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Lucker’s final certainty: God is here

NCR Staff
St. Paul, Minn.

There was a time when Raymond Aloysius Lucker had all the answers.

The time was not long after he was ordained in 1952 for the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese. “Typical of those days,” he said in a recent interview in his rooms at the Leo C. Byrne Residence on the grounds of the University of St. Thomas here, “priests thought that they had all the answers. As a matter of fact we did, according to that system.”

What a difference a few decades and a Vatican council would make.

Lucker, 74, was speaking to an interviewer one sunny Sunday morning in mid-February, just hours before he would face a packed church in Bird Island, Minn., a two-hour car ride west of his residence, for a Mass that served both as an official goodbye and a celebration of his 25th anniversary as bishop of New Ulm, Minn. The Vatican accepted Lucker’s early resignation last November. The goodbyes were made perhaps a bit heavier with the understanding that Lucker is battling cancer -- melanoma that has moved to the bones -- a process about which he has been completely open with his people since the first diagnosis.

By the time he reached the Church of St. Mary in Bird Island Feb. 18, he felt exhausted and in need of a nap. Quickly, though, he seemed to gain new energy from the more than 600 people -- old friends, some of whom he had known from those early certain days of priesthood -- who packed the church.

And this is what the pastor, perhaps wiser if less absolute in his answers, told his people: “In the 25 years as your bishop,” he said, “I have become certain of only one thing, and that is that God is here.”

Some might see in the trajectory of Lucker’s career a kind of biblical paring down to the essentials, a fitting diminution of hubris, as in the first shall be last and the mighty made humble.

It is a curiosity of his career that as he climbed the ecclesiastical ladder, he jettisoned some things -- especially his certainty over some matters and an unquestioning acceptance of rules -- that could be seen as essential to success in the church.

Many would say that in that trajectory Lucker sealed his fate, that his independence cost this once bright, young rising star -- he earned a doctorate in Rome and spent two years in Washington as head of the United States Catholic Conference’s education department -- any further rungs up the ladder. In short, he would never get beyond the small rural diocese of New Ulm, in southern Minnesota.

No matter. He was known and had an influence far beyond the borders of his diocese. He openly advocated ordination of married men, ordination of women, a greater role for the laity and, increasingly in recent years, a decentralization of power and authority in the church.

Champion of difficult causes

For those outside his diocese, he has often been viewed as a champion of causes that most other bishops would not touch. In 1966, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., made national headlines by pronouncing mass excommunications. Among causes for excommunication was membership in the Catholic reform group Call to Action. Lucker was available to balance the scales. “I am a member of Call to Action,” Lucker said at the time. “It’s a wonderful group of people, concerned with social justice in the church and in society.” A certain freedom came in knowin g New Ulm was the end of the line.

Call to Action will recognize Lucker’s long fidelity to the organization by presenting him with the group’s leadership award during its Nov. 2-4 Midwest Conference in Chicago.

Pax Christi USA, the Catholic peace organization, will also honor Lucker with its Ambassador of Peace Award. The designation is given, usually at five-year intervals, to founding or longtime members of Pax Christi. Lucker has been president of Pax Christi Minnesota for nearly 20 years. Pax Christi national coordinator Nancy Small said Lucker has been “one of the leading voices for peace in the movement. Any time we invite bishops to say something about peace or disarmament, he is always first to be out there.”

Lucker often acts before he gets called, she said, and his prophetic calls to nonviolence and peacemaking have, at times, influenced the thinking of other bishops, she said.

He’s an easy target for media tags: “liberal New Ulm bishop,” “one of the most liberal U.S. bishops,” “a maverick” in the U.S. hierarchy.

Understandable though they are, the labels miss a lot.

For though Lucker was willing to joust from afar with Rome bureaucrats, life in the church for him was driven by a far deeper mission than feuding.

That mission grew out of his passion for education and for the Second Vatican Council. If there was an “aha!” moment in his life it came in Rome while he was working on a doctorate in theology at the Angelicum. (He also earned a doctorate in education from the University of Minnesota.)

He has retained a practical interest in theology his entire clerical life and is one of a handful of bishops who attend theological gatherings. A third award will come his way this year when the Catholic Theological Society of America meets June 7-10 in Milwaukee. CTSA president Jesuit Fr. Kenneth Himes said the society will show its appreciation for Lucker as one of the bishops “who has tried to promote fruitful conversation and ongoing dialogue with the theological community.”

Disturbing his certainty

Actually, it wasn’t a single moment that turned his head, but realizations that occurred during his two years of study in Rome, which happened to coincide with the final session of the Second Vatican Council. It was 12 years after his ordination, still a time when he knew all the answers. “When I look back on it now, there was a kind of arrogance to that, that I would defy people to ask me a question I couldn’t answer. I knew the answer. Or if I didn’t, I had books on my shelves that had the answer. I knew that someplace in the system we could take care of all questions.”

His time in Rome would upend that confidence. “What I came to see during the Second Vatican Council,” he said, “is that revelation involved God’s self-communication to us. God communicated the inner mysteries of God to us. And we can never understand the mystery of God. We can never adequately explain or express the revelation of God.”

That leads humans, he said, on a constant search “for a better way to express the mysteries of God.”

That search itself was one of the central impulses of Vatican II, an event that was as moving personally to Lucker as it was momentous on the world stage. The teachings of Vatican II shaped his life like no other element in the church. And that is not an idle way of putting it, for when he eventually became bishop of New Ulm, he was a different kind of bishop from the start.

He moved into the Catholic Pastoral Center in New Ulm, a residence that is made up of suites of rooms and a large common area. He said he lived there for a while by himself and “thought this is ridiculous.” So he began inviting diocesan staff, priests and sisters, laypeople, as many as nine at one point, to move in as a faith community. For years he lived in community. At one point, he brought in a Jesuit spiritual director to help the group find its way. Members of the household would daily join for common prayer. While outside help came in to cook the evening meal and do laundry, everyone -- including the bishop -- shared in the other chores.

He has a reputation as an accomplished gardener and cook. His getaway was a cabin not far from the diocesan headquarters. His style, remarkably easy, certainly benefits from his convictions about the dignity of everyone. He is a teacher at heart, and he is one of those unusual teachers who seems to listen to his own best lectures.

So person after person rose up in testimony during a banquet following the Mass. And the common thread was that “he listened,” “he made us feel at home,” “he always listened to what I had to say.” Bishop Stanley Olson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America told of arriving as a young cleric for his first day in New Ulm. The only thing on his desk that day in this very Lutheran territory was an envelope containing a letter from the local Catholic bishop welcoming him to town and inviting him to lunch. Thus began a long friendship and deep ecumenical understanding.

In major diocesan decisions, Lucker, in his manner of putting into practice convictions that grew out of Vatican II, was widely consultative. He tells the story of his wish to begin a permanent deacon program in the diocese. During the consultation process, strong objections surfaced. People said the diocese first needed to develop a lay ministry formation program. They pointed out that the diocese had no Catholic college or university, no place to do the program and no faculty.

“And then there were the costs and all that, and so the recommendation was to not go with it,” he said. “Even though, as I say, my first hope was to start a permanent diaconate, I listened to the people.”

Didn’t he push just a little bit?

“No. I wouldn’t push it if the priests and people were against it. I was convinced by their discussions.”

Applying teachings to new situations

Such were the practical applications that evolved for someone who saw that reform council of the 1960s as a call to search “for a more adequate way to understand and to apply the teachings of Jesus to new situations, new conditions of the world.” Pope John XXIII, in calling that council, “talked about listening to and being attentive to the signs of the times and that we had to look at ourselves as a church and be renewed -- that we could be more credible in presenting our message to the world. There was an excitement about renewal, about reform, about change. So then, given my past background where nothing changed, where everything was answered, where all the questions were dealt with, where we simply had to listen to the authority figures say this is what you do and this is the answer -- all of a sudden that turned, that opened that whole thing up. All of a sudden it came to me, the biggest single thing was that the church needed to change, the church needed to reform.”

The significance of the council for Lucker can be seen now in his books. In moving from the diocesan center to the retired priests’ residence in St. Paul, he pared his library to a few essential volumes on a thin set of shelves. Most of those that made the cut have to do with the council. One copy of the documents -- the paperback translation by Jesuit Fr. Walter Abbot -- is turning brown and brittle. It is the one with all of Lucker’s underlining and notations.

He picks it out of the shelf to make a point. He’s returned again to that idea he no longer holds -- that a priest could have all the answers. His voice pitches up a bit in excitement as he waves the book and explains how he sees the community’s role in revelation: “Revelation to the church, the people of God, is God speaking through the prophets, through the people of Israel, through the history of salvation, ultimately through Jesus, who comes among us as the Son of God, who now speaks the word, and is the Word and who communicates the inner mysteries of God to the community.”

“The assumption,” -- it is clear this is a setup, that he might well be setting up an entire adult education class -- “was that we can fully understand.” But that’s only possible “if you think that revelation is locked up, finished.”

Ah, now to the book, to a passage well marked. “Now listen to this,” he says.

He opens to the council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” which he considers both one of the most neglected and one of the most important of the major constitutions of that gathering. It was the constitution that “gave us a new vision of revelation -- that it wasn’t just God speaking, but God acting.”

Again, “Now listen to this,” and he reads from the pertinent passage:

“ ‘This tradition, which comes from the apostles, develops in the church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.’ ”

Lucker smiles and says, “We’re talking about coming to a deeper understanding constantly of the revelation of God through our contemplation and study, through our experience and also through the preaching of those in office.”

He continues reading, “ ‘For, as the centuries succeed one another, the church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth’ ” (he repeats, slowly, punching out each word) “ ‘the church moves forward toward the fullness’ -- never has it, always -- Gee, I mean, that’s earth-shattering in terms of my background. The church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

“That’s revelation,” he chuckles broadly.

How many times have you read these documents?

“Oh, many, many, many times.”

Dealing with cancer

A few weeks after the celebration of his 25th anniversary as bishop, Lucker agrees to a phone interview to talk further about his illness, what he faces and how he copes.

Back in the ’60s in Rome, “I went through a personal renewal in which I came to have a more personal relationship with the love of God,” he said.

He was, again, being affected by a council that was saying that catechetics, teaching the faith, could not neglect the relational aspect of handing on the faith, that beneath the transmission of facts and information had to be a personal relationship with God, a personal conversion.

“It was just a very exciting time and a grace-filled time. I went through this change. I went there as a person with a more notional faith, a faith that was in my head, and it became a faith that was in my heart.” And that faith in his heart is extremely important at this time of his life.

He was operated on in June 1999 for melanoma that appeared in his neck. In the fall of 2000, he pulled some muscles in his ribs, and doctors did a bone scan and found some “hot spots.” They did another scan in December, followed by a biopsy in January 2001. “They could tell it was in the bones.”

He has just begun a second regimen of experimental treatment. He doesn’t hold out much hope.

“When I first heard I had melanoma, that it had gone into the lymph nodes, I knew then that it was a death threat. I told the doctor, ‘I’m not afraid of death. My faith tells me that death is the beginning of everlasting life. I believe that.

“I pretty much said, ‘All right, I am 74 years old, I have had a good life and wonderful opportunities to use the gifts of God.”

What does scare him is the threat of pain. But he has achieved a certain calm.

He made two 30-day retreats with the Jesuits at earlier points in his life, and his meditations now are based on the simple prayers that have come from those retreats.

So recently, fighting some apprehension, he found himself in the chapel before saying Mass, breathing deeply and repeating his mantra, “Jesus I love you. Lord have mercy. Jesus I love you as I breath out. Lord have mercy breathing in -- in and out motion of love and faith, God’s revelation and our response.”

One time while saying Mass, he was meditating on the phrase “May our prayer arise as incense.” He found himself saying, “I offer myself, my life.” Then, “I offer my sufferings and offer my death.” He recalled, “And it really, it was one of those times when I felt so close to God.”

The letters of support and the prayers have been pouring in. His community has widened. He’ll take a miracle cure. Until then, he is close to family and friends and his social life has become rather crowded -- lots of lunches and dinners with old friends.

“What happens when this gets worse, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just going to leave this in the hands of God, knowing there are hospices and people out there who know how to care for people at that point.”

Tom Roberts’ e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001