Whether by accident, serendipity or divine design, four future heavyweights of American Catholicism found themselves in the Class of 1962 at St. John’s Seminary.
Momentous societal changes were surfacing all around the young men, but seminary life for George Niederauer, Roger Mahony, William Levada and Tod Brown continued much the same as it had for centuries. The four friends — a pair of cardinals-to-be, a future archbishop and bishop — were assigned alphabetically to desks and dorms. They arose at 5:30 a.m. and, within a half hour headed to the chapel for prayers and Mass. Silence was required during meals and after 7:30 p.m. Moral theology and philosophy classes were taught in Latin.
The priests-in-waiting had neither televisions nor telephones and were forbidden to leave the campus in Camarillo, Calif., without permission. They could read about current events — such as the 1960 election of the first Catholic to the White House — but only in clips from approved newspapers.
Released from their Catholic cocoon in 1962, the young priests faced a church on the brink of volcanic reform with the opening of the Second Vatican Council, pushing the ancient institution into a new age. No more Latin Mass. Priests now faced the people, not the altar. Other Christians were embraced, and social work became gospel.
After being schooled in a Vatican I church, the foursome would step down, five decades later, as quintessential Vatican II men.
“There was no instruction manual with a chapter (to cover) every conceivable crisis for the next 50 years,” says Mahony, now the retired archbishop of Los Angeles.
And there were many unexpected twists — a precipitous decline in priests and nuns, growing divorce rates, the push for reproductive rights and gay rights, an increasingly ethnic population, widespread disaffection and school closings, and, of course, the priest sex abuse scandal.
Niederauer, Mahony, Levada and Brown were gifted, dedicated men whose skills were recognized early and tapped often.
Levada ascended to archbishop of San Francisco and, later, the highest-ranking American in the Vatican. He and Mahony became cardinals, Brown shepherded Idaho’s diocese and then the Catholic flock in Orange, Calif., the fastest-growing diocese in the Golden State.
Niederauer was the last of the four to get a bishop’s crosier and ring, overseeing the Diocese of Salt Lake City before replacing Levada as archbishop of San Francisco.
All four Class of’62 alums are now retired, but they continue to meet regularly: once a year at Mahony’s cabin just outside Yosemite National Park and again on the day after Christmas.
Niederauer came of age after World War II during “an Indian summer of American Catholicism,” says the Rev. Steven Avella, a history professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
The once-outsider church was now well-rooted on U.S. soil, but in Southern California, where young George grew up, Catholics were vastly outnumbered among an increasingly diverse religious populace.
Niederauer’s parents drove him across town to Long Beach’s all-male St. Anthony’s Catholic High School, where he met Levada and where priests became the most potent forces in their lives. Teachers, mentors, confessors, counselors — these men of the cloth modeled a kind of life that left indelible imprints on the boys.
Slowly, the four men moved toward the priesthood. No flashes of lightning, no visions, no divine beckonings. Just a yearning to take their place alongside the men who had shaped them.
“They made the life of a priest attractive,” Niederauer recalled. “They were happy, effective, smart and approachable. A young man could look at that and think,’Well, that’s a possibility.’ ”
One by one, three boys opted for St. John’s after graduating from high school, but Niederauer had developed a separate passion — English literature.
The future professor enrolled at Stanford. Over Christmas break, however, he got together with his pals and, he says, “they were doing what I wanted to do.” So Niederauer transferred to the seminary, where he could become a priest and still write and produce witty skits and plays for students and faculty.
Niederauer was ordained May 1, 1962 — a day after Mahony — then worked in a parish for a few years, while pursuing graduate work in literature. By 1966, he had earned a doctorate from University of Southern California, and a year later, Niederauer returned to teach literature and moral philosophy at St. John’s and stayed another 27 years, eventually becoming seminary rector and wrestling with how best to train the new generation of priests.
Gregorian chants gave way to contemporary and non-Catholic hymns, while guitars became popular Mass instruments, says Monsignor Peter Nugent, a St. John’s music teacher and classmate of Niederauer. Silent periods were phased out, more classes and books were in English, and seminarians routinely left campus for parish and charity work.
There was more “acceptance of (priests’) humanity,” said University of Utah historian Colleen McDannell. “They went to the movies, traveled, vacationed with friends and family. The distance between priest and laity diminished.”
In Salt Lake City and again in San Francisco, Niederauer built morale among his priests by creatively matching talents with assignments, says Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, who served as his vicar general in Utah. The bishop’s “collaborative style of leadership” made him popular everywhere he went.
Though Niederauer defended his church’s anti-gay marriage stance and even enlisted Mormon leaders to help pass California’s Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage, the bishop hadn’t supported a similar Utah amendment. He pushed back when the Vatican tried to bar homosexuals from the seminary, allowed a short-lived Mass for gays and was the nation’s first Catholic bishop to praise the gay love story, “Brokeback Mountain.”
After Vatican II, the church transformed its approach to poverty, says McDannell, author of “The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America.” It moved beyond feeding people to attacking the systemic and societal causes of hunger.
That direction fit Mahony’s instincts.
As a child, young Roger was traumatized by the sight of border patrol agents crashing through the doors of his father’s small poultry-processing plant in North Hollywood. Guns drawn, they were looking for illegal immigrants among the plant’s handful of Mexican-born employees.
“Turned out everybody had documentation,” Mahony said, “but the assumption that, because they were Latino there must be something wrong with them, struck me deeply.”
Mahony, a talkative, animated student, learned Spanish while still in high school and, during his seminary years, spent many Sundays in the fertile California fields helping a priest celebrate Mass and hear confessions from Mexican migrant workers. Mahony joined labor icon Cesar Chavez, who wielded protests, strikes and boycotts to draw attention to worker safety and wage issues.
After his 1962 ordination, Mahony earned a master’s degree in social work from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., focusing on community organizing. When he returned to the West, he became the church’s lobbyist in Sacramento, where he helped broker a settlement between farmworkers and growers, and then headed Catholic Charities of California. He was named auxiliary bishop of Fresno in 1975 at age 38. Five years later, he was elevated to bishop of Stockton. In 1985, he stepped up as archbishop of L.A.
The City of Angels was a sprawling diocese of more than 1 million Catholics, so Mahony engaged his old pal Levada to help manage the shifting demographics. The two divided the area into five pastoral regions, with an auxiliary bishop for each.
Mahony then set about pushing the church into the 20th century.
He surveyed the population, asking about their priorities. He organized and computerized church finances. When there were not enough priests, he recruited laity to shoulder the workload, which triggered some resistance from conservative Catholics. He closed down a historic cathedral over the objections of preservationists and old-school Catholics and built a modernist — and expensive — replacement, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
Mahony was “a deft practitioner of ecclesiastical politics,” Avella said. “He was personable and likable and could read the changing times.”
By all accounts, William Levada was the most intense and serious of the St. John’s quartet — which made him a prime target for pranks. One night, Niederauer, Brown and Mahony (who had the idea) put a camera flashbulb in Levada’s overhead light and a dead chicken hawk in the closet just to see his startled reaction.
What didn’t surprise them, though, was Levada’s decision to spend his final undergraduate years studying theology at the Pontifical North American College and Pontifical Gregorian University.
“Rome is the center of Catholicism and has been for 2,000 years,” Levada said. “Just being there was an education.”
From then on, the Vatican became the focus of his vision and ministry, eventually bringing him into the presence of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He returned again and again from California to the Eternal City to study — earning a doctorate with a dissertation on infallibility — and to work in the Vatican bureaucracy.
Always a careful, evenhanded writer, Levada was the only American on the Vatican’s 1986 bishops’ commission to redo the catechism, which spells out Catholic teachings.
After serving for nine years as archbishop of Portland, Ore., Levada returned to California to replace the liberal Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco.
Bay Area Catholics braced themselves for a conservative crackdown, but the self-effacing Levada put them at ease, quipping that he “left my Darth Vader costume at home.” As a moderate pragmatist, Levada defended church doctrines and decisions, yet refused to attack opponents.
When changing demographics and finances forced the diocese to shut down 14 churches, Levada found ways to appease angry parishioners by turning some into shrines or community centers. When other bishops showed their disapproval of politicians favoring abortion rights by withholding Communion, Levada preferred to engage with them instead.
In 2005, Benedict named Levada as his successor as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a powerful panel overseeing theological orthodoxy as well as abuse cases. Rather than being “God’s Rottweiler,” as some had dubbed Benedict, Levada joked that he would be, according to the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen, more like God’s “cocker spaniel.”
Levada shuns the limelight — donning shorts and a floppy hat on weekends to tour Rome’s treasured churches and museums undetected — and is no ideologue. Sure, he signed off on recent criticism of progressive American nuns and was stern and unbending toward abusive priests, Allen writes, but admirers say the Vatican insider has “genuine empathy and a desire to find ways to keep (sides) talking despite differences.”
Tod Brown grew up in Northern California and met the others for the first time at St. John’s.
Like Levada, he spent his last seminary years at the church’s American universities in Rome. But he fell ill and returned to St. John’s to be ordained in May 1963, a year later than his three friends.
After ordination, Brown served in various California parishes. In 1989, he became bishop — consecrated by Levada — of Boise, Idaho, a place he had never visited and knew little about. The Catholics there were dwarfed in number by the predominant Mormons.
A decade later, he returned to California, taking the helm of the Diocese of Orange, a large community that included Latino, Vietnamese and Filipino immigrants.
Brown was named to the pope’s council on ecumenism and interreligious affairs and explored relationships with faiths such as Islam as well as other Christians.
Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, relations between his Catholic priests and Muslims were “cool,” but afterward, they warmed up dramatically, Brown said. “We’ve come to appreciate each other.”
In one of his last acts before retiring, Brown authorized the purchase of the all-glass Crystal Cathedral, built for the Rev. Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power” broadcasts. Brown had been looking to build a cathedral for the diocese, which didn’t have one, but got Schuller’s iconic tower and surrounding campus for much less.
Most American Catholic bishops first handled abusive priests the way they had long treated alcoholic clerics — send the offender off to a retreat center to dry out, then bring him back to serve again. They relied on psychiatrists, they say, who promised them that these men were “cured” and safe for the ministry.
Reportedly, St. John’s Seminary, where these four men trained, had an even higher incidence of abuse than in the rest of the country. But, they say, they knew nothing of it.
The priests may have been their family, says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Georgetown scholar, “but the thing all the bishops forgot was that the kids were also their family.”
The four acknowledge their failure to grasp the depth, breadth and insolubility of the problem. Niederauer was a member of the 2002 bishops’ committee charged with creating policies for protecting children in the future; Mahony, Brown and Levada were on the hot seat as they faced hundreds of cases and victims in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Francisco. Eventually, the latter three would spend days testifying in court, fighting the push to open the church’s personnel files. All three oversaw payments of millions to victims.
Mahony, for one, sometimes felt downright powerless.
“Even during the middle of the night,” Mahony recalls, “I would get up and go to chapel and say,’Lord, I don’t have any answers. You’ve got to help us.’ ”
Many all-male Catholic high schools are gone now and lay men and women have taken over the role of priests at coed parochial schools. The country’s priest candidates are older and often foreign-born. More moderate Vatican II-esque leaders have been replaced by doctrinal conservatives, and priests do not run parishes alone as they once did.
That’s OK with Mahony.
“I don’t want to go back,” says the cardinal, who has taken up residence in the little house behind St. Charles Borromeo Church, his childhood parish in North Hollywood. “In God’s providence, we will have enough priests … (and will develop) new forms of ministry that make the church more vital.”
The four old friends, all age 76, plan to travel, write, assist in parishes and work on pet projects.
Mahony continues to blog, preach and push for immigration reform. Brown has settled into his predecessor’s house in Orange, where he will maintain his ecumenical outreach.
Niederauer and Levada are sharing a condo in Long Beach; Niederauer also has a house on the campus of St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park, Calif., where Levada will spend some of his time.
Mutual affection runs deep.
“Grow old along with me,” Levada said, quoting the poet Robert Browning at Niederauer’s golden anniversary of his ordination last spring. “The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”
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