As a studious and contemplative man, of course Bishop James T. Schuerman would have wanted some time to think about things when he received one of the most important phone calls of his life.
Of course, he wasn’t granted that luxury.
It was a Sunday evening in January 2017 when Bishop Shuerman received a call from the Papal Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre.
“When I was initially called, I was pretty surprised,” Bishop Schuerman said.
Archbishop Pierre told him he was being asked to be an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
“It was kind of a shock and he said to me, ‘You’re in shock, aren’t you?’” Bishop Schuerman said. “And I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ I asked him if I had a chance to think about this, and he said, ‘It’s the Holy Father asking you.’”
So, Bishop Schuerman definitely did not have time to ponder his response.
“He really didn’t want to hear ‘No,’ I guess,” Bishop Schuerman said.
In the time between then and his ordination March 17, 2017, Bishop Schuerman was able to think about what this change meant for him.
“At that time, I was probably more nervous about making that kind of a change,” Bishop Schuerman said. “I had hoped to stay in a parish as a parish priest for the rest of my life. I’d been in different kinds of ministries.”
In addition to his parish work, Bishop Schuerman had been a professor at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary and served as a team member at La Sagrada Familia in the Dominican Republic.
After leaving the seminary, where he had taught for 12 years, he had been in parish life since 2009.
“I kind of saw this as the last phase of my life, doing parish work,” Bishop Schuerman said. “It did make me a little nervous to see that eventually I would have to give up the parish. I was stepping into something that was kind of unknown to me. I didn’t have a lot of knowledge of the workings of administration and the archdiocese, and the role the bishops have to play. On the other hand, I was excited. When a big change comes in life, it energizes you, and I felt that, too.”
It’s possible Bishop Schuerman’s road to a role as bishop began back when he chose Innsbruck, Austria, over Rome for his graduate studies, but there was a twist.
“One of the reasons I chose Innsbruck over Rome was my own Germanic heritage and desire to learn the German language,” Bishop Schuerman said. “I kind of liked their plan of study with theology along with having to take a little extra philosophy.”
He did say studying in Europe was a culture shock for a native Milwaukeean, and he spent the first semester learning German. When he returned to the United States, his only real chance to use his new second language was a twice-monthly German-speaking Mass at St. Michael Parish.
However, in the meantime, Bishop Schuerman became quite fluent in Spanish. He took a two-month immersion course in the language when he arrived in the Dominican Republic. He believes it isn’t a coincidence that, as a Spanish speaker, he was named as a bishop in a diocese with a large Hispanic population.
“I would imagine that was part of the decision-making process, to have an auxiliary that would have some ability to use the language,” Bishop Schuerman said. “It probably wasn’t all coincidental. It does say something to the Hispanic population when there’s someone who knows their language and has some understanding of their culture. It makes a big difference.”
The relationships Bishop Schuerman had before being named a bishop and that have been cultivated in the past five years have helped him make the transition.
Coming in as a bishop at the same time as Bishop Jeffrey R. Haines was a help, he said. Their paths first crossed when Bishop Schuerman returned from Innsbruck and Bishop Haines had taken a leadership role among the younger priests in the archdiocese. Their relationship was further fortified when Bishop Haines was at St. Patrick in Whitewater and Bishop Schuerman, still a professor at the seminary, would serve as a weekend help-out priest in parishes with Hispanic populations, especially in Walworth County.
“We didn’t know really what to expect or what was going on, so we relied on one another to get information and figure things,” Bishop Schuerman said. “If we were concelebrating with the archbishop, we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Do we take off the hat now?’ I think it was a big support, and we are still a big support for each other.”
As the two bishops have settled into their roles, their differences (in personality and style) have formed a perfect complement to each other, while their similarities have been vital in building the mission of the church.
Bishop Schuerman is known to bring a degree of intellectual heft to his position.
“I’ve done a lot of studying and research and academic work in my time,” Bishop Schuerman said. “I’m not necessarily an intellectual heavyweight, but I plod along and I’ve learned a lot academically and I’m able to share that with people in a variety of ways.”
A retired priest told Bishop Schuerman that after reading their Herald of Hope columns in the Catholic Herald and seeing videos they have made, the impression the retired priest had was that Bishop Schuerman is a teacher and Bishop Haines is a storyteller.
“Unless you believe the Holy Spirit has a hand in it, it really wouldn’t make much sense at all,” Bishop Schuerman said. “As time goes on, you can kind of see where the Spirit was at work. Bishop Jeff and I, we both have our unique qualities and talents, but I think they’re qualities and talents that are needed for certain dimensions of the archdiocese.”
Now 63 years old, Bishop Schuerman has contemplated how he would like to spend the next 12 years of his ministry before retiring.
“There are things I want to keep doing personally, such as growing in my spirituality,” Bishop Schuerman said. “I would have to say, as a bishop, I’m praying more than I did as a parish priest. I think it’s because I see the responsibilities I have are greater than they were then and I need the Lord and God’s grace much more now than ever. I hope I continue to deepen my prayer life on the personal level.”
He also said he would like to continue honing his skills and further developing relationships so he can serve the archdiocese to the best of his ability.
“I do feel this is a special calling,” Bishop Schuerman said. “I try to do my best to be of service in this way. Whatever the Lord wants, that’s what I’ll try to do.”
Bishop Schuerman’s Assignments
June 17, 1986-June 30, 1992: Associate Pastor, St. Anthony, Milwaukee
July 1, 1992-Sept. 30, 1996: Team Member, LaSagrada Familia, Azua, Dominican Republic
Oct. 1, 1996-June 30, 1997: Graduate Studies
July 1, 1997-June 15, 2009: Faculty, Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, St. Francis
June 16, 2009-June 21, 2010: Administrator, St. Andrew, Delavan
June 22, 2010-June 18, 2012: Pastor, St. Andrew, Delavan
May 1, 2011-June 18, 2012: Pastor, St. Patrick, Elkhorn (while remaining pastor at St. Andrew, Delavan)
June 19, 2012-June 16, 2014: Pastor-Shared, St. Andrew, Delavan; St. Francis de Sales, Lake Geneva
June 17, 2014-March 16, 2017: Pastor, St Francis de Sales, Lake Geneva
March 17, 2017: Ordained a Bishop by Most Rev. Jerome E. Listecki, Archdiocese of Milwaukee, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee
March 17, 2017-Present: Auxiliary Bishop, Archdiocese of Milwaukee
June 20, 2017-Present: Vicar General