Bishop George H. Niederauer, who has led Utah's 200,000 Catholics for the past 10 years, has been named archbishop of San Francisco. The announcement was issued from the Vatican on Thursday.

The down-to-earth, approachable Bishop Niederauer — who earlier this week tromped through the snow in City Creek Canyon with 10 students from Judge Memorial Catholic High School — will be installed as archbishop on Feb. 15, at San Francisco's Cathedral of Saint Mary.

Archbishops, like bishops, do not apply for their jobs. In fact, Bishop Niederauer was not even told he was being considered to become head of the San Francisco Archdiocese. The news came out of the blue in a phone call from the U.S. ambassador from the Vatican just 10 days ago, Bishop Niederauer said Thursday from San Francisco.

Bishop Niederauer becomes one of only 49 Roman Catholic archbishops in the United States. A few of these are retired and a few have become cardinals; the others oversee a total of 37 archdioceses.

He is the first Salt Lake Diocese bishop to be appointed an archbishop since 1932, when Bishop John Joseph Mitty was also named archbishop of San Francisco.

"His sharp mind, quick wit, compassionate heart and generosity are qualities we will greatly miss," says Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, vicar general of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. The monsignor hailed Bishop Niederauer for "his ability to reach out to individuals and make them feel part of the community process."

Bishop Niederauer has served on the Coalition for Utah's Future, was president of the Utah Coalition Against Pornography, and served on the Alliance for Unity, established in 2001 to help bridge religious and ethnic divides in Utah.

His approach is "something that transcends tolerance," said Elder Alexander Morrison, emeritus member of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who served on the Alliance for Unity with him. "It represents something higher: respect, understanding and acceptance."

In 2004, Bishop Niederauer received the Gandhi Peace Award from the Gandhi Alliance for Peace.

As archbishop of San Francisco, Bishop Niederauer will oversee 90 parishes, 11 chapels and 425,000 Catholics in a three-county area that includes San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin. Organizationally he will also oversee a church province that stretches from Utah to Honolulu.

But theologically, all bishops and archbishops are equal, "and they all relate to Rome directly, one to one," explains the Rev. Robert Bussen of St. Mary's Church in Park City. As archbishop, Bishop Niederauer can't intervene in the work of another diocese, but if a bishop or diocese gets in trouble, the Rev. Bussen adds, "it would fall to the archbishop to work it out."

Until his installation as archbishop in mid-February, Bishop Niederauer will continue as the administrator of the Salt Lake Diocese. At that point, six Utah priests in what is known as the College of Consultors will gather to elect a temporary administrator who will run the diocese until a new bishop — the ninth in the history of the Salt Lake Diocese — is appointed by the Vatican.

Appointments are made on Vatican time, notes diocese spokeswoman Monica Howa-Johnson. When Bishop Niederauer's predecessor, Bishop William Weigand, left in 1994 to become bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento, it took a year for the Vatican to choose a successor.

Bishop Niederauer, who has a Ph.D. in English literature from UCLA and a bachelor of sacred theology degree from Catholic University, taught English for 27 years at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., where he also served as spiritual director. Before arriving in Salt Lake City he co-directed the Cardinal Manning House of Prayer for priests in Los Angeles.

When he was made bishop of the Salt Lake Diocese, Bishop Niederauer says, "it was a wrench" to leave Los Angeles, his home of nearly 60 years. But the experience in Utah turned out to be "wonderful and beautiful," he says. So even though it is painful to leave Salt Lake City, he says, he is hoping to "repeat the pattern."

Although he will be more visible as an archbishop, and head of a much larger church region, Bishop Niederauer says "the one who is important is the Lord. That's whose work you're trying to do."

The San Francisco Archdiocese will be getting a leader who respects the priests who work under him, says the Rev. Bussen. Many bishops are "very directive," he says, but Bishop Niederauer's style is to allow his priests to do their jobs without interference. He is also "very attentive to the inner needs of priests, to our spiritual and personal lives," he adds.

And, says the Rev. Bussen, Bishop Niederauer is non-intimidating and self-effacing. He remembers the day in January 1995 when Bishop Niederauer was installed as bishop. Installation is a formal, elaborate affair, in which "they lay hands on your head and anoint you, and put books on your head, and dress you up in bishop's gear, with a staff in your hand," says the Rev. Bussen, remembering what Bishop Niederauer said to the congregation: "I look silly."


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