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Posted Saturday, April 3, 2004 at 12:46 p.m. CST
Updated Monday, April 5, 2004 at 12:15 p.m. CDT

Bishop Ken Untener: The good shepherd of Saginaw remembered

By Steve Sirianni
Saginaw, Mich.

He was remembered as a Good Shepherd to the people of Saginaw diocese, a comforter of priests and a challenge to fellow bishops. These themes reverberated throughout the April 1 funeral Mass for Saginaw Bishop Kenneth E. Untener, who died on March 27, just six weeks after announcing that he was suffering from leukemia.

Some 1,800 people more than filled St. Stephen Catholic Church and an adjoining gymnasium for a Mass of Christian burial that evoked tears and laughter, audible "amens" and a standing ovation.


The bishop took part in many playful events, Sutton said. He told of how Untener once fended off an attack of squirt guns with a garden hose he had hooked to a sink in a utility closet.
In the homily for his long-time friend retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, said Untener was one of the most distinguished of bishops, "a man of Catholic faith, a good shepherd, prayerful, unselfish, learned and articulate."

Untener's simple life was "a true fulfillment of the [Second Vatican] Council's call for bishops to recognize the signs of the times and respond to the apostolic ideal of the Gospel," Quinn said.

Cardinal Adam Maida, the archbishop of Detroit, called Untener "a well-rounded, wholesome, humorous and insightful man who was always giving a challenge."

"Whether at a board meeting of the Michigan Catholic Conference or when sharing a round of golf, he always was able to cut right to the heart of things," Maida said. "One day we shall joyfully greet him again."

Editor's Note

The text of Archbishop Quinn's homily can be found at this link: Quinn's Homily

Appreciations of Bishop Untener appear in the April 9 and April 16 print editions of National Catholic Reporter.

Untener, 66, had been bishop to the 140,000 Catholics of Saginaw diocese for nearly 24 years. He was a native of Michigan and was ordained a priest for the Detroit archdiocese.

In remarks at the beginning of the Mass, Fr. Thomas E. Sutton, temporary administrator of the diocese until Pope John Paul II appoints a new bishop, said that Untener "served us with tireless energy while living out of his office and car, especially the trunk of his car. If it wasn't in the trunk, it really wasn't essential."

Untener sold the bishop's residence shortly after arriving in Saginaw in November 1980. From then on, he would stay in the rectories of the 69 parishes in his 11-county diocese, living with the parish priest for a couple of weeks up to a couple of months at a time.

Sutton said that Untener "treasured the Scriptures and his little books." The bishop wrote small books containing six-minute reflections for the days of the liturgical seasons Lent, Advent, Easter and on stewardship. More than 2.5 million copies of the books in English and Spanish were sold this year alone.

"Bishop Untener worked hard, played hard and was extremely competitive," Sutton said. The bishop took part in many playful events, Sutton said. He told of how Untener once fended off an attack of squirt guns with a garden hose he had hooked to a sink in a utility closet.

In his homily, Quinn called the funeral Mass "a solemn moment centering around a man who was very distant from solemnity and formality."

"[Ken] thought of himself as a servant and proclaimed himself as servant when he came to Saginaw. But he was our brother. Intelligent, articulate, immensely gifted, he spoke the language of the heart and our heart spoke back," Quinn said. "Ken, our brother, can be described in words of Cyprian, third century bishop of Carthage, who said, 'We do not say great things. We live them.' "


"You have given all us bishops a striking, powerful but gentle challenge to live the Gospel in a clear way. ... You have a depth and wisdom which has been a valuable contribution to the Church."
Commenting on Untener's retreats and workshops for clergy, Quinn said "the personal investment" Untener made in priests gave "many priests a reason not to lose hope in difficult times."

The archbishop concluded his homily by reading from a letter he had written to Untener immediately after he received the diagnosis of his fatal illness.

"What I write in this letter is long overdue and should have been said long ago. But the time has come when I feel compelled to say clearly some things which I have long thought

"You have given all us bishops a striking, powerful but gentle challenge to live the Gospel in a clear way. I have seen how you have been criticized and misrepresented, and how, following the Gospel injunction, you have not reacted with rancor or bitterness You have a depth and wisdom which has been a valuable contribution to the Church.

"Now you are walking the path of the Cross in a new way and my prayer is that you will discover anew that the Tree of the Cross is the Tree of Life," Quinn said.

Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Ill. - a former priest of the Detroit archdiocese and a longtime friend - was the principal celebrant at the funeral. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton and retired Detroit Auxiliary Archbishop Walter Schoenherr concelebrated while Cardinal Adam Maida, the archbishop of Detroit imparted a final blessing.

The Saginaw blessing

The Saginaw blessing was started by Bishop Untener shortly after his arrival in late 1980. Everyone in the congregation raises both arms outstretched while saying the blessing.

May the Lord bless and keep you!
May he make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
And give you his peace.

May the Lord bless and keep you!
May she make her face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
And give you her peace.

The female gender in second verse was Untener's idea.
-- Steve Sirianni
In closing remarks, Fr. Sutton acknowledged numerous written condolences from around the world, including one from the Vatican, which read in part "the Holy Father sends his heartfelt condolences to the people of Saginaw and prays that the late bishop (Untener) will share in the joy of eternal life."

Following the song of farewell, the audience joined in the Saginaw Blessing. Bishop Untener was buried in the priests' section at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Saginaw. Sutton presided at the committal service.

Two prayer services were also held for Untener at St. Stephen's before the funeral, an evening prayer on March 30, presided over by Sr. Honora Remes, DC, the pastoral administrator at St. John the Baptist Church in Carrollton, Mich., and a vigil service on March 31, with Fr. Jeff Donner, pastor at St. Mary University Parish in Mount Pleasant, presiding. About 500 people also attended a March 29 ecumenical memorial service at Victorious Believers Ministries in Saginaw.

Steve Sirianni is editor of the Saginaw edition of The Catholic Weekly. He lives in Bay City and is a retired copy editor from The Bay City Times.

 

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