The Lincoln Roman Catholic Diocese has a reputation as one of the most conservative dioceses, if not the most conservative, in the country.
That conservatism — many prefer to call it orthodoxy or traditionalism — makes some Catholics uncomfortable, especially when they come to Lincoln from other places. But others praise it, including some who moved here specifically because they were attracted to Catholicism as practiced in the Lincoln Diocese.
Julie and Alton Davis raised their four children in San Antonio and figured they’d stay in Texas their entire life. But after their oldest son, Matt, moved to Lincoln to study for the priesthood, he had such glowing reports about Lincoln Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz and the priests in this diocese, that his parents wanted to move here, too.
Matt decided not to enter the priesthood and married a Nebraska girl. His parents’ first visit to Lincoln was for his wedding in May 1996, just shortly after Bruskewitz issued his famous list of organizations that Catholics were forbidden to join, including several Masonic groups and the Catholic reform group Call to Action, on penalty of excommunication.
“We were really impressed by a man who would exercise such leadership, because it was so unheard of,” Julie Davis said.
They also were impressed with the spirit of piety and devotion in the Catholic churches here. They moved here in 1998, after Julie Davis got a teaching position at Pius X High School. They’re active members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
“The priests seem like they’re praying the Mass, not just saying it,” Alton Davis said. “They really seem to mean the words, especially the young priests.”
They liked their priests in San Antonio, but felt some churches there deviated from correct doctrine and practice. When Julie Davis joined a Catholic Women Speak program there, she discovered she was the only woman who took a traditional approach, supporting a male priesthood, the prohibition on artificial birth control and a “non-competitive” role for women in the church.
“I felt we were excluding the real genius of women. I feel we have our own unique gifts,” she said.
Here, Julie Davis is active in Magnificat, a spiritual ministry to women, and is part of a group promoting “Dressing with Dignity,” a campaign encouraging teenage girls to wear more modest clothing.
Marilyn and David Friesen lived in Catholic dioceses in Kansas and Missouri before coming here six years ago. They were attracted mainly by Bruskewitz’s leadership.
“He’s like a good father to the priests,” David Friesen said. “They respect him — they may not agree with everything, but they love him as a father figure. And they try to do things correctly.”
All churches follow the proper order and words of the Mass, not adding or omitting things for the sake of innovation as in some other dioceses where they’ve lived. “They (the priests) want to do things right, which helps the laity be obedient to what is right,” Marilyn Friesen said.
The Friesens came here without jobs, but both now work for the diocese — Marilyn as a secretary in the chancery office and her husband in the Catholic schools administration. They attend St. Teresa’s parish.
Paul Lewandowski has lived in six dioceses and considers Lincoln the best. He believes in the truth of the Christian Gospel and came here because, he said, “I wanted the purest form of that truth.”
Both he and his wife participate in perpetual adoration at North American Martyrs Church. Paul does his hour of prayer in the church at 3 a.m. each Friday. “I would never trade my hour,” he said. “It’s where I find peace in the presence of Jesus.”
The 24-hour prayer vigils are something of a rarity in Catholic churches in other places, he added.
The Lewandowskis have six children, four of whom attend Catholic schools. Lincoln parishes support their parochial schools, and tuition is low compared to Catholic schools in other states, he said. “A good school system is critical to a diocese staying healthy,” he said.
One obvious difference between the Lincoln Diocese and others is that Bruskewitz is the only bishop in the country who does not allow girls to be altar servers. Serving as altar boys can encourage young men to consider the priesthood, which may be one reason Lincoln has a high number of vocations to the priesthood compared with other dioceses, Lewandowski and others said.
“Boys in general are more lazy than women,” Lewandowski said. “Women will step into that role and men will let them.”
But many of the things that appeal to those who have chosen the Lincoln Diocese turn other Catholics off. Several people interviewed by the Journal Star talked about the rigidity of the church here, with little variation in worship style or preaching from parish to parish. They also noted not only the absence of girl altar servers but of lay women as eucharistic ministers, which is common elsewhere.
Louise Baskin, who grew up in the Lincoln Diocese but moved to Colorado nine years ago, said when she began attending a Catholic church in Arvada, Colo., “it was the first time I understood that Mass was a celebration, not solemn, quiet and reverent.”
Rachel Pokora, president of Call to Action-Nebraska, was a eucharistic minister when she lived in Indiana, helping serve communion during Mass. They also regularly received both the wine and bread during communion, while in Lincoln in most services it’s only the bread. Priests in Lincoln are “overly cautious on the eucharist,” she said. “They’re afraid to let it into anyone’s hands. They treat it with respect, but they don’t treat us with respect.”
Baskin disagrees that allowing girls to be altar servers will discourage boys from becoming priests. “Here in Colorado we have an equal number of girls and boys. No one feels left out.”
Her church in Arvada is large, but builds close relationships among parishioners through what she called “small church communities” that meet in people’s homes. Her parish priest gave a talk supporting evolution but also examining the claims of creationism and is planning another on stem cell research.
Karla Jensen, a communications professor at Nebraska Wesleyan who grew up in Scottsbluff, in the Grand Island Diocese, tried attending several Lincoln Catholic churches and felt “the voice of the liberal Catholic” was lacking. “It just didn’t seem like a place for open dialogue. I didn’t feel I would be free to ask questions or openly challenge anything.” Jensen doesn’t attend a Catholic church in Lincoln, but goes to Mass when she is home in Scottsbluff.
Catholic students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln quickly notice that the Lincoln Diocese is more conservative than the church in some other places.
Valentia Obafunwa, a UNL sophomore from Nigeria who has lived here since 2002, said she likes the methods of the Lincoln Diocese more than other dioceses she has seen. She attends St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church on campus and is involved in the Fellowship of Catholic Students (FOCUS) at the Newman Catholic Student Center.
“I think the traditionalism is a really good thing,” she said. “Lincoln is a diocese that’s very consistent across the board. There’s no room for personal opinion. The ways and rules are set.”
Jason Thiele, a UNL junior, finds the Lincoln Diocese “a little more conservative” than the church in his home town of Clearwater, in northeast Nebraska. “I noticed it right away. I thought it was a little weird at first,” he said.
But he eventually got used to the way things are done here, and regularly attends St. Thomas Aquinas. Thiele said he’s only heard a few negative comments from students.
“There was one time where I remember some of the girls in choir wanted to do a more contemporary type of song for Mass but they didn’t think it would fly,” he said. “It’s usually things like that.”
Despite a national trend toward contemporary music and informal worship as a way to attract young people, the Lincoln Diocese keeps students coming back for traditional Mass. It’s possible Catholic students don’t necessarily want contemporary services, Thiele said.
In fact, he’s just happy to have a close place for worship.
“I wouldn’t say I like it any better or worse,” he said. “Mass is Mass everywhere. It doesn’t make a difference to me, conservative or contemporary.”
Erin LaFleur, a UNL junior, is also involved with FOCUS. Originally from Omaha, LaFleur said many students seem to connect with the more orthodox approach.
“I think we just feed off the energy everyone brings in and allow God’s music and word to flow,” she said.
In an interview, Bruskewitz said he isn’t familiar with what happens in other dioceses around the country. “We hope and pray that we serve God’s people here,” he said. “We do what we’re supposed to do and do it the best we can.”
Since St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward opened nine years ago, most of its students have come from the Lincoln Diocese, but some came from other places because they wanted to serve in this diocese, said Father John Folda, rector. The biggest factor in encouraging vocations here, he said, is that “young men have an opportunity to see young priests who are happy in their priesthood (and) they’re willing to try that experience themselves.”
On the question of women as eucharistic ministers, Bruskewitz said they should only be used in“extraordinary situations where a priest is not available or might have difficulty, such as in taking communion to a female-only ward in a hospital.
Bruskewitz doesn’t take most of the credit for the Lincoln Diocese being so traditional. His predecessor, Bishop Glennon P. Flavin, set the tone, which Bruskewitz has continued since he came here in 1992.
The Lincoln Diocese isn’t perfect, he said, but strives to follow Catholic teachings as completely as possible. “It has a great deal to do with the fine quality of the clergy here. We have some wonderful, dedicated priests.”
Examples of greater traditionalism or orthodoxy in the Lincoln Diocese:
* Only boys, not girls, may be altar servers.
* Women act as eucharistic ministers only in extraordinary situations.
* Vocations to the priesthood are high, with few signs of the priest shortage that is plaguing other dioceses.
* Lincoln is one of few dioceses that is successfully recruiting nuns.
* All parishes follow the traditional form and wording of the Mass.
* Lincoln’s Catholic schools are healthy and well-supported, while Catholic school systems in some other places have closed.
* There’s a strong emphasis on religious devotion and worship. Many parishioners attend daily Mass or participate in perpetual adoration.
* Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz requires strict adherence to correct doctrine and practice.
* In 1996 Bruskewitz issued a list of 12 groups local Catholics are forbidden to join, calling them “perilous to the Catholic Faith.” They include several Masonic groups, Planned Parenthood, Catholics for a Free Choice, Society of St. Pius X, Hemlock Society and Call to Action.