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A man who was ‘filled with God’


Mid-America gathered at the funeral of Bishop Raymond Lucker, held at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm, Minn., Sept. 25. Lucker, who died Sept. 19 after a year-long siege of cancer, had already been honored Sept. 24 at Guardian Angels Church in Oakdale, Minn., at a Mass of Christian Burial attended by a cluster of bishops, many priests from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where Lucker had served as auxiliary bishop, and a congregation of at least 900 people.

Both carefully prepared liturgies were the kind of ceremonies that Lucker liked, according to Fr. John Berger, judicial vicar of the New Ulm diocese. Lucker was a simple man but, Berger said, “He liked ceremony. He often returned to New Ulm with stories of five-knife and six-fork dinners he had attended. However, he was a realist. And no one loved the church more.”

Lucker was meticulous. Days before he died at Our Lady of Good Counsel Home in St. Paul, Minn., he called the nursing home director and asked how long he would live so that he “could get it on his calendar.” He was worried about getting his plants in on time. New Ulm had turned him into an avid gardener. After 25 years, New Ulm had become his home.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the half-dozen liturgies that were part of Lucker’s final obsequies was the overwhelming presence of women. It was reminiscent of the earlier women at the foot of the cross and of those who went to the tomb.

As early as 1980, Lucker was appointing pastoral administrators in a diocese that then had just over 90 parishes. Among the 70 pastoral leaders in the 82 parishes today, there are now 18 pastoral administrators and three pastoral administrator interns, almost all of them women, most of them religious sisters.

According to Sister of St. Joseph Sue Torgersen, director of clergy continuing education and vocations director, Lucker “looked at the whole picture. He saw the needs and he answered them.”

According to Benedictine Sr. Jo Anne Backes, one of the first pastoral administrators, now in her 24th year in the diocese, “He was a man who loved to be with people and wasn’t afraid to speak out for justice. These are people who churn their own butter, and he became one of them.”

Lucker did, in fact, make his own soup and his own jelly. He used to boast, “Lucker’s was better than Smuckers.” He lived at the Pastoral Center in community with sisters and laypeople and often took a turn at cooking.

Benedictine Sr. Marian Kemper, another pastoral administrator, said that he “walked with everybody. It was amazing how many people in the parishes he could call by name.”

Raymond A. Lucker was once on the episcopal fast track. Ordained in 1952, he was in his mid-40s when he was named auxiliary bishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis in 1971. In 1975, he was appointed bishop of New Ulm. He was installed Feb. 19, 1976, and served until Nov. 17, 2000. Thirty of his 49 years in the priesthood were as a bishop. However, his insistence on justice and equality for women likely caused his career to veer off course.

It didn’t bother him. Instead, he came to love driving from parish to parish in his vast diocese, sometimes stopping en route to pick mushrooms. He got to as many as 50 parishes each year. “The visits are life-giving,” he wrote. “I return from them renewed and buoyed up.”

The New Ulm diocese covers 9,863 square miles with a total Catholic population of 71,908 Catholics, not including a migrant population of some 10,000 Hispanics. Twenty-five of New Ulm’s 81 priests are retired. Only 48 priests are in parish ministry, requiring the clustering of most parishes.

His diocese had not grown in over 30 years. It is mostly rural farmland with German-American farmers whose children grew up and departed for the larger cities. The people, their farms and their homes are as neat as Lucker’s notebooks.

They still practice Catholic hospitality. Throughout the wake and funeral, all were invited to visit the hall under the church for the mandatory scalloped potatoes and ham sandwiches. Following the Monday night wake, they were invited to quaff a local brew or some root beer made from a 1922 New Ulm formula and share stories.

“He was a teacher par excellence,” Fr. George Schmit said during the evening service homily. “You could go to his office with a question and he would go on and on for a half hour. His deep love of the church caused him to ask hard questions. Sometimes these questions caused him to seem disloyal.”

In 1964, he was sent to Rome where he earned a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Thomas. The Second Vatican Council was still in session at this time and it had a profound effect on the young priest. “There is no turning back now,” he said years later. “Vatican II set us on a trajectory in scripture, theology, liturgy, ecumenism and lay ministry. Every single member of the church is called to active participation. There is no way that we can go back to the days when the priest did everything. Renewal has been set in place.”

He came to be recognized as one of the handful of liberal bishops in the United States. Bishops of numerically small dioceses are seldom known outside the borders of their episcopal turf. Lucker was known nationwide. He called for the ordination of married men and of women. He was active in peace groups such as Pax Christi. He supported liberal groups such as Chicago-based Call To Action. When Fabian Bruskewitz, bishop of Lincoln, Neb., threatened to excommunicate members of his diocese who belonged to Call To Action, Lucker quietly announced that he was a member of the group and that he found it filled with good people.

It was no surprise then, that when he requested early retirement because of his failing health, he was replaced immediately. His successor is Bishop John C. Nienstedt, an auxiliary bishop from Detroit, who was installed just six weeks before Lucker died.

“Ray Lucker can afford to be an outspoken bishop,” a knowledgeable bishop-watcher observed a few years ago. “He isn’t going anywhere.” The statement was meant to be a compliment and an indictment. The compliment paid tribute to his integrity; the indictment defined the episcopal system that can turn earnest priests into sycophants and careerists. Lucker remained on the outer edge.

He loved his fellow bishops but found the episcopal system rife with politics. Over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Washington, he once told me that promotions in the clergy could best be attained by following a certain formula: “Write pastorals on the Blessed Mother, vocations, celibacy, family life and -- oh, yes -- abortion, and you’ll be on your way. And go to the installations and funerals of other bishops.” However, it was all said without a trace of bitterness.

Lucker’s funeral at Holy Trinity was a two-hour celebration attended by three archbishops and a dozen bishops together with over 100 priests from his diocese and episcopal province.

The procession into the church was led by the pastoral administrators and staff of the pastoral center. In a reflection following the funeral Mass, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis said, “He took God seriously and he took his Son seriously.”

Nienstedt, called on him at Our Lady of Good Counsel Home, a hospice dedicated to the care of cancer patients. Asked how he was feeling, Lucker responded, “I’m just sitting here and letting Jesus love me.”

“That man is filled with God,” a nursing home administrator told Nienstedt.

Lucker never lacked for a word. His homilist, Fr. Anthony Stubeda, recalled that one could ask him about the ingredients in a salad and he would hold forth for a half hour on the history of lettuce. He was primarily a teacher. He was remarkably self-effacing. “You know, I should resign soon,” he once told me. “I’m here almost 25 years. Not all my priests like me. It must be hard on them.”

On Feb. 18, Lucker celebrated 25 years as bishop of New Ulm and his retirement. In his homily -- one of the shortest on record for him -- Lucker spoke about his relationship with God and his life and ministry in New Ulm:

“Well, after 25 years one thing stands out as most important. After 25 years, more than anything else, I have learned this one truth. It has penetrated into my very being. And that truth is simply ‘God is here.’ ”

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001