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Photo courtesy of the Catholic Diocese
Pope John Paul II with Bishop George H. Niederauer during the pope's visit to Baltimore in 1995. The bishop has served in Utah for eight years.

Bishop George Niederauer thinks someone (wink, wink) must be trying to get him. The leader of the Catholic Church in Utah was meeting with priests in his office one day when a large bookshelf collapsed and nearly fell on him without even being touched. Then last month, a couple of years after the first incident, it happened again as he placed a book on the shelf.

"The second assassination attempt," says the bishop, laughing. "Whoever is doing it is not very imaginative, using a bookcase twice. They should try an exploding pen or something."

Actually, booby-trapping the bookshelf is the perfect scheme, because this is hitting the bishop where he lives. He is, after all, a literary scholar. (So it's someone who knows him?)

On the other hand, why would anyone want to get rid of a man who has won communitywide affection with his warmth and wisdom, and his remarkable grasp of literature and humor? (See above, and just try to name another bishop who has taught a college course in literary humor and satire).

After the bookshelf collapsed a second time and assistants came to his aid, Bishop Niederauer launched into a quote from Shakespeare's "Othello."

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice; then must you speak

Of one that lov'd not wisely, but too well . . . .

It was vintage Bishop Niederauer. Hollywood tends to portray Catholic leaders — and all religious leaders, for that matter — as cold and remote, but that wouldn't begin to describe the bishop. Maybe he has undertaken the most serious profession on the planet, but he maintains a light side.

When his secretary, Shirley Mares, wondered aloud what she would tell a reporter who was coming to interview her about the bishop, the bishop told her, "Just remember your children and your husband and your job, and let your conscience be the guide."

When asked to recommend people to interview who knew him well, this was the bishop's response: "Well, if they know me real well, I'm not sure I'd want you to talk to them."

Even on 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."

Good news/bad news

For his part, the 65-year-old bishop finds wisdom in humor. "There are dark sides to everything," he says, "and there is a dark side to humor. It can be sarcastic, hurtful and angry. But it can also be gentle. You can give things a sense of proportion and help keep things in perspective if you can make a joke about it. One of the devastating things you can do is take yourself too seriously."

Bishop Niederauer probably needed all of his humor, not to mention his faith, when he was called to lead the diocese nearly eight years ago. He was 58 1/2 years old and had lived outside of his native California a total of one year. His calling to Utah sounded like the old good news/bad news joke for a Catholic leader.

The good news: "You've received a phone call from God."

The bad news: "He's calling from Salt Lake City."

Bishop Niederauer was called to direct the Catholic Church in the middle of "Mormon country." To add to the challenge, well over half of the Catholics in the Utah diocese are Hispanic. When given his new assignment, the bishop read books to learn more about the LDS faith and listened to cassette tapes in his car to gain a limited knowledge of Spanish. (He delivers his homilies to Hispanic congregations in Spanish.)

"This is a wonderful place to live, and I feel very welcome by all the people in Utah and certainly the LDS leaders," he says. "President (Thomas) Monson was one of the three people who spoke at my official welcome. There are difficulties that come up from time to time. Whenever there is such a large majority, there is a special challenge to being in the minority. The challenge is to do it in a graceful and gracious way. We need to be that way whether we're the majority or the minority."

And on that note, he quickly urges compassion and understanding for another Utah minority — Hispanics, most of whom are Catholic. "This is the second wave of immigration in this country, and the first major immigration where people didn't have to cross an ocean," he says. "They are recently arrived, and no one speaks their language. They are far from home and families, seeking work. They get lonely and very homesick. We have to be aware of that.

"I think for us in this city to be bigoted toward newcomers, it's a failure of the heart. And imagination. What about our ancestors?"

Strong reviews

All of the above notwithstanding, a big part of the bishop's hold on people is the bishop himself — "his personality," as one church official noted. Take in the reviews:

  • "He oozes warmth," says Chris Hill, the University of Utah athletic director who has interacted with the bishop in community and church affairs. "He's very comfortable to be around, and he's got a great personality."

  • "He is a very pleasant, intelligent individual," says Deacon Silvio Mayo. "Very personable. Very accommodating. He's really down to earth. He treats everyone the same. He just loves to be with people."

  • "I love to be in his presence; you're always learning something," says Dr. Dominic Albo, a Salt Lake Catholic who has developed a friendship with the bishop. "It's valuable time you spend with him."

  • Dee Rowland, who chaired the peace and justice commission for the diocese under Bishop Niederauer and his predecessor, William Wiegand, says, "I had planned to resign. I thought I should give him a chance to hire his own staff. Then I met him, and I thought, 'I don't want to quit this job.' "

  • "From a clergy point of view, he is a priest's bishop," says Monsignor Robert Survatius. "He is very loved by the priests of the diocese. He approaches things from a light-hearted point of view, but he is very diligent and serious about leading a diocese. He combines the qualities of a good overseer with being a warm friend."

  • The priesthood

    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."

    The only child of George, a banker and real estate businessman, and Elaine Niederauer, a homemaker, his parents sent him to a boarding school at St. Catherine's Military School in Anaheim when he was 10, reasoning he would benefit from being with other children and receive better instruction.

    He remained there four years, coming home on weekends and holidays, then returned home permanently to attend St. Anthony's High School. He graduated second in his class.

    Religion was always a strong presence in his life. He attended Catholic schools, his high school friends planned to attend seminary and undertake a life in the ministry — seven of them would go on to the seminary — and then there was his home life.

    "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."

    During his high school years, impressed by the sisters and fathers who taught his classes, he began to consider the priesthood. "They gave us a sense of how religion is not just a Sunday affair," he said. "They were an example of people who lived that life, and they were happy and at peace with themselves. They had a sense of purpose."

    But when he graduated from high school, he chose to attend Stanford while his friends chose seminary. After completing the fall semester at Stanford, he returned home for Christmas break and met with his old friends.

    They were excited about seminary, he says. "I had been thinking about it, and praying about it." He finished his freshman year at Stanford and transferred to St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., which led to a life in the ministry.

    "I'm glad I did go" to Stanford, he says. "I was still undecided" about the ministry. "If I hadn't gone to Stanford, I would have always wondered."

    A literary passion

    It was during his year at Stanford that he developed a passion for literature. It was later, during a class at St. John's, that he discovered its compatibility with the ministry.

    He heard a lecture on the value of literature and the valuable insights into human experience it can provide. Not only did it complement the ministry perfectly, providing insights into human experience and, hence, compassion, but it also provided rich material with which to augment his sermons.

    After graduating from St. John's, he took advanced degrees in English literature — a master's from Loyola University and a doctorate from USC. For 13 years, while serving as rector (or president) and spiritual director at St. John's, he also taught English literature.

    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.

    "I love his sermons," says Irene Sweeney, president of the Catholic Foundation of Utah. "He is very entertaining and refers a lot to his reading. He keeps your attention. He makes you think. Everybody loves his homilies."

    The story of the collapsing bookshelves might say more about the bishop's reading habits than a conspiracy. As 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."

    The bishop shrugs. "Reading is very helpful for me," he says. "It's not a matter of getting to the last word. I'll stop and think about what I read. Of course, you have to remember that a lot of what I quote is what I taught."

    A people person

    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."

    On the go

    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.

    "The thing that amazes me about him is that his mind can grab onto something that you missed, and it'll turn out to be the important thing," says John.

    All of which calls to mind something Hill said: "I'm really very proud that he's our bishop. When I hear him speak, I'm proud that he's representing our church."

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