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Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein’s cell phone recently rang as he sat in his room in the infirmary at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad while reflecting on his 50 years of priestly life and ministry.
He has lived there since September 2011 when he retired after 19 years of leading the Church in central and southern Indiana—a retirement precipitated by a stroke he had suffered earlier that year and other health challenges that occurred in previous years.
Like so many people who call him, the woman asked for his prayers. In this case, it was for her mother who was to have surgery the next day. Archbishop Buechlein promised to pray for her.
That incident could be a summary of his 50 years of priestly ministry, which he will celebrate on May 3.
“Prayer is at the core of his being,” said Bishop Charles C. Thompson of the Evansville, Ind., Diocese, a close friend of Archbishop Buechlein. “He’s a man of prayer. That doesn’t change because he’s had a stroke. If anything, his prayer has probably intensified by the stroke.”
Prayer—and especially the Eucharist—was important to him even before he entered Saint Meinrad Seminary as a high school freshman in 1952.
“I knew that Mass was special, even as a kid,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “And I wanted to be part of that.”
That desire was fulfilled when Archbishop Paul C. Schulte ordained him a priest on May 3, 1964, at the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln in St. Meinrad.
Ever since, prayer has been the main focus of 23 years of priestly ministry as a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey and 27 years as bishop of Memphis, Tenn., and as archbishop of Indianapolis.
That was the case no matter what other aspects of his ministry came to the fore—priestly formation, pastoral leadership, catechesis or Catholic education.
“Every challenge was its own grace,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “Even the stroke had a way of waking me up to what’s really meaningful in life. Cancer was the same way. That’s the way I took it into prayer.”
Archbishop Buechlein began to find the meaning of his life when he entered Saint Meinrad Seminary as a high school freshman on Sept. 9, 1952.
Forty years later—to the day—he was installed as shepherd of the Church in central and southern Indiana.
“He was a very good student who worked very hard,” said retired Father William Ernst, a seminary classmate of Archbishop Buechlein. “And he was a pretty good football player. He was bigger than most guys and was pretty strong.”
By his fourth year in the minor seminary at Saint Meinrad, Archbishop Buechlein showed leadership skills that would more fully blossom later.
In that year, the rector of the minor seminary chose him to serve as first prefect of his class, an office which came with many responsibilities.
“I’m sure the reason why [the rector] chose him was because of the leadership qualities that he had shown,” Father Ernst said. “It was kind of a preview in a way.”
From the start of his time in the seminary, Archbishop Buechlein was sure in his conviction that God was calling him to be a priest.
“When I came after the eighth grade, I wasn’t planning to look back,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “That’s kind of the way I came at it.”
The only change in his discernment was that he felt called to his priestly vocation as a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey.
“My reason for going into the monastery was, first of all, that I felt at home there,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “Secondly, I wanted to be a religious. It was something a little special.”
He also was attracted to ministering in the seminary that the monastic community operated.
“I was pretty sure that I’d end up either teaching or helping staff the seminary,” he said.
After being ordained a priest in 1964, Archbishop Buechlein spent two years doing graduate work in liturgy in Rome.
He then returned to Saint Meinrad where he taught Latin, liturgy and philosophy. Five years later, in 1971, when he was only 33, he became the president-rector of Saint Meinrad School of Theology.
“It was at a very difficult time,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “It was when all the changes were happening. I was looking for supervision. I talked to other bishops who were rectors. We were all looking for help.”
Archbishop Buechlein found help in his constant life of prayer.
“Several times, I’d go to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and he’d be in there a lot of nights and mornings in silent prayer or praying the [Liturgy of the Hours],” said Bishop Thompson of his days as a seminarian in the mid-1980s at Saint Meinrad, when Archbishop Buechlein continued to serve as president-rector.
Msgr. Joseph Schaedel, who served for many years as vicar general under Archbishop Buechlein and was a seminarian at Saint Meinrad in the early 1980s, said then-Father Daniel sought to nurture prayer as a priority in the future priests in his charge.
“He was quite emphatic that the daily Eucharist should be the center of our lives,” said Msgr. Schaedel, now pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “And he was very clear and insistent about being faithful to the Liturgy of the Hours, how we should pray with and for the Church.”
Bishop Thompson also noted that Archbishop Buechlein showed a “courage mixed with humility” in his priestly ministry as the seminary’s president-rector.
“If there was something in the seminary that needed to be addressed among the student body or even the faculty, he could do that,” Bishop Thompson said. “He took the direct approach [with] truth in charity. He always did it charitably.”
Archbishop Buechlein’s deep spiritual values and his pastoral leadership in the formation of priests seem to have caught the attention of Church leaders in the 1980s because St. John Paul II appointed him bishop of Memphis on Jan. 20, 1987.
Not long after he learned of his appointment, Archbishop Buechlein learned what Pope John Paul thought should be his priority in his new life and ministry as a bishop—something that had already been central to his priestly ministry.
“I got a note from the [Vatican’s] secretary of state saying that the Holy Father asked that I would emphasize my role as teacher,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “That caught my attention.”
Archbishop Peter J. Sartain of Seattle, who served as Archbishop Buechlein’s chancellor in the Memphis Diocese, said that his friend and former shepherd taught the faithful in western Tennessee much about the Catholic faith in general and prayer in particular, but always with a “common touch.”
“His own rootedness in his family shaped him so much,” Archbishop Sartain said. “And his monastic life shaped him so much. He understood family life very well and was always attentive to people. He’s always had the ability to communicate with anybody, no matter what their job or what their vocation was.”
Archbishop Buechlein saw promotion of vocations within the Church as a part of his catechetical mission.
“In a sense, catechesis has as its purpose to get people engaged with Christ,” he said. “That’s how the vocation evolves.”
Archbishop Sartain was also impressed with the way Archbishop Buechlein vigorously promoted vocations to the priesthood and religious life in his life and ministry as a bishop.
“I’ve tried to do that in every place that I’ve been,” said Archbishop Sartain, who previously served as bishop of Little Rock, Ark., and Joliet, Ill. “That’s a direct observation from Bishop Daniel.”
A part of his promotion of priestly vocations that may endure well into the future is Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis, which he established in 2004.
In the past decade, the enrollment has grown from six seminarians, all from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, to 46 seminarians from 10 dioceses. The four men scheduled to be ordained priests for the archdiocese in June are all graduates of Bishop Bruté. The seminary continues to hold a dear place in the retired archbishop’s heart.
“It’s hard for me to be objective about it,” said Archbishop Buechlein. “I’m delighted [with its growth]. It’s really taken off.”
Over the course of his 19 years of leading the Church in central and southern Indiana, Archbishop Buechlein encouraged grade schools and high schools in the archdiocese to strive for excellence.
During that time, 26 archdiocesan schools were recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence. And Archbishop Buechlein led efforts to strengthen schools in the center city of Indianapolis at a time when Catholic schools in similar situations across the country were being closed.
When he announced his retirement on Sept. 21, 2011, Archbishop Buechlein was asked what he thought was his most important accomplishment in his 19 years of leading the archdiocese. Without hesitation, he answered, “Catholic education.”
Assisting him in this promotion of Catholic education during much of his time as archbishop was Annette “Mickey” Lentz, who served as executive director of the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education for many years.
Lentz also saw how Archbishop Buechlein became a leader on a national scale in the renewal of Catholic education and catechesis. That leadership was particular exercised when he served as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism. The committee guided the process by which Catholic religion textbooks incorporated the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which Pope John Paul had promulgated in 1992. Textbook publishers paid special attention to Archbishop Buechlein’s leadership in the Church in central and southern Indiana.
“Archbishop Buechlein was quite renowned—and somewhat feared—by the vendors [of religious education textbooks] in his role in catechetics,” said Lentz, now the chancellor of the archdiocese.
“It was kind of controversial because the publishers didn’t all agree with what we were doing,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “But I stood my ground.”
Beyond the committee meetings and dealings with textbook publishers, Lentz knew that Archbishop Buechlein’s life of prayer served as the basis of his ministry in catechesis and Catholic education.
“To him, teaching and praying and working came out of the Rule of St. Benedict in many ways,” she said. “That was evident to me.”
Although he retired two and a half years ago, Archbishop Buechlein’s ministry continues in a more hidden way in his life at Saint Meinrad.
He said that he gets prayer requests “all the time” through the mail and phone calls. He even has a secretary help him keep track of them.
A fellow resident of Saint Meinrad’s infirmary, Benedictine Father Benedict Meyer, encourages him in his prayer.
“He keeps telling me that that’s the most important thing I do, and to keep at it,” said Archbishop Buechlein.
Part of that prayer has been to offer up his physical sufferings over the past several years—which included a bout with cancer, his 2011 stroke and its ongoing aftereffects.
Archbishop Sartain compared his friend’s bearing of those sufferings to the way that St. John Paul II did the same during the last years of his pontificate.
“Bishop Daniel continues to teach us in the midst of his own suffering about prayerfulness and perseverance in carrying the Lord’s cross,” Archbishop Sartain said. “His strong fidelity to God in the midst of his own suffering is a great testament to me as a bishop, but I think to all priests as well as the monastic community.
“You never stop teaching. And I think he teaches in that very way.”
Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin said that his predecessor’s anniversary and his recent approach to his suffering has meaning for all the faithful.
“The celebration of Archbishop Daniel’s golden anniversary can remind us that perseverance is not simply survival,” Archbishop Tobin said. “Whether we are called to priesthood, the sacrament of marriage, religious life or a dedicated single life in the Church, our vocation is a lifelong pilgrimage, not a job to be lived until we ‘retire.’
“Like [St.] John Paul II, I think that Archbishop Daniel’s acceptance of physical weakness and suffering inspires all of us as he has shown us how to pick up our own cross and follow the Lord.”
Prayer-inspired teaching has been at the heart of Archbishop Buechlein’s life and ministry for five decades.
“I’m so amazed at how quickly 50 years went by,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “And I’m conscious of the fact that half of my 50 years was spent as a bishop. The priesthood was a guiding force in my life.”
(For more information about Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein, log on to www.archindy.org/archbishop/buechlein.) †