From the Rockies to the Great Plains

Bishop Walker Nickless, 58, is one of Pope Benedict’s first bishops.

He was ordained Jan. 20 the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, after the diocese went two years without a bishop. The Holy Father appointed him Oct. 31.

He spoke with Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen.

How much communication do you receive when the Holy Father considers you for an appointment like this? What do you know as it’s in the process?

Nothing. It’s all done in secret. You don’t even know you’re being considered.

You just get a call one day and suddenly you’re a bishop?

I got my call on Halloween, last Oct. 31. I came home from the chancery, where I’d been at a meeting, and the apostolic nuncio had left a message on my phone to call him. He said, ‘I have great news for you, Msgr. Nickless. The Holy Father has appointed you Bishop of Sioux City, Iowa.’ I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Yes, yes, it’s wonderful news. They’ve been waiting for two years for a bishop and now they have one.’ He said, ‘Write your letter to the Holy Father and tell him you accept.’ It has been a somewhat fearful experience, and yet a great challenge that I’m excited about. When God calls you, he will give you the strength to do the task.

Tell me a about your past.

I’m a Denver native, the oldest of 10 children, and all of my brothers and sisters still live in the Denver area. We went to Catholic schools in east Denver, and I graduated from Bishop Machebeuf High School. I went on to Saint Thomas Seminary College, and after that I went to Rome, to the North American College at the Gregorian.

My dad owns a meat shop in Denver — he has for over 50 years — and all of us took turns working in the meat shop. I’m hoping that prepares me well for Iowa, where there’s a lot of beef.

Also, being the oldest is something that has helped me a lot, in terms of how important it is to listen. Since I came back from Rome, I’ve been at four parishes.

Have you had aspirations of becoming a bishop?

No. I was perfectly happy being a pastor. I love Catholic schools and Catholic education, and I was just content to be there.

Do you expect to move the diocese in a direction that’s more conservative or more liberal?

Those labels don’t mean much in the Church. They’re more the kind of labels that people use for the American political scene, and everyone wants to use them to define various aspects of the Church. I really just want to be a man of the Church. I want to do what the Church wants me to do as a bishop, to be a father and a shepherd. And whatever that takes I think I will try to do that.

Who are your role models in the Church?

I spent a lot of time working with Archbishop Stafford, now Cardinal James Stafford, as his vicar for clergy, and with Archbishop [Charles] Chaput [Archbishop of Denver] as both vicar for clergy and vicar general. If I could have a combination of Cardinal Stafford and Archbishop Chaput, that would be a great gift to me. I’ve learned a lot from both of them.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Church in the United States right now, and how might they affect your work in Sioux City?

Bishops have to be men of the Gospel, spreading the Kingdom. Evangelization and the Eucharist are what are important to me. The liturgy is a real love of mine. I want the liturgies celebrated in a beautiful way, in a prayerful way. That’s something I will work toward.

I think one of the things so important to that is how the bishop and the priests celebrate Mass. If the bishop takes time to be an example of how special the Mass is, that will filter down through the priests and to the people. If we take time, if we do it right, if it’s prayerful and if we prepare properly, the liturgy can be a great teaching vehicle for all of us to grow closer to the Lord. I want to model that in the way we celebrate the liturgy. I want it to be the best. I want it to be beautiful, meaningful and prayerful.

Wayne Laugesen writes

from Boulder, Colorado.