National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 9, 2004

Bishop Untener dies at 66

A leadership style that bucked the prevailing wind


Bishop Kenneth Untener, who led the Saginaw, Mich., diocese for 24 years, was known for his intellectual rigor, simple lifestyle and deeply pastoral approach to leadership. He died March 27 at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Infirmary in Monroe, Mich., of a form of leukemia. He was 66.

The image of shepherd came up regularly in Untener’s talks and homilies, but it was not the usual image of one who rounds up the flock and crowds them into the sheepfold. His episcopal motto was “That they may have life.” And he noted, “Jesus describes the shepherd as one who comes to the sheepfold and leads the sheep out of it.

“The shepherd brings them to the wide open spaces, green pastures, wider horizons, where they can have a freedom they never knew before.” In other words, where they may have life more abundantly. Untener had an expansive, inclusive, big-table approach to Catholicism, and he lamented on one occasion the direction in which he saw the church as an institution moving.

“We’re drifting toward a corporate severity,” he said. “The posture we take toward the world, toward our own people, the images we present … all these tend toward corporate severity rather than softness. It is like a prevailing wind always moving us in that direction, and I worry about it.”

It is clear now that almost everything he did and tried to do in his 24 years as bishop of Saginaw was against that wind.

“He was one of the few bishops for all those alienated women in the church and for liberal Catholics,” said Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine. “These people could look at him and say, ‘Yes, there is someone in the hierarchy who is sensitive to our views and is willing to speak out.’ In that kind of prophetic role you won’t get your way most of the time, but you know five or 10 years from now, what people call outlandish may be accepted as normal. He was a point man, and it seems the point man always gets hit first.”

Several years ago, Sr. Theresa Kane, an educator who greeted Pope John Paul II on his visit to the United States in 1979 and asked him to open all church ministries to women, summed up her views of the bishop. “Ken is very egalitarian in style without being patronizing,” she said. “And that’s a very difficult quality to have in a church where we’re conditioned to be hierarchical and authoritarian. Ken either broke the mold or he never fit in it.”

Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton praised Untener’s ability to delegate authority. “I doubt there’s another diocese in the country that could have gone on without a hitch like Saginaw did during the bishop’s illness,” said Gumbleton. “He had developed leadership in the priests and the laity, he empowered people. He made sure the pastoral administrators he appointed had real authority, were really in charge of parishes.” All that left him free to teach and speak and travel, said Gumbleton. Untener’s views and innovations may have alarmed Vatican authorities at times, Gumbleton noted, but he always maintained open and peaceful relations with Rome, despite complaints.

Longtime friend Joseph Imesch, bishop of Joliet, Ill., said few realized how deeply imbued with sacred scripture Untener was. “He had such great insight into the word, and he knew how to apply it to daily life,” he said. “That’s why he was so often called on to talk to priests and church ministers.” Though some considered him ultra-liberal, said Imesch, “he was really just a man who liked to ask the difficult questions. He wanted to get people to think.”

Untener was born in 1937, the seventh of nine children. His family members were the sole residents of Belle Isle, a recreational island in the Detroit River where his father maintained the canoes. He remained close to his family throughout his life, always attending twice-a-year reunions, which naturally swelled in attendance over the decades. Young Ken attended diocesan seminaries Sacred Heart in Detroit and St. John’s near Plymouth, Mich. A year before his ordination in 1963 he broke his right leg playing handball, and because he had a genetically deformed ankle, doctors removed the entire leg below the knee.

Untener never regretted the amputation. “A deformed leg,” he said later, “was socially awkward. A wooden leg is not. … You can kid about it. But the experience of my leg was most valuable to me. I think I know something of what it’s like to be the only woman in a room of men or the only black among whites. I know what it’s like to be noticed. I’ve been made sensitive to that.” Nor did the loss impair his dedication to golf and hockey, games he indulged in with a lively competitiveness throughout his career.

After ordination he served for a time in the Detroit chancery, then studied at the Gregorian University in Rome, writing his doctoral thesis on the ecclesiology of Dominican Yves Congar, whom he came to know and respect. Back in Detroit he taught homiletics at Sacred Heart Seminary, and in 1977 he was named rector of St. John’s Seminary.

Three years later, in 1980, at the age of 44, he was named bishop of Saginaw, Mich., a sprawling 11-county, 110-parish diocese in the middle of the state. It was then that Untener faced a crisis that served to define his approach to his job. The appointment was very nearly rescinded due to controversy over a sexuality workshop he had authorized at St. John’s. It included talks by psychologists and other outside experts and films aimed at helping seminarians relate to their own sexuality. But it offended certain Catholics who had secretly filmed some sessions. They filed complaints with the Vatican, charging Untener with promoting “promiscuity.”

Twice during an 11-day period just before his scheduled consecration, Untener flew back and forth across the Atlantic to Rome to defend his position; on the second trip he was accompanied by Detroit Cardinal John Dearden, who assured Pope John Paul II of Untener’s integrity and warned that a cancellation of the consecration would be an embarrassment for the whole church. Untener called the Vatican investigation on the eve of his consecration a “turning point” in his ministry. “Having experienced that right away freed me of the burden of trying to be held in favor,” he said some nine years after the incident. “I’m relieved of worrying about what effect something I do will have on my image. Now before I speak out, I only ask, is it true and will it be for the good of the church?”

He was consecrated bishop on Nov. 24, 1980, afterward greeting a mass of friends and supporters at the Detroit Civic Center with the oft-remembered words: “Hello, I am Ken and I am going to be your waiter.” Six months after becoming bishop he sold the bishop’s mansion and looked around for more modest housing. He later recalled thinking, “Ken, you’ve got 107 houses. Why not sleep in all of them?” Thus began a practice he maintained until the end -- living in the rectories with his priests, sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for several months. “It doesn’t matter usually,” he said. “Most of these guys are alone in a big house. They like company and there’s always room. They show me where the refrigerator is, and that’s that.”

As a result, his car became his peripatetic office. It was equipped with a phone and packed with bags, files and valises, a Bible, a razor and his crosier (a real $12 shepherd’s crook, which came in three parts for easy storage). “What I’m trying to do,” he said, “is change the idea that the chancery office is the source. It’s a resource, not headquarters from which plans and programs flow out to branch offices. It cannot pretend to know everything and control what parishes do. It should help parishes do better the creative things they are already doing.”

A mark of his career was concern about inequality in church and society. In a 1984 NCR article, he wrote, “Jesus includes in his company a lot of people who aren’t used to being included in the synagogues or dinner gatherings of his time. Should our parishes be more that way? … I was thinking about this on a DC-10 headed for the West Coast. I took a good look around the plane and concluded these were the kind of people who would make up a typical Sunday congregation. Then I pictured the people around Jesus, looked around the plane again, and said to myself, ‘No, not enough riffraff.’ There was a smattering but nothing to write a gospel about.”

In the early 1990s he decreed that for a period of two months, the poor should be the first item on the agenda of every meeting in every office and parish of the diocese. And the question to be asked was, “How will what we are doing here affect or include the poor?” When some protested that donations to the poor often go to the unworthy, he said, “Help them anyway. If you start to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor, you are finished -- at least as far as the Gospel is concerned.”

He was an outspoken supporter of women, and though he did not explicitly call for women’s ordination, he came close many times. During a public presentation at the University of Notre Dame in 1990, he said the issue needs to be examined, not ignored. Untener noted that in the 1920s, many scientists were convinced there was only one galaxy in the universe, “but by probing the cogency of their reasons, they discovered something they weren’t looking for” -- the existence of millions of other galaxies. “That,” he said, “somewhat describes the situation we stand in today relative to the ordination of women. … I have this intuition there’s more out there, that the horizons are capable of more. But there are some theological obstacles to cross.”

He was very explicit, however, in disagreeing with the church’s refusal to reconsider the ban on artificial contraception. At a meeting of the U.S. bishops in 1990 he commented on a new document dealing with sex education: “We briefly restate the teaching on birth control and say we hope that the logic expressed here is compelling to the Catholic laity. I wonder how we can claim credibility when we make a statement like that, knowing in fact that the logic is not compelling to the Catholic laity … not compelling to many priests … and not compelling to many bishops. When we know this and don’t say it, many would compare us to a dysfunctional family that is unable to talk openly about something everyone knows is there.”

When Vatican officials called for those who dissent from official doctrine to study and pray over their position, Untener remarked, “Could they not say to us, ‘We will … if you will, and let’s do it together’? Would such a process weaken the authority of the bishops, or would it in fact strengthen our authority?” He was a major author of a 1995 document, signed by some 40 American bishops, lamenting the heavy centralization of decision-making in the Vatican and calling for church decisions at every level to be more open and transparent.

When he was preparing a pastoral letter on abortion, he asked that “all people who struggle with the problems that lead to abortion” assist in the writing and sign the document. Besides providing immediate help for pregnant women, said the final version, “we will work together to get the legislation and programs that mothers and fathers and children and families need. We’ll work on the underlying causes, particularly attitudes toward women.”

Making liturgy more participative was another of his passions. When-ever he presided at Mass, he memorized the Gospel reading in order to proclaim it with more meaning, and he developed a series of “teaching Masses,” in which he tried to get at the heart of the Vatican II liturgy. But he acknowledged on one occasion that congregational participation had actually declined under the new norms. “The idea was, ‘We’ll do it together now,’ ” he said, “but we don’t. We said, ‘This will be great.’ Well, it hasn’t been.” The changes, he said, took away people’s opportunity for private prayer during Mass, while substituting something they did not understand. “Helping them understand, helping to get more people into this thing we call ‘we’ is the great challenge,” he said, “and it still has great promise.”

Untener’s interest in scripture prompted him to write for the past five years small books containing “six-minute meditations.” Separate books were produced for the Advent, Lent and Easter seasons with entries for each day of the season. The books became quite popular, and printing runs exceeded 100,000. “Sometimes a little thing can make a big difference in our lives,” said Untener. “A little thing like the booklet and a request for six minutes of your day could make the difference between hoping to do it and actually doing it.”

Little things were also what many remembered about Ken Untener -- his openness to people, his kindness, his informality and his wit. According to rumor, the bishop sponsored a cherry stone spitting contest among employees in the diocesan center every year as a kind of rite of spring. When asked about it, a former church official said, “You don’t want to go there! I could tell a lot more -- but you’d just print it.”

A Saginaw leader of the church reform group Call to Action, Rosemary Moon, said she found Untener available, always personable, usually in shirtsleeves and leaning back in his chair. “And anytime I met him, he always said, ‘Thanks for what you are doing.’ Some criticized him for not being more open and more outspoken about the need for change. But you have to remember he was bishop of the whole diocese.”

Arnie Messing, a married priest and member of the Corpus, the national association for a married priesthood, said Untener bent over backwards to accommodate him and other formerly active clergy. He and the bishop had lunch together every year during the Christmas season, he said, and Untener was unfailingly encouraging and supportive. “He had this incredible ability to relate to people where they’re at,” he said.

When he realized the full extent of his illness in late February, Untener wrote to the people of Saginaw, “We’re all in this together, facing life and death, personal success and personal failure, sin and grace. At every Eucharist I very consciously stand with you as together we all stand with Christ in his great continuing act of giving himself to the Father. … I have always sensed your support, and I want you to know, especially those of you facing serious problems, that you have my support too. We’re all in this together.”

Robert McClory, a longtime contributor to NCR, writes from Chicago.

The wisdom of Ken Untener

On complaints to Rome: A number of pastoral reasons indicate an urgent need for a clarification of the relationship of the church of Rome to the other local churches around the world. When [some people] have a concern they bypass the local bishop or even the conference of bishops and go directly to Rome. This practice distorts the nature of the church. It fosters a model emphatically declared false. … This practice also tends to communicate to Rome a distorted picture of many local churches. The good news of what is taking place in so many dioceses is twisted into bad news.

On fasting: I call on all of us to make Lent a time of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Human beings learned a long time ago that digestion consumes more energy than most anything we do in a day. Take away food and the energy is available for something else -- especially reflective thought.

On the poor: Remember the way Jesus identified himself with the leaders of the community? “He who hears you hears me.” The stunning truth is he identified himself just as closely with the poor and suffering: “As often as you did it for one of them, you did it for me.” That’s Christology. Such works are not reckoned as if they were done to him. They were done to him.

On the arms race: The time has come to ask whether we’re willing to stake our lives on the morality proclaimed in the Gospel, a Gospel that says, “Love your enemies.” Has the time come for us to risk death rather than contribute to an arms race that the Vatican said must be “unreservedly condemned”?

On building the church: We might see the Christian trying to build the church as an architect. But as we get older and wiser, we see the world doesn’t show the immediate effects of what we’re trying to do. So I think I’d see myself instead as a jeweler. Trying to do what Christ asks sometimes means doing the tiny work of a jeweler rather than the grand work of an architect.

On confession: Kids loved the numbers. They’d say, “Father, it’s been a week since my last confession and I’ve missed morning prayers 40 times.” Today it’s going back to the way of 1,500 years ago, getting rid of some of the sidetracking. It’s back to the oldest way of being healing for wounded people, not a reward for stainless people.

On depression: It is our lot in life to be different. Our symbol is the cross, not a Gallup poll. If people just watch without joining or maybe even laugh at you, well, that’s the way it is when you jump into this baptismal water. Do your best to be true to this strange sort of swim. … Know that some day the Lord is coming to set it all right. And then it will be summer, and we’ll all swim together.

On Easter: The Easter homily ought to be brief. The biggest reason for brevity in my opinion is that when you are dealing with something like the Resurrection, words will never do it. It’s the hardest thing in the world to believe that there is life after death. It’s also the most wonderful thing to believe. We’re asking people to bet their lives on it.

On what’s important: Come the kingdom, the great issues in today’s church will be about the same. … They’re important, but they’re relative. The Lord smiles as we make them seem so absolute, much as we smile looking back to the first grade. … There are two ways to relativize. The first is not to care about anything, and that is the wrong way. The second is to be in touch with the great mystery of God, to experience firsthand the breadth and the depth of the magnificent reality that lies at the heart of our lives and spreads out in a panorama that the whole universe cannot hold. Altar railings? Economics? Issues to be sure, but how they pale in the brilliant light of the great mystery.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 2004

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