating!" he wrote, urging his parishioners to "get involved in issues that are destroying religious liberty in this great nation!"

Lest anybody forgot, though, the core of the Pope's personnel strategy isn't found in one's approach to pressing issues, but something far deeper.

Almost a year ago, in an unprecedented set of marching orders, Francis told his reconstituted Congregation for Bishops that – his emphasis – "There is no standard Pastor for all the Churches. Christ knows the unique qualities of the Pastor that each Church requires, so that he can respond to its needs and help it realize its full potential. Our challenge is to enter into Christ’s perspective, keeping in mind the uniqueness of the particular Churches."

Most of all, the Pope said that "the holy People of God continues to speak: we need one who will watch over us from above; we need one who will see us with the fullness of God’s heart; we do not need a manager, a chief executive officer of a company, nor one who remains at the level of our pettiness and little pretensions.... "

In a 2002 Associated Press profile of a Stateside priesthood rocked by the sex-abuse crisis on top of the usual pressures of ministry, then-Fr Hanefelt used the very same metaphor in venting that "You end up as a pastor being a CEO to the place."

Ergo, for Papa's purposes, the consistency is sound.

As previously relayed, a 10am presser for the appointment was bizarrely announced by the diocese last week. While Hanefelt's name was obtained by Whispers on Sunday, the long-standing house policy remains that – for the sake of his last hours as a "private citizen" – the name of a priest being elevated to the episcopacy is never reported here until the hour of his appointment.

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With the Nebraska nod, all of three Stateside Latin dioceses – a modern low – are led by (arch)bishops serving past retirement age. Over the course of 2015, nine more US ordinaries will reach the milestone, three of them particularly prominent: Bishops William Murphy of Long Island's 1.5 million-member Rockville Centre fold on May 14th and Paul Loverde of Northern Virginia's influential Arlington church on 3 September, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington on 14 November, signaling the next opening in the bench's topmost rank.

Speaking of the "75 Club," it is rather curious that Grand Island was resolved before the longest pending file among the age-based replacements: Western Pennsylvania's Greensburg diocese, where Bishop Lawrence Brandt submitted his letter last March.

While you can always cut the anticipation of a local church with a chainsaw in the run-up to its announcement, after an 11-year tenure marked by an austere governing style coupled with bruising parish and school mergers, Brandt's blue-collar, coal-country flock has shown itself to be extraordinarily restive – indeed, even rabid – to get on with the diocese's next chapter. In a rare public glimpse of the prevailing sentiment within the Greensburg church, a local petition website has racked up over 400 signatures imploring the Pope to name a successor to Brandt who, among other things, "consults and dialogues with both laity and clergy," "lives simply that others might simply live," and "helps us loosen the bonds of clericalism that affects our church establishment."

Elsewhere on the docket, while a fast-tracked appointment is still said to be on-target for the nation's largest current opening – the 1.2 million-member San Diego church, where Bishop Cirilo Flores died in September – Rome's most significant looming judgments arguably lie in the Midwest with the Holy See's final word on the fates of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St Joseph after an apostolic visitation on the embattled prelate was conducted last August, and Archbishop John Nienstedt of St Paul and Minneapolis amid a torrent of damaging allegations surrounding both his handling of accused priests and the archbishop's personal conduct.

In the latter, as Minnesota's dioceses grapple with a state "window" law suspending the statute of limitations for civil sex-abuse lawsuits, the Twin Cities church has kept the option of declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy "on the table" before the first three cases against the 850,000-member archdiocese head to civil trial late this month.