How Bishop Bruskewitz Built Up the Church on the Plains

The longtime shepherd reflects on his 20 years as bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska. He also recounts his friendship with John Paul II and the Church’s role in the culture.

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz refers to his ecclesiastical jurisdiction as “our little diocese on the plains.” But its appearance — to some — as a remote, largely rural backwater is deceptive.

Bishop Bruskewitz, 76, will soon celebrate his 20th anniversary as bishop of Lincoln, Neb. His reputation for outspokenness in defending the faith, both in his public statements and in policies implemented in his diocese, is well known. He and his relatively small diocese of 100,000 Catholics made national news in 1996, when he decreed that various groups at odds with Catholic teaching or in opposition to Church authority had automatically excommunicated themselves from the Church.  These included members of the groups Call to Action, Planned Parenthood and Catholics for a Free Choice, the Hemlock Society, Freemasons and the Society of St. Pius X. 

Bishop Bruskewitz grew up in a devout Catholic home in Milwaukee, the son of a grocer. Daily Mass, family Rosary, regular prayers, Catholic schools, sacramentals and regular visits to his home by priests and religious were all part of his upbringing. His only sibling became a nun.

He entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1960. He spent the next decade working in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, and then worked in the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome from 1969 to 1980.  He returned to serve in his diocese and was named bishop of Lincoln in 1992.

He recently spoke about his diocese, the priesthood and his role as a bishop.

Tell me about the Diocese of Lincoln.

It is a stable and wonderful diocese. Much of it is made up of small towns and rural areas, although Lincoln is the state capital and has a mix of businesses and the University of Nebraska.

Thank God, we have no diocesan debts, nor have we had problems with lawsuits with which other dioceses have struggled. We have a splendid clergy, and our religious life is flourishing.  We have had many vocations, more than is adequate for a diocese of our size. In the last 20 years, I’ve ordained 67 priests for Lincoln and another 20 or 30 for other dioceses or religious orders.

We have 38 seminarians studying for the priesthood. I’ve had the joy of constructing St. Gregory the Great Seminary, a college seminary, which opened 12 years ago. It instructs not only our students, but those from six other dioceses.

I invited and was pleased to welcome the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a community of apostolic life dedicated to preserving the memory and practice of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite. Our diocese is home to the Fraternity’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary. They have more young men applying to be seminarians than there is space available for them.

I also invited and was pleased to welcome a community of cloistered Carmelite sisters who pray for us constantly. We also have the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters who pray constantly before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The sisters’ prayers have brought us many spiritual blessings.

We have a well-educated and zealous laity, and I’ve had the pleasure to form five new parishes and four new schools to serve them.

Our little diocese on the plains is doing well.

What was it like as a young priest in the 1960s?

It was a turbulent time. The ’60s began with much optimism within the Catholic community in the United States, especially since the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, was elected.  We were also upbeat about the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

Unfortunately, as the ’60s progressed, a sort of “para-Council” developed around the Second Vatican Council that promoted a misinterpretation of its teachings. Its ideas were hijacked, pulled out of context and distorted. As Pope Benedict himself said, there was not a hermeneutic of continuity, but a hermeneutic of rupture. That was not what the council fathers intended.

There was much turbulence outside the Church as well. There was great commotion due to such things as the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The Church is incarnate, immersed in the culture, so upheaval had a resonance within the Church. Dissent from Catholic doctrine, especially in regard to sexuality and human-life issues, became rampant. There were vast numbers of defections from the priesthood and religious life. There was a cultural crisis that helped lead to an internal crisis in the Church.

You’re frequently described as a “conservative” bishop. Is this an accurate label?

Pope Paul VI said that Catholics are “conservative” because it is the mission of the Church to conserve unmutilated, undiluted and unpolluted the message of Christ. We must keep this message alive and proclaim the Good News of Christ to the world. In that sense, Catholics are inherently conservative.

That doesn’t mean we’re ultraconservative or closed to new ideas. New ideas, innovation and creativity have their role, so long as they’re placed in the proper perspective and introduced in the right way. I like what Chesterton said: To be conservative means that you simply inquire why the fence was put up before you knock it down.

Most bishops in the United States haven’t publicized decrees of excommunication. What led you to publicize decrees of excommunication in 1996?

That year I became more famous than I ever intended or wished to be. I issued the decree to clarify that one cannot be a loyal Catholic and a member of certain organizations. Call to Action, for example, advocates homosexual “marriage” and other distortions of Catholic teaching. I said that Catholics had a certain time to withdraw from such organizations or face canonical penalties.

It hit the national news, and I was interviewed for radio and television programs, such as The Today Show. The reaction I received was overwhelmingly favorable. I received about 50,000 letters of support, versus about 300 negative letters. I’d come home, and I could hardly get into my house, because supporters had sent me bouquets of flowers and baskets of fruit that arrived on my doorstep. Our diocese received a half-million dollars in donations.
Many bishops privately offered me their support. Some were astonished, but many said what I did was great, even if it wouldn’t work in their part of the world. I never intended it to be an example to others. It was part of my job as shepherd and chief pastor of Lincoln.

I believe we sometimes have to take steps to move beyond the intellect to motivate the will. Sin is not in the intellect, but the will. We do have to inform people about Church teaching, but once that is done, some choose to be willfully sinful. A great lawyer can know the law but still be a criminal. People can know what is right but do wrong. So, in regards to the excommunications, I believed I had to do something. Sometimes action must be taken.

What issues are you concerned about as the presidential election approaches?

I share the concerns of the other bishops of the United States about religious freedom.  Governments, particularly the federal government, are ignoring conscience clauses in their legal actions. We object to, for example, federal regulations that mandate that employer health-insurance plans provide coverage for contraception and abortion. The federal government is also hampering the work of Catholic Relief Services abroad, when it says it cannot participate in any federal activities because they don’t force “full reproductive services,” such as abortion and contraception, on people in other parts of the world.

It’s alarming and scary and contrary to what Our Lord wants us to do.

Which Catholics are your personal heroes?

Many are in the hierarchy of the Church. I had the good fortune to work with four popes, each of whom is a hero of mine. Karol Wojtyla, who went on to become Blessed Pope John Paul II, was an especially dear friend.

He was profound, quiet and a great listener, but also had a mischievous sense of humor that made him delightful to be with. He also endured many hardships, but you’d never know by his external appearance. He was the type of man, as Chesterton said, who “wore crimson and gold on the outside and on the inside a hair shirt.” He made two of my priests, Fathers [Robert] Vasa and [Thomas] Olmsted, bishops.

I also admire many cardinals, including Cardinals William Baum, John O’Connor and William Levada, who preached at my episcopal consecration. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was inspiring to meet; I also admire Mother Angelica. She invited me to appear on EWTN, and I’ve also served as retreat master for the Franciscan Friars.

Are there any devotions you recommend to the faithful?

A deep participation in the liturgy is most important. I also recommend reading sacred Scripture along with a good Catholic commentary.

Marian devotion, particularly the holy Rosary, leads us closer to Christ. Blessed John Paul II’s favorite prayer was the Rosary, which astonished many people. He was a brilliant man with a double doctorate, had an exceptional IQ and could speak 27 languages. Yet his favorite prayer was the Rosary, which he called “the school of Mary.”

I also recommend good spiritual reading. When I was a young lad, we read Chesterton and Belloc. It led us to other kinds of spiritual reading, such as The Imitation of Christ. The materialism and hedonism of our culture will drown us if we don’t make a life raft out of these kinds of Catholic activities.

What are your plans for retirement?

I plan to keep a hand in things. My mind is still good, and I can still make a contribution. I also have a rocking chair and two hunting dogs waiting for me.

Register staff writer Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.