Keeping His Faith
Archbishop Buechlein Deals with Challenges in the Church and Demands of the Job

By John J. Shaughnessy
Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis IN]
March 28, 2004

The Most Rev. Daniel M. Buechlein walks along the corridors near his office, peering up at the framed portraits of the four other men who have served as archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Buechlein (pronounced BEAK-line) says he sometimes has wondered, "Why couldn't I have been archbishop then?"

Instead, the 65-year-old Jasper native leads during an era marked by a declining number of priests, a $1.8 million deficit in the archdiocese's operating budget and a national priest sexual abuse scandal.

He says he anguished over a recent report in which he stated that since 1950, 20 archdiocesan priests were credibly accused of sexual abuse -- all of whom, he said, have either died, resigned or been removed from ministry.

Yet in those moments, the man who has led the archdiocese's 231,000 Catholics since 1992 says he reminds himself, "Every era has its challenges. God gives you the grace to do what he calls you to do."

In a far-ranging interview last month, the archbishop said God has called him to foster the faith and serve as a pastor to people.

The son of a teacher, Buechlein has made Catholic education and charity the cornerstones of an archdiocese that covers 39 counties in central and southern Indiana. (Hamilton, Boone and Madison counties are in the Diocese of Lafayette.)

The archdiocese educates about 50,000 students, and last year provided financial help and other assistance to more than 145,000 people in need, from all faiths, he said.

The archbishop visits jails and has given the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation to two men on Death Row. He travels frequently in his work for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and immersed himself in a Spanish language program three years ago so he could communicate better with the archdiocese's rapidly growing Hispanic population.

And he answers all of his mail personally during days that usually start at 6 a.m. and continue well into the evening hours.

"I handwrite my responses so people know it's me instead of a staff member," he says.

In the midst of all that work, Buechlein swims and walks for relaxation and reads extensively, including John Grisham novels on vacation.

"I'm overwhelmed by how many people he has under his care," says Jeanne Atkins, a friend who has served on boards advising the archbishop.

Atkins is aware those people have many different opinions and expectations of Buechlein.

"There's no way you can possibly please everyone," she says. "You can't do that all the time in a family or a classroom. He focuses on serving God and others."

Buechlein refers to that challenge when he talks about a photograph near his desk. In the photo, the archbishop shares a private moment with Pope John Paul II.

Buechlein says he told the spiritual leader of 1 billion Catholics, including 66 million in the United States, "Thanks for being a good pope."

The pontiff laughed and said, "Not everybody thinks so."

Buechlein heard from his own critics in response to his report about the extent of sexual abuse in the Indianapolis archdiocese since 1950. There are seven sexual-abuse-related civil lawsuits pending in which the archdiocese was named as a defendant.

In his report, Buechlein apologized to abuse victims: "Once again, I want to say to the victim-survivors of abuse by priests and laity of our local church: I am sorry. We will continue to do all we can to offer compassionate care and healing for you."

"One person wrote my report was as credible as George W. Bush's reasons for going to Iraq," Buechlein says as he sits in his office at The Catholic Center at 1400 N. Meridian St.

"There's a lot of criticism, but I also had some nice notes today."

Call for reform

Lynn Herold, a member of the Indianapolis chapter of Call to Action, a group calling for church reform, takes issue with Buechlein's report and how he has responded to the problem.

"I don't think he is consistent in speaking about compassion," Herold says. "I think he's a shrewd businessperson in handling legal issues, in fund raising and in financial concerns."

Pat DeVault offers a different view. She recalls meeting Buechlein shortly after he arrived in Indianapolis and mentioning that her husband was hospitalized in critical condition.

"The next day, he showed up at the hospital to see him and give him his blessing," DeVault says. "I thought that was unusual. I feel it's really because he's a man of prayer. It's very evident he loves the church."

The archbishop says his love for the church came from his parents. He first thought about becoming a priest when a fourth-grade teacher asked him about it. He told her no, but the question stayed with him.

At 14, he headed to St. Meinrad, a preparatory school for boys interested in becoming priests. During summer vacations, his father insisted he work so he would understand how people earned a living. So he glazed doughnuts in a bakery and stacked lumber for a cabinet company.

At 20, he was convinced of his calling. He became a Benedictine monk in 1963, then was ordained a priest a year later. In May, he will celebrate his 40th anniversary in the priesthood.

"Every year goes faster, but I love it."

During the 75-minute interview, Buechlein, dressed in a black suit offset by a white Roman collar and a cross, seems relaxed. The suit fits better since he started the Atkins diet, losing 25 pounds since June.

Buechlein says he never expected to become a bishop. The first 23 years of his life after ordination were spent in the peaceful setting of St. Meinrad Seminary in southern Indiana.

Then Pope John Paul II unexpectedly asked him to become the bishop of Memphis (Tenn.) in 1987.

"On the day I was ordained in Memphis, one of the bishops came up to me and said, 'There are more directions on the back of a soup can than (on) how to be bishop.' "

He turned to the one thing that has always guided his life -- prayer.

"I always ask for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit," he says. "The first hour of every day is an hour of prayer -- no matter where I am or what I have to do. If I have to be at the airport at 5 (in the morning), I'm up at 3 to pray."

Buechlein's faith guided him in January when he joined about 500 young people from the archdiocese for a march in Washington, D.C., to protest abortion. Last year, he asked President Bush to spare the life of Louis Jones, a man on federal Death Row in Terre Haute who abducted, raped and killed a 19-year-old woman. Bush did not stop the execution, which took place in March 2003.

"The bottom line is the dignity of the human person," says Buechlein, who came to Indianapolis after the death of his predecessor, Archbishop Edward T. O'Meara. "I'm the leader for everybody in the archdiocese."

His faith also guided him to write his column in the archdiocese's weekly newspaper, The Criterion, in both English and Spanish. He can preach in Spanish from a text but admits struggling to carry on a conversation.

"The fact that the archbishop's columns are both in English and Spanish shows he is reaching out to people who don't speak English," says Mark Perez, a Southside Catholic. "You can tell he's not just an administrator. He's also a pastor in the true sense of the word."

Openness praised

Buechlein has a passion for social justice, says Bishop Woodie W. White, head of the United Methodist Church in Indiana.

The archbishop came to Indiana in the same year as White, a civil rights advocate in the 1960s who became the first black to lead the United Methodist Church in the state.

"I've been especially impressed at his openness to be in dialogue and fellowship with members of other faith communities," White says.

Some of Buechlein's critics, though, say he leads the archdiocese as an autocrat.

Since the priest scandal emerged, a national group called Voice of the Faithful has sought greater involvement of lay people in the Catholic Church. A member of the steering committee for the group's Indianapolis chapter, Ken Sauer says of Buechlein:

"He's a very spiritual person, and he works hard for the diocese. I'm not sure he handles dissent very well. At this particular time in the church, we need bishops who are open to discussing alternative ways to structure the church and who are comfortable with greater lay involvement."

The archbishop counters that he has about 100 lay people on different boards who advise him.

Buechlein also has been criticized for the archdiocese's $1.8 million operating deficit, which the archdiocese blamed on a decline in investments and higher health insurance costs. The deficit, which led to 26 layoffs in June, has been cut to $200,000.

Future cuts could mean some neighboring parishes would share staff. Studies are also being done to decide whether to add new parishes in some areas or consolidate them in others.

Critics and supporters alike say Buechlein is loyal to the 157 other priests who serve the archdiocese's 150 parishes and 72 schools.

"He's very concerned that our needs be met, whether it's our financial needs, spiritual needs or health needs," says the Rev. Jim Farrell, pastor of St. Barnabas Catholic Church on the Far Southside. "He really makes himself available, and he's very solicitous of priests who are ill or retired. I was recently diagnosed with diabetes, and he expressed support and concern for me."

That concern is often extended toward people who confront and challenge the archbishop, says Daniel Elsener, president of Marian College, who formerly served as Buechlein's secretary of education and secretary of development.

Elsener believes Buechlein possesses another quality that is needed in an archbishop.

"He isn't afraid to have some big ideas that people might scoff at. I remember the meetings we would have for the Legacy of Hope campaign. People would say that's too much. He's not averse to dreaming big."

The goal for the Legacy of Hope capital endowment campaign -- for the archdiocese's churches, schools and parish centers -- was set at $40 million. About $97 million was pledged.

Buechlein says it's all part of putting his faith on the line.

"Do I find it meaningful being a bishop? Yes," the archbishop says. "Do I find it challenging. Yes. Yes. My faith guides me. I try to do what I think is right and good for the archdiocese."

Call Star reporter John Shaughnessy at (317) 444-6175.