National Catholic Register


Motor City Churchman

New Archbishop Brings Childhood Memories of Michigan

BY Janet Cassidy

February 1-7, 2009 Issue | Posted 1/23/09 at 10:04 AM


Archbishop Allen Vigneron is the new archbishop of Detroit.

His Jan. 28 installation at Detroit’s Blessed Sacrament Cathedral was a homecoming: Returning to his native Michigan, this former auxiliary bishop of Detroit and past rector of Sacred Heart Seminary succeeds Cardinal Adam Maida as shepherd of the archdiocese’s 1.4 million Catholics.

The 60-year-old archbishop leaves the priests and people of the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., where he has served as bishop for the past six years. He spoke with Register correspondent Janet Cassidy about his call to the priesthood, the influence of his family life, and his plans for serving the people of Detroit.

What does it mean to you to be coming home?

It is a great blessing to be returning home, but sad to be leaving the priests and people who have become my home in Oakland. That being said, I do see a lot of grace in taking my life up again with people who have been a part of it from the very beginning. I am looking forward to reconnecting with people whom I have known so very, very well and shared with so deeply. I am also looking forward to getting to know the folks who are new to me. There are auxiliary bishops and a lot of very fine people who work in the chancery, as well.

How did you feel when you received the call from the apostolic nuncio?

I was speechless. Flabbergasted. I stammered. Then, what I began to say to him was to tell him of my own sense of my limitations in trying to [carry out] such a significant responsibility. He reminded me how powerful God’s grace is. It is certainly a great honor to be told that the Holy Father — that it is his judgment that one is capable of doing these things, but at the same time, I know my own limitations and am aware of what that means.

Could you have said No?

The apostolic nuncio called me and told me that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed me to Detroit. The fact of the matter is: The Holy Father has already made the appointment when a man is informed. It falls to the individual to accept this call, provided he could do it with a good conscience. It’s not a job offer that’s made; it’s an appointment that one accepts or feels he has to turn down for a serious reason. The basic attitude should be, unless you know some reason it really won’t work: You must trust that the Holy Spirit has been operative through the Holy Father.

I do think that whenever God gives a call, he gives the grace needed for the call. The clearest example is the Immaculate Conception. Grace was needed to be the Mother of God. This is true in the whole of salvation history. The grace is there; we don’t have enough confidence or trust to ask or rely upon it.

Times are hard. People are losing their jobs and their homes. What can you say, or do, for someone who is losing everything?

For us priests, there are several kinds of responsibilities. First, we remind people that God is with us even in the tough things. Never lose hope. He cares about us, and in his providence, he will help us make it through. It is our responsibility to remind people who have lost some of what they have that there are people who have even less. We are called to be our brothers’ keeper, and we need to be generous, even when it hurts us to be so.

The Church also needs to remind leadership and citizenry, the electorate, that as we make choices in trying to build the future, there is a need to listen to the wisdom of the Church about how to move ahead in our future — particularly in regards to the economy and the dignity of the human person in whatever choices we make. Our choices should reflect the person and create an economic order to support the family.

John Paul II said the Church needs to remind leadership of human ingenuity and human creativity. These are the most important resources we have for the economy — specifically, the brain. We must consider how we can invent new forms of economic life and new products and new ways to provide goods and services that will substitute for the things that haven’t been working. Engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs need to be creative.

I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the bishops or priests to figure out how to solve the economic crisis and help create the new economy. The Second Vatican Council said it is the vocation of the lay faithful to build the order of this world and the responsibility of pastors to be their help and support them in doing that. I wouldn’t want to substitute and take over their vocation. I’m a coach, and they are the team.

What must a bishop do to stay close to the population he serves?

I look for every opportunity I have to be with people, talk with them, not just speak to them. I listen to them and hear what’s on their minds and what they’re interested in. My family helps keep me grounded. When I am going to preach, I ask myself, “What would my brothers, my sisters-in-law think about this? Would it help them?”

I had a wonderful professor in theology that used to say to us from time to time: “To explain a profound mystery simply, you must understand it profoundly.” It’s a skill and a very important pastoral skill. They teach this in the seminary by pointing out to the seminarian that he needs to develop this skill, showing him how to develop it and critiquing his efforts and giving him advice on how to improve.

You grew up in a small, rural community in southeastern Michigan — Anchorville — and then went to Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit during high school. How did that experience shape you?

Moving away to the high school seminary, I got a very fine education. The high school seminary aimed to give us the best college prep education they could. It was very important. I developed good study habits and a wide range of intellectual interests. I learned that it is important for a priest to be a man of learning.

Wasn’t it difficult, leaving your family at such a young age?

My personality made me more self-reliant, more confident in my ability to adapt and cope with the challenging situation. I learned to eat a lot of different kinds of foods in the seminary refectory. They didn’t consult with us about the menu. The food was wholesome but institutional. I made some wonderful friends there.

I missed my family a great deal, but I wanted to be a priest, and this is what a fellow did who wanted to be a priest, and I was willing to live with the tough part of it because of the goal.

How old were you when you first felt called to the priesthood?

I really started aspiring to the priesthood at about 7 years old, but when you are 7, 10 or 14, you only know with the kind of insight that a 7-, 10- or 14-year-old would have, so as my insight matured, so did my conviction and knowledge.

You were the eldest in your family, having four brothers and only one sister. Were you nice to your sister?

Yes, in the way that boys are going to be nice; it was expected that we get along. My sister came fourth. I have a strong recollection of my mother getting us together in the evening in the course of her pregnancy and having her pray that the new baby would be a girl. It was a special petition for us. My sister has a particular way of being close to my mother that I am very grateful for.

How did your community help foster your vocation?

This particular area was a very strong community with a very strong faith. Faith was simply a part of everybody’s life — part of school, part of my family and all of our relatives. I think that is a real asset in helping one be able to follow God. We’ve lost that, and it has its impact, not just on vocations to the priesthood and convent, but it has an impact on all vocations.

A wise young woman said to me, “Bishop, we don’t just have a problem with priestly vocations, but all vocations. Just because Catholic young people get married, it doesn’t mean they are living out their vocation.”

It is very important for young people making life choices to consider God’s plan in their life. God has a plan, a destiny for everybody, and they should try to find that. That’s what life is about. God made us for himself and has a path in mind for us. It is the one that will make us the happiest.

Are your parents still with us?

Yes, regular churchgoers, they went to Mass every Sunday. The most important thing about the formation of my faith from my family is that they taught me that faith is simply a part of life, like breathing and eating and sleeping. I was taught to take it for granted in the best sense of the word. Faith is as much a part of life as getting up in the morning.

I have a very vivid memory of one particular time when my father was laid off in the beginning of winter and money was short. My parents went to a nine-day novena being held at the church in preparation for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. My mother, in an explicit way, and my father in a quiet way, had a sense that the Blessed Mother would help us get through difficult times.

When the novena was done, my father got a job offer.

You are extremely busy. How do you have time for prayer?

I have a habit of setting aside time for prayer, and I’m very attentive to nurturing that habit. I am careful not to let it get dissolved. I think about prayer and my need to pray regularly as similar to the responsibility a man has to come home to his wife and family every day, no matter how busy he is. Every once in a while something can get in the way, but that can’t become your normal way of living.

Without prayer, I wouldn’t have the personal resources I need to fulfill my responsibilities — the trust, the serenity I need, the insight I require.

Janet Cassidy writes

from Grand Blanc, Michigan.