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

The Catholic church loses a visionary

It might be easy for some in the church to dismiss Bishop Kenneth Untener’s tenure as an oddity. He was different the way saints can be different -- so unusual that others excuse themselves from such lofty expectations.

He could be dismissed, too -- no knock against Saginaw -- because rural Michigan is not New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. It just doesn’t have the heft, the money, the political throw weight, the diversity, the sheer numbers.

Dismissing him on those counts, however, would be as incorrect as saying Untener, who died March 27 at age 66, was a good bishop because he sold the bishop’s manse and lived out of the trunk of his car or because he memorized the Gospel, convinced such discipline is required of a good preacher.

Judging Untener only by what he did, unusual or not, would be to miss the motive underlying why he lived his ministry the way he did. It involved a faith and an approach to church that was visionary, with a rigorous intellectual underpinning attached firmly to the instincts of the reform of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the work of contemporary theologians and scholars. He was a man, said his friend Bishop Joseph Imesch, “who liked to ask the difficult questions. He wanted to get people to think.” And he worried about the church’s drift toward “corporate severity.”

Mourners grieved the death of “a man of unassuming brilliance” or “the most profound and most human person I’ve ever met.” Hundreds of Protestant brothers and sisters showed up at the Victorious Believers Ministries Church of God in Christ in Buena Vista Township for a prayer vigil after he died. Untener was a pastor, a man of God, the person in the community who could speak and reach beyond religious, ethnic and racial boundaries.

In an era when the church has lost its credibility in the public square, when bishops try to reestablish their authority through exclusion and decrees, Untener exercised a clear and convincing, if quiet, authority. His was not a church of fear, but of hope. His was a Catholicism that could not be contained within the walls of a church or the suspicions of a chancery office. It spilled out enthusiastically, warmly and deeply committed to the dignity of all, into the wider community.

In the last weeks of his life he stated in a letter to a group presenting him with an award, “I’ve still got some ideas to suggest about this church we love, and I want to be part of what I believe is an imminent and wondrous rebirth.”


National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 2004

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