LINCOLN, Neb. — As Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz entered canonical retirement last fall — after two decades as the shepherd of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb. — colleagues and friends reflected on the extent of his influence, both as a priest and as a bishop.
The breadth of his legacy may have started, albeit unknowingly, as pastor of St. Bernard’s Parish near Milwaukee. In 1986, then-Msgr. Bruskewitz took an obscure Presbyterian minister under his wing, instructed him through RCIA and received him into the Church.
The convert — Scott Hahn — gradually developed into a nationally known Scripture scholar and author. Hahn recalled fondly the affirmation he received from the priest with "a pastor’s heart and a theologian’s mind" — the man he calls a "spiritual daddy."
"I remember going through a crisis," Hahn said. "How could I as a layman — who was Protestant my whole life — make a contribution to the Church?"
Hahn said Msgr. Bruskewitz was always encouraging him to discover what God would reveal to him.
According to Bishop James Conley, installed Nov. 20 as the ninth bishop of Lincoln, Bishop Bruskewitz played a similar role early in his episcopacy.
"The ’80s and ’90s were a time of confusion," Bishop Conley said. "Perhaps even among the bishops it wasn’t always clear where we were headed."
He said many looked to Bishop Bruskewitz, who spoke out clearly, especially on controversial issues.
"Bruskewitz was always a bellwether that you could rely on," Bishop Conley said. "Now there are many more bishops like him."
Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa, Calif. — one of three Lincoln priests currently serving as bishops throughout the United States — said that Bishop Bruskewitz’s "holy boldness" was a timely gift to the Diocese of Lincoln as well.
While Bishop Glennon Flavin had preserved the faith through the tumult of the post-Vatican II years, he said that Bishop Bruskewitz was not afraid to "get out of the trenches" and engage the culture.
"Bishop Flavin was very faithful in keeping the flame of faith brightly burning," Bishop Vasa said. "Bishop Bruskewitz put that flame on a rooftop."
Bishop Conley called his predecessor "a teaching bishop" with a "brilliant intellect" that communicated a keen grasp of not just theology, but history, poetry and the human experience through frequent preaching and writing. In 1997, Ignatius Press published A Shepherd Speaks, a compilation of Bishop Bruskewitz’s weekly diocesan newspaper columns.
Bishop Conley applauded Bishop Bruskewitz for one of his more well-known pastoral actions as bishop of Lincoln: the 1996 excommunication of local Catholics involved with groups like Planned Parenthood and Call to Action.
"He was looking after his flock," Bishop Conley said. "These groups that advocate teachings contrary to the Church can lead people astray. He wanted the people of Lincoln to know clearly what was Catholic teaching and what was not."
Franciscan Sister Collette Bruskewitz — the bishop’s only sibling — and Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix (originally a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln) both noted that Bishop Bruskewitz made many more contributions to the Diocese of Lincoln during his tenure there. At the top of the list, they included a concern for Catholic education, consecrated life, the liturgy and service.
Although there are just under 100,000 Catholics in the diocese, it boasts 27 Catholic grade schools and six high schools, a number Bishop Olmsted called "remarkable." At the collegiate level, the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska has grown to be one of the most successful in the country, as it anticipates construction of a new, larger church for its growing student flock.
In addition to supporting the multiple women’s religious orders already serving in the diocese, Bishop Bruskewitz welcomed the Discalced Carmelites to build a monastery near Lincoln. In just 10 years, the community has already expanded to two additional daughter houses.
Bishop Bruskewitz also provided a home for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) to build one of only two seminaries worldwide dedicated to the preservation of the extraordinary form of the Roman liturgy (also known as the Tridentine Mass of 1962). As requested by Pope John Paul II, Bishop Bruskewitz joined a handful of other U.S. bishops in granting an "indult" for any properly trained priest to celebrate Mass in this way.
Finally, Bishop Bruskewitz encouraged the expansion of diocesan social services to include a professional counseling clinic with an accredited psychology intern program and St. Gianna Women’s Homes, refuges for domestic-abuse victims.
Bishop Bruskewitz’s most enduring legacy, however, may be his love for the priesthood, as evidenced by the construction of the first freestanding U.S. diocesan seminary to be built in decades. Dedicated in 1998, St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward, Neb., currently houses 46 men — 23 from the Diocese of Lincoln and 23 from eight other dioceses.
"What’s most remarkable is that he founded and built this seminary in a time when many seminaries were closing," Bishop Conley said. "When people were sounding the death knell on the priesthood itself, here he goes and builds a seminary, and it’s flourishing."
According to Father John Folda, Bishop Bruskewitz considers the seminary to be "the heart of the diocese," to borrow a phrase from Vatican II. When the national priest scandal hit the news just a few years later, St. Gregory the Great earned this name all the more, Father Folda said.
"The seminary really was a stabilizing factor for a lot of these seminarians and for the people of the diocese," he said. "It gave hope to many people."
The Diocese of Lincoln has always been at the top of the list for its ratio of seminarians to Catholics, according to the National Catholic Directory. Currently, 44 seminarians are studying for the diocese. Scott Hahn attributes this fact in part to the real brotherhood found among priests in the Diocese of Lincoln.
When Hahn has visited Lincoln to speak to the clergy, he has been surprised to find priests in their late 20s and 30s sitting with priests in their 70s and 80s.
"There was no generation gap like I’d found in other places, where the priests ordained in the ’60s and ’70s were more radical, and the priests ordained in the ’80s and ’90s were more traditional," Hahn said. "This starts with the bishop’s example."
"The bishop was not a monarch or an administrator so much as a father," he said.
Although the mainstream media has often painted Bishop Bruskewitz to be a "conservative reactionary," Hahn said this was a misunderstanding of his character.
"He will stand up and fight, but he doesn’t have a combative personality," he said. "He never went out of his way to be a celebrity."
In fact, according to Sister Collette, the bishop looks forward to a quiet retirement, much like the recently retired Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. While he will continue to serve in whatever way he can, she anticipates he will spend a great deal of time "fishing, hunting and reading — a lot of reading."
Kimberly Jansen writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.
Oasis of Catholicism
Although the Catholic population in the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., is small — roughly 16% of the area’s total population — its impact on the Church is significant.
In fact, three of Lincoln’s priests currently serve as bishops throughout the United States: Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa, Calif., and Bishop Michael Jackels of Wichita, Kan.
Not that the diocese has been free of hardship. In fact, according to the Diocese of Lincoln’s website, Catholics in southern Nebraska encountered opposition from the very beginning.
In 1887, the American Protective Association (APA) asserted that Catholics could not be good Americans because they pledged obedience to an Italian pope. Local Catholics were even accused of using a nearby convent to store firearms for taking over the U.S. presidency.
"From the vantage point of history, one can see that the propaganda of the APA promoted, rather than hindered, the development of the Church," the website said.
Scott Hahn, Catholic Scripture scholar and author, referred to the plight of Catholics in 19th-century Ireland, who also endured intense persecution, with a similar result.
"In the midst of all these hardships came generation after generation of not potatoes, but fine priests," he said. "They sent many of them to America."
Likewise, "the Lincoln Diocese is now sending priests and bishops out to the whole country," he said.
According to Bishop Vasa, the number of Lincoln priests serving as bishops also stems from a long-standing commitment by the diocese to send priests abroad for study and ministry. He said the experience gives them exposure to the universal Church and a connection with clergy from across the country and the world.
In choosing future bishops, Bishop Vasa said the Church looks for "priestly generosity."
"They look for an attitude of a priest who’s able to serve in another diocese," he said. "Lincoln has many priests who have that characteristic."
— Kimberly Jansen