Leading the Charge

A look back at Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz’s years in Lincoln on the eve of his 75th birthday.

In his Dialogue Against the Luciferians, St. Jerome described the dissent, confusion, and ecclesial machinations that afflicted the Church in the years following the First Council of Nicaea. “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian,” said the great doctor of the Church. “The ship of the Apostles was in peril, she was driven by the wind, her sides beaten with the waves: no hope was now left. But the Lord awoke and bade the tempest cease; the beast died, and there was a calm once again.”

Jacques Maritain (The Peasant of the Garonne), Dietrich von Hildebrand (The Devastated Vineyard), Anne Roche Muggeridge (The Desolate City), Ralph Mc- Inerny (What Went Wrong with Vatican II), and others have analyzed the dissent, confusion, and ecclesial machinations that afflicted the Church in the years following the Second Vatican Council. In the United States, Catholics who strove to be faithful to the Magisterium created their own organizations (such as the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and Catholics United for the Faith), flocked to certain colleges (such as Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, and Franciscan University of Steubenville), turned to a few trusted publishers (such as Ignatius Press), and watched EWTN.

As early as 1981, the English historian Paul Johnson foresaw a resurgence in orthodoxy (Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Restoration), but Catholics faithful to Humanae Vitae and other countercultural Church teachings rarely found themselves in the mainstream of American ecclesial life.

Future historians may judge 1992 to be the year in which the American ecclesial tide began to turn in favor of fidelity. That year, Pope John Paul II promulgated The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which made it much easier for Catholics to know their faith and more difficult for dissenting theologians and chancery officials to state that their opinions were the authentic teaching of the Church.

The following year, after a woman acted as Christ during the World Youth Day Via Crucis, Mother Angelica’s public protest heartened laity who hoped that prelates would publicly confront the systemic problems of American ecclesial life with the same boldness with which some confronted the culture of death. Doubtless many bishops were working quietly to transform the tenor of their dioceses, appointing solid chancery officials and creating a culture in which priestly vocations were welcomed. But the sensus fidelium seemed to desire something more: a public boldness in confronting the institutionalized ambiguity and dissent which, together with a secularist, materialist, and hedonistic culture, was doing so much to hinder the Church’s life in the United States.

Such public boldness has slowly become more common. In April 1996, the bishops’ committee on doctrine censured Father Richard McBrien’s influential book Catholicism, and in August of that year four cardinals publicly criticized Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s Catholic Common Ground Initiative. Calling the Catholic Theological Society of America a “theological wasteland,” Cardinal Bernard Law in 1997 confronted American theologians over their dissent from infallible Church teaching on women’s ordination. In the last dozen years, the courageous and incisive public witness of several bishops—Archbishop Raymond Burke (now of the Apostolic Signatura) and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver perhaps most conspicuous among them—has heartened the lay faithful and signaled an important shift in American ecclesial life.

In 2004, as pro-abortion Catholic Sen. John Kerry ran for president, 16 US bishops stated publicly that they would deny Holy Communion to proabortion politicians. In 2009, some six dozen bishops openly criticized the University of Notre Dame’s decision to award an honorary degree to President Barack Obama. The ecclesial tide has clearly shifted since earlier decades, when Notre Dame’s decisions to bestow its Laetare Medal on powerful pro-abortion politicians Tip O’Neill (in 1980) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (in 1992) were met with near-total public silence.

Auguring and significantly influencing this turning of the tide was the 1992 appointment of a Milwaukee priest to lead the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. This September, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz will turn 75 and submit his resignation, as required by the Code of Canon Law. If, in a generation or two, more dioceses can boast of flourishing vocation programs, nip dissent in the bud, develop a reputation for reverent liturgies, make the extraordinary form of the Mass more widely available, and base religious education upon the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it will be in part because of Bishop Bruskewitz ’s actions and example. Future historians may thus judge his term of office in Lincoln to be among the more significant episcopates in American history.


Born in Milwaukee in 1935, Fabian Bruskewitz attended parochial schools before entering the seminary. Catholic culture in Milwaukee, as in many other American cities, was vibrant: in 1950 the archdiocese had 50 more parishes, 250 more diocesan priests, and 2,700 more women religious than it does today. Sent to the Pontifical North American College, Bruskewitz was ordained to the priesthood in 1960 by Cardinal Luigi Traglia, then vicar general of Rome and later dean of the College of Cardinals.

After assisting in Milwaukee parishes, Father Bruskewitz pursued graduate studies in Rome, earning a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University. From 1969 to 1980, he served as an official of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

In 1980—the year in which Milwaukee’s recently-appointed archbishop, Rembert Weakland, was having a secret affair with Paul Marcoux that would eventually result in $450,000 in hush money paid from diocesan funds— Msgr. Bruskewitz returned to his native archdiocese and become pastor of St. Bernard Parish in suburban Wauwatosa.

“Msgr. Bruskewitz was well known as a defender of orthodoxy,” recalls retired Marquett e University professor Al Szews, who has known Bishop Bruskewitz since 1982. “We cherish our memories of the days when Msgr. Bruskewitz was our ‘go-to’ priest here in Milwaukee—he had all the correct answers!”

In 1986, Msgr. Bruskewitz preached the homily at the funeral Mass of Msgr. Alphonse Popek, a legendary local priest who was outspoken in his defense of Catholic teaching. In the presence of Archbishop Weakland, Msgr. Bruskewitz preached that “doctrinal development is invalid and erroneous unless it’s conservative upon its past” and that “the fl ames of heresy can destroy and devour.” Citing G.K. Chesterton, Msgr. Bruskewitz added, “It’s always easy to be a madman, a heretic. It’s always easy to be a modernist, a snob. The difficulty is not to let the age keep its head but to keep one’s own.”

Dr. Szews, longtime president of the Milwaukee chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, recalls that Msgr. Bruskewitz also showed courage in becoming his group’s unofficial spiritual advisor, since the archbishop “did not look favorably on any priest who showed public support for CUF.” Nonetheless, “even though Msgr. Bruskewitz did not hide his orthodoxy, it did not appear that Archbishop Weakland harassed him as he did other faithful priests.”

Msgr. Bruskewitz was appointed bishop of Lincoln in March 1992. Upon hearing of the appointment, “No one was more fl abbergasted or dumbfounded than I was,” he told his parishioners, some of them in tears.


Bishop Bruskewitz succeeded Bishop Glennon Flavin, who governed the Diocese of Lincoln from 1967 to 1992. Bishop Flavin “was a man undeterred by the nonsense that has overtaken our society since the 1960s,” says Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Illinois. “Bishop Bruskewitz has added his own distinctive character to the solid foundations laid by Bishop Flavin and has richly expanded them.”

Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, who served as Lincoln’s vicar general under Bishop Bruskewitz , recalls:

Bishop Bruskewitz was, in many ways, a perfect successor to Bishop Flavin. Bishop Flavin was very strong and strove to implement and maintain a proper interpretation and implementation of the documents of Vatican II. Bishop Bruskewitz brought that same kind of dedication, but he added an indefatigable energy, a brilliant mind, and a wonderfully ebullient spirit. In the early years of Bishop Bruskewitz ’s presence in Lincoln, I often thought that Bishop Flavin defended the faith and the Church, but his approach was a bit more “in the trenches.” Bishop Bruskewitz , by contrast, was out there leading the charge in a much more public and articulate fashion.

Following a diocesan Eucharistic Congress and synod attended by 5,000 people, Bishop Bruskewitz gained national att ention for “leading the charge” against institutionalized dissent in March 1996. After wide consultation, he issued extra-synodal legislation declaring that “all Catholics in and of the Diocese of Lincoln are forbidden to be members” of Call to Action and Call to Action Nebraska. Membership in 10 other organizations was also forbidden: the Society of St. Pius X, St. Michael the Archangel Chapel, three anti-life organizations (Planned Parenthood, the Hemlock Society, and Catholics for a Free Choice), and five Masonic organizations (the Freemasons, Job’s Daughters, DeMolay, the Eastern Star, and Rainbow Girls). Those who chose to remain in these organizations were

by that very fact (ipso facto latae sententiae) under interdict and are absolutely forbidden to receive Holy Communion. Contumacious persistence in such membership for one month following the interdict on [the] part of any such Catholics will by that very fact (ipso facto latae sententiae) cause them to be excommunicated. Absolution from these ecclesial censures is reserved to the bishop.

Following this decree, Catholic laity from around the nation looked upon Bishop Bruskewitz as a leader in confronting the crisis in the Church. “I received tens of thousands of lett ers and petitions and signatures, all very favorable to what was done,” he said in a 1997 interview. “I also received countless gifts and a large number of contributions to our diocese as a result. The number of negatives I received was very minimal—fewer than 300 negative letters, and many of them were letters of kooks and cranks and the kind that you discard in any event.”

In 2006, Cardinal Giovanni Batt ista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, upheld Bishop Bruskewitz ’s legislation following a Call to Action appeal. “The judgment of the Holy See is that the activities of ‘Call to Action’ in the course of these years are in contrast with the Catholic faith,” said Cardinal Re. “Thus to be a member of this association, or to support it, is irreconcilable with a coherent living of the Catholic faith.” Bishop Bruskewitz commented, “I received nothing but 10 years of support from officials of the Holy See, including our previous Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, and our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.”

Before the decree of interdict and excommunication, Bishop Bruskewitz had att racted national attention following the 1994 Vatican announcement that episcopal conferences were permitted to allow female altar servers. Bishop Bruskewitz was, and remains, the sole bishop in the US to retain the tradition of having only male servers at all Masses in his diocese.

Bishop Bruskewitz also proved to be an excellent teacher of his flock, articulately presenting and defending the faith in a series of exceptional diocesan newspaper columns that were later published by Ignatius Press as A Shepherd Speaks. “Bishop Bruskewitz is one of America’s few—and fi nest—bishop- theologians,” biblical scholar Scott Hahn said at the time of the book’s publication. “He is also a true spiritual father, a deep thinker, clear writer, and a wise pastor,” added Hahn, whom Msgr. Bruskewitz received into the Church in 1986.

Building upon the foundation laid by Bishop Flavin, Bishop Bruskewitz has had extraordinary success in attracting diocesan seminarians. In an era of seminary closures, Bishop Bruskewitz opened a diocesan college seminary, St. Gregory the Great Seminary, in 1998. During the past decade, the Diocese of Lincoln has consistently boasted the highest ratio of diocesan seminarians to Catholics of any diocese in the nation: indeed, a Catholic in the Diocese of Lincoln (which has one diocesan seminarian for every 2,382 Catholics) is nearly nine times more likely to enter the seminary than the average Catholic in the United States. As a result, the number of diocesan priests in Lincoln has increased from 109 in 1980 to 151 today.

“There are many factors which contribute to the vocation picture and its upbeat character in the Diocese of Lincoln,” Bishop Bruskewitz told CWR in 2005. “First and foremost are the atmosphere of prayer for vocations and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patroness of the diocese. The excellent vocation work of my predecessors, most especially Bishop Glennon Flavin, is of the highest significance. The orthodoxy, conservatism, and enthusiasm of the clergy, both young and old, bear witness to the splendor of the Catholic priesthood in southern Nebraska.” Bishop Bruskewitz continued:

The extremely fine pastoral work of the priests of the diocese, particularly in Catholic education and at the campus of the local state university, brings tangible vocational results. Not only does this provide for suitable candidates for the priesthood and religious life in the diocese, but also does much for enhancing Catholic family life, which is stable and spiritually rich, making good soil for vocational work in and among families. In the Diocese of Lincoln, as in most other dioceses, there are priests assigned to do vocational work, but for many years, all of the priests of the Lincoln diocese have been required to consider themselves “vocation directors” and to promote the discovery and encouragement of those young people called by God. The cheerful conformity of the priests to the magisterial teachings of the Church, to liturgical correctness, and to traditional Church discipline also plays an important part in the diocesan vocation picture.

The Diocese of Lincoln’s extraordinary success in att racting diocesan seminarians does not take into account the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter’s flourishing Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary, which Bishop Bruskewitz welcomed to his diocese in 1998. A dozen years later, Bishop Bruskewitz consecrated the seminary’s chapel in the presence of Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“The Fraternity of St. Peter could have had no better man to do the chapel consecration after so many years of support from him,” says the Very Rev. John Berg, the Fraternity’s superior general, “and even more so, we are so grateful to have a seminary in a diocese where the bishop shares the same idea of a strong priestly identity for his priests that the Fraternity strives to impart to its members trained for the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite.”

Bruskewitz’s desire to foster the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite extends to his diocesan priests. Following Pope Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which made wider provision for the extraordinary form, Bishop Bruskewitz told CWR, “We have, at the present time, 45 to 50 priests who have requested assistance in learning how to celebrate Mass according to the 1962 Missal.” He added:

[As] one who celebrated in both the 1962 Missal rite, as well as with the later Missal of Pope Paul VI, there are certain elements in the 1962 ritual which increase one’s awareness of the sacredness of what is being done. This is particularly the case in such things as the genuflections of the celebrant, which are much more frequent in the 1962 ritual, [along with] signs of the cross and the various postures, with two kinds of head bows and three kinds of body bows at certain times and occasions in the course of the celebration of Holy Mass. The reception of Holy Communion on the tongue with the words, in Latin, of course, “May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ guard your soul unto life eternal,” also makes—at least externally—for a [more] devout reception of the sacrament than some of the current usages.

I think that the 1962 Missal will also serve as a corrective for some places where, as the Holy Father says, some deformations have occurred and continue to occur in the liturgy; where there is a considerable number of violations of the Second Vatican Council, in that priests and others have become creative and have introduced adlibbed words as well as phrases and sentences into the text of the liturgy; and where some aberrant things still are being allowed by some bishops and religious superiors who are not adequately vigilant over the celebration of the sacred mysteries.

Bishop Bruskewitz’s influence extended beyond the United States to the entire English-speaking Catholic world in 2005, when the Holy See entrusted him with the responsibility of translating three-quarters of the Italian-language Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church into English. “With the permission of the Holy See,” he said in 2006, “I was able to use several religious sisters and priests to polish and edit the work I did.”

Bruskewitz’s work over the years has earned him the respect and praise of many of his fellow bishops.

“I have known Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz since our time together in the seminary,” recalls Bishop Doran of Rockford, whose own stalwart leadership has helped attract numerous priestly vocations to his Illinois diocese. “I have always found him to be very well informed and of extremely high intellectual capability. More important, he has always been a committed and holy priest.”

“The Diocese of Lincoln has two pillars to its success: the common sense of its people, and a history of very sound episcopal leadership,” Archbishop Chaput of Denver said as he reflected upon Bishop Bruskewitz’s legacy. “I think Bishop Bruskewitz has always served his people very well because of his singular clarity of purpose. He’s a modest man, but a man of great depth. He shepherds a healthy, holy, Christ-centered Church devoted to bringing his people to heaven. That’s about the highest compliment any bishop can hope for.”

“The most profound influence [upon me] comes via Bishop Flavin, but the tenacity and exuberance of Bishop Bruskewitz have been a tremendous source of hope, support, and encouragement for me, especially in my work as a bishop,” Bishop Vasa told CWR. “There is, after all, a significant amount of criticism directed towards bishops, and often being associated with Bishop Bruskewitz in the reception of that criticism is consoling. Somehow, I feel that if I am not too far from Bishop Bruskewitz, then I am not out-of-line with the Church and I am not out-of-line with Christ. I admire and respect him deeply.”

“Bishop Bruskewitz is also ‘simple’ in the greatest and best sense of the word: he has shaped all of his intelligence, heart, and will to the work of serving the people of his diocese,” adds Archbishop Chaput. “He never allows himself to be distracted from that goal. He never compromises on matters of principle. This is why I thank God for him as a friend and example.”


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.