ST. FRANCIS – Fr. Jim Schuerman began his Wednesday morning just as he always did, celebrating the 7 a.m. Mass at his parish, St. Francis de Sales in Lake Geneva.
It was a normal weekday Mass until he read the first part of a letter Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki circulated by email that morning:
“Dear Friends in Christ,
Praised be Jesus Christ!
Today, the entire church in southeastern Wisconsin celebrates the news that Pope Francis has appointed two of our own archdiocesan priests, Jeffrey R. Haines and James T. Schuerman, as auxiliary bishops for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.”
Shocked gasps echoed through the congregation before it broke into applause upon learning their pastor of nearly five years had been appointed an auxiliary bishop of the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
It’s fitting that some of the first people to learn Bishop-elect Schuerman’s news are his St. Francis parishioners, because as he explained in a Wednesday morning interview with the Catholic Herald, his sole goal when he entered the priesthood 30 years ago was to be a parish priest.
“When I entered the priesthood I really wanted to be a parish priest, to serve the people that way, sacramentally, pastorally, leading people in prayer. I’ve learned a lot of what priesthood is about these past 30 years that I’ve been ordained and you never really know where you’ll be led.
Even though he knows his role will change, he said he hopes to remain a servant leader who serves by example.
This new role caught Bishop-elect Schuerman by surprise, he admitted. About a week and half ago, following a busy Sunday of Masses and activities, he was relaxing at home in front of the television watching football when the phone rang.
It was the papal nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, telling him that he had been chosen to be an auxiliary bishop.
“I was very shocked. It was a great surprise to me and I said, ‘Do I have any time to think about this?” explained Bishop-elect Schuerman.
“It’s the pope who is asking,” Archbishop Pierre reminded him.
Explaining that he admires what Pope Francis represents for us as a church, Bishop-elect Schuerman describes him as someone who models outreach to the poor, gives a voice to the voiceless and reaches out to those who are marginalized.
“I would hope in some way to be able to imitate that, and to follow his lead, follow his example in that kind of outreach. He also strives to be very inclusive. I hope that’s another thing that I would strive for myself, to be inclusive, to be hospitable, welcoming when it comes to my role in the church,” he said.
Recently when he was asked to give a talk about spirituality of the priesthood to the Saint Francis Seminary board of directors, Bishop-elect Schuerman said he came across a quote from Pope Francis where he encouraged his priests and bishops to be “shepherds ‘with the smell of the sheep,’ meaning live in the midst of the people for whom they care.
Calling the quote, “so accurate,” Bishop-elect Schuerman said the pope is calling on priests “to be with the people, understand what their issues are, their problems are, to know how to enter into their lives and let them know that you are their brother, you are one of them and you want to help them, lead them, pastor them the best you can. The smell of sheep is a great image for that.”
Reflecting on his four years in the Dominican Republic, serving as pastor of La Sagrada Familia Parish, the archdiocesan sister parish in Sabana Yegua, Bishop-elect Schuerman described that time as one of the most important pastoral phases of my life.
“It stretched me beyond my comfort zone in many ways. Not only to learn a new language (Spanish) well in order to communicate and celebrate sacraments well, but I had to learn a whole new culture which was more difficult than learning a language and try to understand people who think differently and react differently than I would,” he said, adding it was also his first exposure to extreme poverty. “I had never really experienced that level (of poverty) before and it changed my outlook of what is really important and what is of value, the need to be compassionate and merciful.”
His ministry in the Dominican Republic took him to villages so remote that they didn’t even have latrines, he said, explaining that he rolled up his sleeves and helped organize construction of latrines and also helped set up literacy programs for people who could not read or write.
In addition to those experiences which he said left him more compassionate and merciful, he said he came back from the Dominican Republic fluent in Spanish.
“To me, that’s been one of the greatest gifts as a pastoral minister to have the ability to communicate … it’s the key to crossing over to other cultures. For me, it’s been wonderful blessing and opened up new worlds to me pastorally,” he said, adding that learning about the struggles of people, of immigrants, has shaped his outlook on humanity and “helped me to be more compassionate and able to communicate across cultures.”
Looking ahead to his new role as an auxiliary bishop, Bishop-elect Schuerman said he expects his busy life to get busier.
“I’m overwhelmed in many ways by what I’m asked,” he admitted. “But I’m also very humbled. The fact is, this is a papal appointment and I want to serve the best I can.”