Bishop Bruskewitz reflects on 50 years of ordained life

Bishop Bruskewitz reflects on 50 years of ordained life
By ERIN ANDERSEN / Lincoln Journal Star - Friday, July 16, 2010 - original
About Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz
Born: Sept. 6, 1935
Ordained: July 17, 1960
Consecrated bishop: May 13, 1992
Education: Attended Saint Lawrence Minor Seminary at age 14; graduated from Pontifical North American College in Rome and Gregorian University in Rome, where he received his doctorate degree in dogmatic theology.
Experience: Assistant pastor at churches in West Allis and Cedarburg, Wis.
Taught classes at Alverno College, a Catholic women's school, and Saint Francis Seminary, both in the Milwaukee area.
Served 11 years in the Roman Curia in Rome, working the English desk in the seminary division for Catholic Education, an office that ensures that Catholic education programs conform to the basic requirements of the church.
Elevated to monsignor in 1976 and prelate of honor in 1980.
Parish priest Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
About the Lincoln Diocese
Members in 1992: 80,000
Members in 2010: 95,262
Priests: 149
Seminarians: 38
Religious sisters: 136
Parishes: 136
Catholic schools: 33
Fifty years ago today in Rome, a young American stood before Cardinal Luigi Traglia and vowed a lifetime of dedication to God and the Catholic Church.

The 24-year-old man envisioned a life as a parish priest.

"Doing all the wonderful things parish priests do - instructing the children, taking care of the baptizing and offering Mass, preaching and teaching, take care of the sick and dying, weddings and funerals, and all the wonderful things one does in parish life," he said.

But God - and the pope - had different plans for Fabian Bruskewitz.


For the past 18 years, Bruskewitz has served as bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln.

In September, when he turns 75, Bruskewitz will submit a letter of resignation to Pope Benedict XVI, as is required by Code of Canon Law. It will then be up to the pope to replace him, which could take as little as a few days or as long as several years.

"It's always better to wear out than rust out," he says, reiterating an oft-heard saying.

"And so, I think that as long as I can do something, I am happy to do it," Bruskewitz said of the fluidity of his retirement.

Regardless of the official date, Bruskewitz admits he is "psyched" about all the free time ahead. God willing, he plans to stay in Lincoln writing, fishing, pheasant hunting with his new dog Quincy, and devoting time to learning the intricacies of computer technology.

At times, Bruskewitz's reign over the 136 churches in the 23,844 square miles of the Lincoln Diocese across southern Nebraska has been controversial. But it's always clear and direct.

His detractors paint a portrait of a devout but stubborn man with unyielding orthodoxy and ultra-conservative views of God's word and expectations of the Catholic Church.

His supporters extol those very same traits as his virtues.

He is a leader and a teacher. He is principled. Kind. Charitable. Charismatic. Decisive. Resolute.

He is intelligent and educated. He knows eight languages: English, Italian, German, Spanish, French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

He is an entertaining storyteller with a shrewd sense of humor and an infectious laugh.

But above all, he is a man of God.

"God rules the diocese and I am just his instrument," Bruskewitz said during a recent interview from the library in the Catholic Chancery.

"I am not a dictator. But I do think that bishops have, by Catholic doctrine, the three-fold duty to teach, to sanctify and to govern the Catholic people ... in spiritual matters," Bruskewitz said. "I don't try to govern people in partisan political matters."

It is a responsibility that Bruskewitz has never craved.

"But if the responsibility is given to me and I have to answer to God for its use, I think it is better that I use it and ensure that the diocese is in conformity with the universal church and the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church," he said.


To understand Bruskewitz's convictions, it helps to know his background.

Born in 1935 in Milwaukee, the oldest of Wendelin and Frances Bruskewitz's two children, he grew up in a devoutly Catholic German-Polish-Czech family.

"We were immersed in life with the church," he said.

They attended Mass daily. Holy water fonts hung beside every door for blessing all comings and goings. In every room hung a crucifix and portrait of the Virgin Mary. Evenings and dinners with priests and nuns were as common as visits with grandparents and cousins who lived close by.

Bruskewitz and his sister, Collette, 3 1/2 years his junior, both answered the call to religious vocation at age 14.

Today, Sister Collette Bruskewitz is an Order of Saint Francis nun, serving as her bishop brother's secretary and assistant superintendent of Lincoln Diocese schools.

Bruskewitz was one of two students from his Wisconsin seminary selected to attend the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

He was ordained July 17, 1960 - a year before the rest of his class.

After a brief stint as an assistant pastor and instructor, Bruskewitz returned to Rome, where he earned his doctorate degree in dogmatic theology from the Gregorian University.

His time in Rome coincided with the Second Vatican Council. He was called into action as Catholic leaders reviewed and reworked church practices, such as offering Mass in native languages instead of Latin, to accommodate the changing demographic of Catholics.

Upon receiving his doctorate, Bruskewitz imagined "a return to a life of teaching and quiet erudition of learning."

"Unfortunately I was co-opted to another path God had in store for me," Bruskewitz said.

He was called back to Rome to work in the Vatican's department for Catholic education, where he stayed for 11 years.

In 1979, upon the death of his father, Bruskewitz returned to Milwaukee to help his mother.

It was then that he finally realized his long-held dream of leading a parish - St. Bernard's Catholic Church, the oldest of five parishes in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee.

In 1992, Bruskewitz was summoned to Washington, D.C., where he learned the pope planned to make him bishop of the Lincoln diocese.

Caught off guard, Bruskewitz asked for a little time to think and pray about the appointment.

He was told there was "no wiggle room" and that he could pray later, Bruskewitz recalled with a chuckle.

The appointment was formally announced March 24, 1992. On May 13, 1992, he was consecrated and installed as Lincoln's eighth bishop.


Reflecting on his five decades in the priesthood, Bruskewitz takes a deep breath and smiles.

"I have had 50 years of much more happiness than I ever deserved," he said.

"God has blessed me with a marvelous diocese with a great and incredibly fine clergy," Bruskewitz said.

But his fortitude and conviction have also been tested by his conservative and controversial positions on matters of morality and religious practices.

In 2006, the Lincoln Diocese earned the distinction as being the only diocese in the country to not allow girl altar servers.

"We kept up the tradition we had for 1,500 years," he said. "I thought, and my advisers agreed with me, that it was suitable to keep the tradition."

"I am a firm believer in gender equality, but I am not in terms of gender interchangeability or gender sameness."

The Lincoln Diocese also is the only diocese declining to participate in annual sex abuse audits instituted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to address the issue of sexual abuse by clergy.

Lincoln participated in the first audit in 2002, but has not since. That's resulted in ongoing demands by Call to Action, a group of Catholics calling for changes in diocese policies regarding the role of women in the church, transparency and leniency for Catholics whose positions differ from the bishop's.

Not only has Bruskewitz refused to change his stance, he has been uncompromising in his decision to excommunicate the group's members.

Bruskewitz says the audit is optional for dioceses and is not helpful for the Lincoln Diocese.

In the midst of political debates over abortion, birth control, homosexuality and immigration, the bishop has never wavered in his interpretation or opinion on traditional church teachings. And when it comes to issues of morality, Bruskewitz is clear - there is no wiggle room.

"I think the truth must be proclaimed and not relativized," he said.

Some issues leave room for negotiation. But matters of truth have only two options: true or false, Bruskewitz said.

"I don't think that it's being arrogant. I think it is being kind and charitable to speak the truth, and that is an important part of what a bishop has to do," he said.

"And just as we would not beat a child who mistakenly concludes 2 + 2 = 7, we must correct people's errors and point out the correct answer.

"I hope to catechize people and instruct people in the best way we can," he said. "I am certainly not a know-it-all. And I try to convey to people God's revelation and teaching of the church, insofar of its possession of revelation of God."

As for the distinction of having what some consider the most conservative diocese in the country, Bruskewitz said the Catholic Church is inherently conservative.

"Its duty is to conserve and preserve unmutilated, undiluted, unchanged the doctrine of Christ that has come down to us through the centuries, and not to vary or change what has been bestowed upon us," Bruskewitz said, quoting the words of Pope Paul VI.

"I think a certain measure of ecclesiastical church order and discipline are important to have an orderly worship of God and an orderly affirmant of what God wants for us," Bruskewitz said.

"And, I believe that it is necessary to exercise the responsibilities that are given to a bishop. If I don't exercise those responsibilities, someone else will - someone who is not authorized to do so.

"So that is why I - we - have this reputation. But I don't think it's anything other than what I see my duty to be and what a bishop's duty to be."

And when he looks at the history of the Lincoln Diocese, he believes his nearly two decades of leadership have merely continued to build upon the principles of his predecessor, Bishop Glennon Flavin, who served the diocese 25 years and served the church as a bishop for 37 years.

Just as Flavin was there for him to smooth the transition to a new bishop, Bruskewitz says he will be available to his predecessor - if the new bishop so wishes.

Then he tells an old joke, about a dying nun.

As Mother Superior stands by a hospital bed, the nun motions for paper and pen. She writes her final words and dies. Mother Superior opens the paper and reads: You are standing on my oxygen tube.

Bruskewitz paused.

"I don't want to stand on the oxygen tube of the good people of the Lincoln Diocese."

Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or