It has been a winding road to his ordination for Bishop James T. Schuerman, but the journey has been sure since an early age. While many grow up in Catholic households, only some hear the call to religious life.
At St. Joseph Catholic School in Lyons, Wis. it first came as a call to adventure. The young Schuerman first thought he might like the life of a missionary when a visiting priest dropped off brochures about ministering in Africa.
“I grew up in a very Catholic family,” Bishop Schuerman, 58, (born April 5, 1958) said. “From being little on, there was always the possibility for me to join the priesthood. I remember vocation talks (in grade school) and at that time I wanted to be in the missions so I wrote to the group of fathers working in Africa that is now called the Camboni Missionaries.
“My father always thought I would be a priest, not necessarily my siblings,” Bishop Schuerman, the son of Robert and Elizabeth Schuerman who has four siblings, laughed. “But I think once I was ordained I think my family had the sense that this was a very good fit.”
It certainly is a good fit as Pope
Francis called Frs. Schuerman and Jeffrey R. Haines, both Archdiocese of Milwaukee priests, to be its newest Auxiliary Bishops to Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, who celebrated the Ordination Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on March 17.
As he grew, the call seemed to dissipate as elementary turned into high school at Burlington High, and thoughts of a life as a journalist or a teacher came to his mind. Then, a new desire opened.
“It was in high school that I realized I was no longer interested in the missions, but I knew I wanted to serve the local Church,” he said. “Then I entered the seminary right out of high school.”
In our society today, it seems that young people postpone life and career decisions until later in their lives. A call to the priesthood today most often comes at the end or during the college years. But the twists and turns were just beginning.
Bishop Schuerman, who was ordained to the priesthood May 17, 1986, by Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, laughs easily about many occurrences in his life. For example, he didn’t expect to be fitted for his mitre and ring or learning how to hold his crosier (bishop’s staff) and wearing his red zucchetto (skull cap).
“I never aspired to be a bishop,” he chuckled. “It is not something I wanted or desired, so it is not something I looked at very closely. It is all very new to me.”
The key to his life in ministry is being ready to go to wherever he is being called.
“Throughout my journey as a priest I have responded to calls,” Bishop Schuerman said. “I would say that there is something good in that because people see in you certain qualities that you might not necessarily see in yourself. This gives you the chance to enter into a very fruitful kind of ministry.”
When the ministry calls you to study you go, even to Europe. He attended Saint Francis de Sales Minor Seminary, and Saint Francis de Sales Major Seminary, both in St. Francis, for one year until studying at Collegium Canisianum at the University of Innsbruck.
After earning his degree in Austria, the road could lead almost anywhere, but it brought him to 9th and Mitchell streets in Milwaukee.
“I could speak German,” Bishop Schuerman said, “but I couldn’t speak Spanish.” It may have seemed questionable for his first posting to be in a Hispanic parish. It didn’t really matter at all, he said of joining Milwaukee’s St. Anthony Parish.
“There was a need for that parish,” Bishop Schuerman said simply, “and I was happy taking that assignment. I felt very good about being asked.”
Bishop Schuerman dove into the work and the ministry of the parish and began learning Spanish. Classes at a local college and then a language immersion program in Cuernavaca, Mexico had his linguistics moving in the right direction.
He says after six years working at St. Anthony he was speaking Spanish at an intermediate level. It is a testament to his hard work that in his second year at the parish he was able to give his homily in Spanish.
“As soon as I got back from Cuernavaca I was able to write out my homilies in Spanish. Then I would have a Mexican friend check them over and give me advice and I was able to deliver it by reading. It was exciting. I loved doing that.”
These abilities to adapt were integral to his next assignment. In chatting with a friend, Bishop Schuerman had mused about mission work. In 1992 he got the call to serve La Sagrada Familia, the archdiocesan sister parish in the Sabana Yegua region of the Dominican Republic.
With a couple more months of intense training in Spanish, Bishop Schuerman was ready linguistically. The learning experiences were just beginning.
Being from Wisconsin and of German heritage, even after working in a Hispanic influenced parish, there was much to learn about this new culture.
“You learn to love things about other cultures once you are exposed to them,” he said. “There is a certain kind of warmth in the Hispanic culture. And I have learned that you have to be really personable to serve well in that community. You learn to take people where they are and speak from your heart and be there for them. You have to be present for the people and that goes a long, long way.”
Here Bishop Schuerman paused, chuckled slightly and continued. “Then when you try with the Anglo community, you find it works here too.”
The challenges of the new work in Latin America were many.
“I saw the depth of poverty there,” Bishop Schuerman said, “and I thought, boy I don’t know if I can connect with this culture like I do with my own culture with all they have to do to survive. After being there a year or so, it really dawned on me how much I was a part of their lives and they were a part of mine.
“As their pastor, I was reaching out to them and helping them with projects and to preach the word of God. It is all about love. They came to love me and I came to love them. And in that way, it was a conversion, I think.”
With the challenges, however, came personal and ministerial triumphs as well.
Bishop Schuerman worked with a social justice group that was primarily secular in its nature. Much of the land in the Dominican Republic was dominated by large land owners and there was a struggle and a need to have more and smaller parcels of land for local people to grow their own crops and insure their survival.
Members of the social justice group were conducting a protest taking down fences and plowing the land to demonstrate they needed it for their own survival. There were arrests made.
“We as a pastoral team,” Bishop Schuerman said, “myself and a deacon and some others went to the jail in order to bring them their food because their food was left in the field where they were working. We put the food in our truck asked for this to be given to those in jail.”
A confrontation ensued with the land owners and Bishop Schuerman, and his pastoral team were called names and slurs ranging from “communists” to much worse epithets.
“Our deacon stood up and said, you know we are just on a mission to give them this food and show a little support, and that is what we did.”
Bishop Schuerman continued, “These people that were in jail remembered that the next time there was a meeting to discuss these situations. And at that next meeting, for the first time ever, they asked us that Mass be celebrated to initiate the meeting.
“So, God works in wonderful ways.”
The ways and the works took another turn. Bishop Schuerman was about to take another step in academics. He spent 1996-1997 as a student at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and as he worked to complete his doctorate, he stepped into his career in the academic world.
“I love learning,” Bishop Schuerman said, “and I loved studying, going down to there in that environment. It had a very good student environment and very good teachers. That was an exciting time.”
He returned to the classroom as an educator and as the spiritual director at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary from 1997-2009. His duties included making sure the men in formation had the necessary guidance, directing retreats and teaching courses on prayer and spiritual direction.
“I loved teaching, that was something that I really enjoyed,” he said. “There was something about being in the classroom, as the light went on for the students and you could see it in their eyes.”
Teaching, whether in the advanced or the beginning stages, has always been close to Bishop Schuerman’s heart.
“When I was in my first assignment, part of that was going to the grade school and teaching. And at some point, I was in charge of the confirmation program,” he said. “I always enjoyed that. It is rewarding teaching people who are really hungry for a certain kind of knowledge. It is good to be there for them to talk about spirituality and prayer and how to live their life according to the Gospel. The people are just very attuned to it. There is a real connection when you are taking where they are at and helping them with the Word of God in a way they can understand.”
He continued his role in priest formation, serving as adjunct spiritual director for Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, and also returned to pastoral work as administrator and then pastor at St. Andrew Parish, Delavan. He moved on to be pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Elkhorn and then in 2012, he became pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lake Geneva.
Through every turn, it is the pastoral ministry where the bishop finds the most rewards.
“I think in all my years of being a priest,” Bishop Schuerman said, “I really focused on pastoral work. When I was in a parish as associate, or pastor, or seminary, my job, it was pastoral work. I was tending to the needs of parishioners or students. And then in the mission work I did, I was focused on what are the needs of the people. And so, that pastoral role on a local level was what I was interested in.”
He sees his new duties as much the same, just on a new level. “It never really dawned on me to be called to a bigger flock.”
The journey for Bishop Schuerman has been to rely on his senses — one sense in particular.