Minnesota Bishop Will Succeed Maher in S.D. : Theological Moderate Brom to Act as Coadjutor in Diocese Until Predecessor’s 1990 Retirement

Times Staff Writer

Bishop Robert H. Brom of Minnesota, a theological moderate who says he believes that the Catholic Church’s “objective truths” must be weighed against individuals’ “subjective realities,” Tuesday was named coadjutor bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego and the future successor to Bishop Leo T. Maher.

In a decision announced in Washington by Archbishop Pio Laghi, the apostolic delegate to the United States, Pope John Paul II appointed Brom coadjutor--in essence, an heir apparent who will share diocesan duties with Maher until Maher reaches the church’s mandatory retirement age of 75 in July, 1990. At that time, the 50-year-old Brom will automatically become the diocese’s leader.

Brom, who for the last six years has headed the Duluth, Minn., diocese, which is about one-sixth the size of the 460,000-member San Diego diocese, will be installed as coadjutor in a July 24 ceremony on the University of San Diego campus. The ceremony will be attended by Laghi, Maher and Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony.


Will Study Spanish

During his first three months here, Brom, who speaks some Spanish, plans to become fluent in the language--a skill viewed as a virtual necessity for the next bishop, given San Diego’s proximity to the Mexican border and the large number of Latinos in the church. The remainder of his “apprenticeship,” Brom said, will be devoted to becoming familiar with the needs of the local diocese, which includes Imperial County.

“I am happy that for a year I will not have to assume the responsibilities of residential bishop,” he said at a news conference at the diocese’s headquarters at USD. “Consequently, this for me can be a time of listening and learning.”

Among other things, Brom acknowledged that he plans to use his yearlong coadjutorship to familiarize himself with the local Latino culture and issues such as immigration and amnesty--topics of particular concern in San Diego, but ones that he did not have to address in Minnesota.

“That will be part of the learning process,” Brom said. “I haven’t had to deal with those things at all before.”

Similarly, many local church officials admitted that they knew little, if anything, about Brom before Tuesday, even though he conducted a retreat here for priests last June. Nevertheless, most of them took heart from one of his first major actions relating to his new position: a decision to take up residence in an apartment at the diocesan seminary rather than in the stylish half-million-dollar Kensington house bought by the diocese in anticipation of his arrival.

“Good for him!” one diocesan worker exclaimed.

That decision, however, came as no surprise to those familiar with the simple, unpretentious style Brom has exhibited in Duluth, where he cooks many of his own meals, relaxes by doing yard work and frequently drives himself to the 100 parishes throughout the 22,000-square-mile diocese.


‘Unbelievably Long Hours’

“He’s an unassuming person who’s very comfortable around people and works unbelievably long hours,” said Father Lawrence O’Shea, vicar general of the Duluth diocese. “He may not be that well known on Main Street, but he sure is known well on all the little side streets.”

Although Brom said his choice of residence stemmed primarily from his longtime involvement with “the academic aspect of the church,” he also acknowledged at the news conference that he prefers “a more simplified life style”--a reference to the image questions raised inside and outside local religious circles about the six-bedroom, pool-equipped Kensington home. Maher, who will continue to live in his Mission Hills home after his retirement, said the Kensington house will be sold.

According to associates in Minnesota, Brom is, as one priest put it, “a strong but compassionate leader” who is able to balance his own strict adherence to church tenets against a recognition that many Americans differ with Catholic orthodoxy on controversial issues such as birth control, divorce and the role of women in the church. While Brom does not veer from the Vatican line on those core issues, neither does he harshly criticize those Catholics who question some church positions, several priests said.

Brom displayed that quality at Tuesday’s news conference in answering questions about how he believes priests should deal with Catholics who dissent from church teachings on certain crucial issues.

“In each case, we must distinguish between acceptable pluralism and diversity and what is unacceptable in terms of Catholic identity and membership in the church,” Brom said. “I’d go back to first base and ask, what’s the truth here? Does life begin with conception? If you accept that truth, you must accept (the church’s policy) . . . as a matter of truth and faith.”

Doesn’t Impose Truth

Explaining that he strives “never to deny the truth, but never to impose the truth,” Brom added that he could not “give a cold, hard answer” about whether he would condemn or understand individuals’ differences with church teachings before he had talked with them to discern their thinking.


“I’d want to have that person in front of me--I’d want to ask more questions,” Brom said. “You need to look at the objective truth and the subjective . . . circumstances and matters of individual conscience that cause these differences.”

Asked to categorize himself philosophically, Brom described himself as a moderate who is “troubled with both extremes.” To make his point, Brom related an anecdote dealing with an and eagle feather presented to him by the Geneu Indian tribe of Minnesota.

“To soar high, the eagle needs to use both the left wing and the right wing,” Brom said. “So I try to do the same . . . and avoid the extremes. Virtue is in the middle.”

Brom, who was born in Arcadia, Wis., was ordained to the priesthood in Winona, Minn., 25 years ago--an event he plans to commemorate with a two-week visit to Rome this summer. In addition to pastoral assignments, Brom’s other positions with the Winona diocese included service as a professor and rector of Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary and president of the diocese’s Senate of Priests. For the four years prior to his appointment as bishop of Duluth, Brom was rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Winona.

Came As a Surprise

Maher, who had requested that the Vatican appoint a coadjutor to ease the transition to a new bishop after his own 20-year tenure, said Brom’s name was among those he had submitted to apostolic delegate Laghi, also called the pronuncio, for consideration as possible successors.

However, as is typical in the bishop appointment process--an operation at once carefully structured but also steeped in mystique and secretiveness--Brom said he was unaware that he was even under consideration until Laghi called him two weeks ago to inform him of his selection. Just as typically, Brom recalled, Laghi swept aside any pretense that Brom might ponder his options by bluntly telling him, “Of course, you will accept.”

Saying that “Duluth’s loss is San Diego’s gain,” Father O’Shea described Brom as a skilled administrator who is particularly talented in “sizing up people’s ability to perform a particular task.” Brom’s administrative abilities, O’Shea and other priests said, have helped the diocese deal with church closings and other problems associated with a shrinking Catholic population in Duluth, stemming from the city’s serious economic woes that have resulted from cutbacks in the iron ore industry.


“He’s a very gentle man who provides very strong leadership in a non-assuming way,” said Father Kent Sailstad, who was ordained by Brom last August. “Yet he’s a man with very definite values and convictions.”

Others characterized Brom as a gifted teacher who is as adept at attracting new people to the priesthood as he is in finding meaningful roles for lay officials in church affairs.

‘A Remarkable Teacher’

“Even to say he’s inspirational is inadequate,” said Father Jim Englert of Sioux Falls, S. D., who studied under Brom in 1970 and learned of his appointment while vacationing in San Diego this week. “He’s a remarkable teacher.”

Tuesday’s news conference also gave Brom an opportunity to display a good sense of humor--a repertoire that friends say includes impersonations of church officials and others. Asked whether he is looking forward to the climatic change from Duluth to San Diego, Brom smiled wryly while saying, “If you don’t tell them in Duluth, the answer is yes.”

Later, Brom chuckled while saying that one of the challenges of his new assignment will be transferring his allegiance from professional football’s Minnesota Vikings to the San Diego Chargers. Then, causing the news conference to erupt with laughter, Brom quickly agreed with a reporter’s assertion that the Chargers’ dismal performance in recent years “will surely test your faith.”