Archbishop Vigneron reflects on 25 years as a bishop: ‘I’m always learning’

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron will celebrate his silver episcopal jubilee — 25 years as a bishop — on July 9. As he reflects on his ministry, which has taken him from Detroit to Oakland, Calif., and back to his hometown in 2009, Archbishop Vigneron says God has surprised and challenged him, but has always provided the strength he needs. (Marek Dziekonski | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Chief shepherd will celebrate silver episcopal jubilee on July 9, sits down with Detroit Catholic for a Q&A reflecting on his life and ministry

DETROIT — On July 9, 1996, Cardinal Adam J. Maida laid his hands upon Msgr. Allen H. Vigneron’s head, ordaining him an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Detroit. 

Unbeknownst to both men at the time, Bishop Vigneron would soon be sent away to lead the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., only to return six years later to succeed Cardinal Maida as Detroit’s fifth archbishop and ninth ordinary on Jan. 28, 2009. 

Fr. Pullis: Archbishop Vigneron has kept his ‘eyes fixed on Jesus’ for 25 years

Twenty-five years after being consecrated a bishop, Archbishop Vigneron has left an indelible mark upon the Church as a teacher, pastor of souls and capable administrator whose eyes are fixed — as his episcopal motto says — on Jesus. 

With an eye toward evangelization, Archbishop Vigneron’s contribution to the local Church has included leading the archdiocese’s historic Synod 16, during which more than 400 clergy, lay leaders and religious gathered over three days to pray, discern and chart a course for the Church’s missionary transformation. The next year, he wrote Unleash the Gospel, a roadmap for the Church’s transition from “maintenance to mission.”

As he celebrates his 25th episcopal jubilee, Detroit Catholic sat down with the archbishop for a conversation reflecting on his ministry. 

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

When you think back on 25 years as a bishop, does it feel like a long time? Or has it flown by?

I’d answer “yes” to both of those questions. I do have a strong sense that I’ve had this particular form of my priestly vocation for a significant part of my life. More than half of my priesthood has been spent as a bishop. And yet, at the same time, it does only seem like yesterday that I got the news from Cardinal (Adam) Maida that I had been appointed an auxiliary bishop.

It really depends on what’s going on in life. If there are days of challenge and frustration, that makes it seem long. If there are days of joy, it refreshes your youthfulness.

Take me back to the moment you first “got the call” that you were going to be appointed a bishop. What was your reaction then?

I don’t recall all of the details, but there were very strong rumors among us priests that we were going to get a new auxiliary bishop. Cardinal Maida called me to his house, and somewhere along Chicago Boulevard (on the way from Sacred Heart Major Seminary to the cathedral rectory) — I think maybe as I was driving along the overpass — I thought, “Could this be about me?”

We were in the small parlor that we use for appointments here in the residence, and Cardinal Maida presented this to me, that the Holy Father had named me his auxiliary, and he encouraged me to accept the appointment.

Was there a learning curve at first? 

At the very beginning, it’s a lot of little details: how to walk with a crozier, when to wear the miter, how to perform various tasks in the liturgy. But my whole life has been a learning curve. I told the priests when I came back from Oakland (in 2009) that I’d learned a great deal in those six years about how to be a bishop. But I think the learning curve is a long one. It’s not just a few weeks or a few months; I’m always learning.

When you think about the office of a bishop — a successor to the apostles of Christ — does it still strike you that you were called in this particular way, even after 25 years? How is your prayer life shaped by your calling?

Maybe one way to talk about it is to make reference to this being the year of St. Joseph. I have not the only responsibility for the household of Christ here in southeast Michigan, but I have the lead responsibility. It has a tremendous impact on my prayer that the Lord gives me the strength I need, the light and the love I need to be a good trustee of his family. And I pray in a particular way for the wounded, for those who feel alienated, those who are under trial.

Did you ever imagine you’d become archbishop of Detroit? What does it mean to you to have shepherded the diocese where you grew up?

When I went out to California (to be bishop of Oakland in 2003), I presumed that I’d be in that part of the vineyard for the rest of my life. And I was happy with that. I understood that to be God’s will.

For the Holy Father to send me back here, I was greatly honored. I did wonder, though — there is a common wisdom that “you can’t go back home.” I think that’s one of the reasons the Holy See only does it rarely. But I accepted the joys of coming home without feeling that I had betrayed Oakland, either. I would have been happy to be there the rest of my life.

Among the perks of returning to Detroit was undoubtedly your family. How has the proximity of your family been a support to you over the past 25 years?

Family is certainly a great grace. I get to see them regularly, not just at Christmas and summer vacation. But I also get to be with the men who are my contemporaries in the priesthood, with whom I have longstanding friendships and fraternal bonds. It’s also a great joy for me to be the bishop of so many men whom I had as my students in the seminary.

I’m just familiar with (Detroit). I have a wealth of background knowledge that helps me analyze and strategize about situations.

During your time as archbishop, you’ve handled an economic crisis, called for a synod, wrote a wide-ranging pastoral letter, presided over a beatification Mass and endured a pandemic. Have the challenges been what you’d expected?

There are two kinds of challenges. Some of them are responding to difficulties that just show up, like the financial crisis or the pandemic. But others are much longer range and require strategic thinking and planning. For example, our synod (in 2016) was really a way to respond to the need for a new evangelization.

For issues that just sort of erupt and cause trouble, I rely not only on the help of God, but on some really smart people who know what they’re doing and can give me good direction. I listened recently to a commencement speaker who said, “If you want to be the smartest person in the room, listen to the smartest person in the room.”

Regarding long-term strategy, I’ve tried to lead us into the third millennium through the new evangelization. I don’t know if readers will remember Ward Bond and “Wagon Train” — that’s an old TV program — but I never saw myself as the kind of person who leads a whole group of people on an adventure. But this is how I read the times, and this is what I think God is asking me to do, to lead the archdiocese into the future. I give God thanks and praise that I’ve been able to make my contribution, because He really has stretched me.

You’ve always stressed your goal for the AOD is to become a missionary archdiocese. Obviously, it’s not as easy as flipping a switch. Making that transition from “maintenance to mission” can sometimes feel like steering the Queen Mary. How do you approach such a monumental shift, and what does a missionary Church look like? 

I think you have to do two things simultaneously. One, you have to keep in mind the ultimate goal, and two, we need to look at where we are today, and ask ourselves what we need to do to advance toward that goal. You referenced putting the “Queen Mary” on a different course. In order to do that, you have to know what heading you want, but then you have to take all the intermediary steps to bring that about. And one of the intermediary steps is to be patient and to help people appreciate the need for all the effort that goes into changing course, and why it’s so important.

What do I think a missionary Church looks like? I think it’s a community of disciples who deeply appreciate the gift of life in Jesus. Some of that is about conversion. We need to be fully “in” to realize that the demand of discipleship is such that we would rather lose our heads — lose our lives — than to lose Jesus. We have to have that kind of commitment to be a missionary Church. Only then can we share this good news and say, “We have found something that’s more precious than life itself,” and offer that to other people. That gives God glory. It’s a way to express gratitude to Jesus for what he’s given me, by helping him be loved by other people.

We also need to have a missionary consciousness, to be on the lookout for opportunities to share Christ every day. And the Holy Spirit will set those up. Cardinal Newman saw the age of secularization coming already in the 1830s and ‘40s. In these times of challenge, he said, the Church needs to have confidence that the Holy Spirit will send us the direction and help we need. We just need to cooperate and not get in His way. As important as programs are, as important as digital media is, the most important way to evangelize is heart to heart, person to person. That’s how the fire of the Gospel spreads.

Early in your tenure, Pope Benedict XVI gave the archdiocese a patroness, Ste. Anne. You’ve expressed your devotion to her on many occasions, along with other saints such as St. John Henry Newman, Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Philip Neri. What informs or motivates these devotions for you?

I think a lot of it has to do with how you feel a particular saint’s involvement in your life. It’s a little like asking how you choose your friends. Why are you friends with Couple A, but not Couple B? You just click, and there’s a certain feeling. You appreciate them, and you have a sense that they understand you.

St. Philip, for example, for me it’s his gentleness. He was the great apostle to the counter-Reformation in Rome, the Catholic renewal, and he did it with great serenity and good humor. Cardinal Newman compares him to Savonarola, who was a real fire-eater, and says how much more effective St. Philip was because of his gentle spirit. That’s what attracts me to St. Philip.

During the first livestream Mass last year, when you addressed the AOD from an empty cathedral, you became somewhat emotional. Compared to all the difficult decisions you’ve had to make as a bishop, how difficult was it last year to suspend public Masses during the height of the pandemic?

It broke my heart. But, at the same time, I didn’t have to hesitate too much because at the time, as I understood it, it was for the good of our faith and civic communities. Part of being a father is making tough decisions, and that was a tough one.

Now that things are opening back up, does it give you a renewed spirit to see people gathering again, returning to Mass?

It’s just the greatest joy. I give God thanks for all the people who helped create a situation in which we can move forward safely. It’s a great blessing from God that we can all be together again and praise Him as a community.

Last year, when you announced the transition to Families of Parishes, you acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy thing you were asking. Can you talk about your decision-making process? 

I’ve described this in my meetings with priests, but it’s something we had to start thinking about even more seriously during the pandemic. We had a course we had charted about how to implement the synod, which relied upon parish-based missionary strategic plans. Once the pandemic hit, it was clear we needed to put those plans on hold.

But the pandemic also brought to my mind and to the minds of other leaders how quickly we were moving toward fewer priests to serve our parishes. So this resulted in a bigger assessment of how to move forward. We looked at various options — more mergers, more clustering — but what became thinkable was this idea of grouping parishes, which actually has been endorsed by the Holy Father and his congregation in Rome.

And so, I talked with our consultative bodies — the presbyteral council, the college of consultors, the pastoral council and others — and we looked at models for groupings of parishes. We found one in the Diocese of London, Ontario, that fit us really well. And after that consultation, that’s the direction I felt we needed to go.

Of all the high points in your ministry, I imagine one of the highest was celebrating the beatification Mass for Fr. Solanus Casey in 2017. I don’t know if you were an athlete when you were younger, but surely you never imagined yourself standing in the middle of Ford Field with 65,000 people in attendance. Can you describe what that moment was like for you?

It was, for me, a great blessing because it felt like a confirmation of who we are as the Catholic Church in southeast Michigan. I know that Fr. Solanus is a brother of the whole Capuchin community, and I know that my bishop and priest friends in Wisconsin, where Fr. Solanus was born, claim him. But there is a special way in which Fr. Solanus is ours in Detroit. It was a great confirmation of those blessings God has given us in these six counties in southeast Michigan.

You’re a humble guy, but how would you want people to remember Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron?

That I helped the Archdiocese of Detroit respond to St. John Paul’s call at the beginning of the new millennium to launch out into the deep.