A conversation with Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and then-Bishop-designate Daniel Mueggenborg before the April 6 Chrism Mass at  St. James Cathedral. Photo: Stephen Brashear Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and then-Bishop-designate Daniel Mueggenborg before the April 6 Chrism Mass at St. James Cathedral. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Our new auxiliary bishop on the key to sanctity, his love of Scripture, mountain biking and being rebuked by Mother Teresa

Editor’s note: Prior to his episcopal ordination May 31 at St. James Cathedral, Northwest Catholic spoke with then-Bishop-designate Daniel Mueggenborg on the morning his appointment was announced and again in a phone interview on April 11.

The Vatican announced April 6 that Pope Francis had appointed Msgr. Daniel Mueggenborg to serve as a second auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Seattle. A priest of the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Msgr. Mueggenborg had gotten the news 11 days prior, on March 26, when he returned a missed call from the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. The Vatican ambassador asked if he was sitting down before explaining the pope’s wishes.

“And then I didn’t sleep for three nights,” Bishop Mueggenborg told Northwest Catholic.

Many of Bishop Mueggenborg’s early life experiences had pointed providentially toward his priestly vocation, as he described in a biographical sketch on the website of Christ the King Parish in Tulsa, where he had served as pastor since 2011: Altar serving at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Stillwater developed his desire to be close to the Eucharist. Playing the tuba in his high school marching band inspired a love for the church’s tradition of liturgical music. Being a Boy Scout (indeed, an Eagle Scout) taught him invaluable skills and fostered growth in virtue and service. Studying geology at Oklahoma State University helped him appreciate God’s creation.

But he wasn’t always attracted to the priesthood.

“During my latter high school years, I very much did not want to pursue priesthood and was annoyed by ideas of possibly being a priest,” he said, but a powerful experience during his freshman year of college made him reconsider (see sidebar below).

He spent 11 years in Rome — five as a student and six as a faculty member at the Pontifical North American College. To him, it was “not primarily a city of antiquity, beauty, museums,” but “a city of the saints and the martyrs,” he said. “Walking the streets of Rome every day was a pilgrimage.”

Mueggenborg mountain bikingBishop Mueggenborg, left, has long enjoyed mountain biking. Photo: Courtesy Eastern Oklahoma Catholic

While studying in Rome, he had a few brief encounters with Mother Teresa that made a lasting impact.

During his first year there, he found himself in a group of fellow seminarians acting like “religious paparazzi,” hoping to meet the future saint as she exited a Missionaries of
Charity convent.

“In my desire — very selfish desire — to get her attention, I shouted, ‘Mother, we love you!’ And she stopped, and she turned and raised her finger — index finger, to be exact — and she said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Love only Jesus.’ And then she walked on.”

Four years later, after his 1989 ordination, he celebrated Mass for Mother Teresa and her sisters one morning at their convent. As he left the chapel, Mother Teresa chased him down, kissed his hands and said, “Brother, thank you for bringing us Jesus.”

“Nothing could have made me feel more humble and more aware of what an incredible honor it is to be able to bring Jesus to people,” he said.

It is prayer, he said, that keeps him “in tune with the heart of Christ.” He prays throughout the day, before and during meetings. He also regularly spends time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, “simply praying to be in communion with Jesus and just opening myself to experience that communion.” That communion, he said, is “the place where God brings about healing and peace” and “we experience the Father’s love.”

Bishop Mueggenborg also discussed his passion for mountain biking, which he picked up as a high school chaplain in the 1990s and does almost daily. “I’ve already been online looking up some different trail locations” in Western Washington, he said.

Here are some of the highlights of his conversations with Northwest Catholic.

Daniel Mueggenborg first communion
First Communion day. Photo: Courtesy Eastern Oklahoma Catholic

Could you tell me a bit about your childhood and the role the faith played in your family growing up and some of your formative influences?

Formative influences in my faith life would have been my parents, without doubt. My dad was a daily communicant for probably close to 50 years, and I do remember that we always attended Stations of the Cross. When we had 40 hours of adoration, for some reason my mother always liked to sign up at 2 a.m., and we would go with her. And I remember those moments. Much of our family life did revolve around the pillar of Sunday Mass, whether we were on vacation or whether we were at home. …

Where do you find the most joy in living out your vocation?

The most joy I have is when I see other people experience God in their lives and respond to that experience — they recognize it, and they respond to it, and it changes them. Because that’s really what I most want to give people, is a deep connection with God himself. … Wherever it is, when people have that encounter with Christ that sets them on fire, that changes their life and that initiates a radical conversion, that is the greatest joy that I experience.

How have your times living in Rome affected you and your understanding of the church?

… There’s two things that happen when you visit a city with the deep antiquity of Rome — I should say, there’s two things that happened to me. On the one hand, it makes you feel very humble because you say to yourself, “I am just a blip on the radar screen compared to 2,700 years of history.” It really gives you a healthy appreciation of your own limited mortality.

But there’s also the challenging aspect, and it is this: that you learn about these people who became phenomenal instruments of God simply because they said yes to God — people who set the world on fire, the saints and the martyrs. They did that not because of their own strengths, not because of their own virtues or their own cunning or their own resources; they did it by the power of their faithful witness.

And that’s where the challenge comes in. Because there’s nothing that separates us from the great saints except our desire to be as holy as they were. They had a great openness to receive God’s love for them, and because they had a great openness to receive the magnitude of God’s love, they could therefore be great sources in generously sharing that love with others.

So what separates the great saints from us is that they were more open to receiving God’s love than we are, and more generous in sharing it. But that’s something that we can effect for ourselves. So that’s the challenge of it: We can be as effective as the saints if we are willing to make that same gift of our lives to God.

Father Mueggenborg with his parents
Father Mueggenborg with his parents, Paul and Dolores, after his first Mass. Photo: Courtesy Eastern Oklahoma Catholic

When you were at the North American College, you studied biblical theology, and you mentioned in your biography the influence of [the prominent American biblical scholar] Father Raymond Brown.

… Father Raymond Brown came and taught as a visiting professor, and when I took his course, which he entitled “Death of the Messiah” — it was a precursor to the publishing of his book with the same name — he began to open our minds and our eyes to see a depth and a relevance to the Scriptures in a way that I never had before, and that began to make me realize that the Scriptures are alive, that they are wanting to speak to our lives every day, and that all we have to do is develop the ears to be able to hear that message.

And so he instilled within me a great love, not only for the Scriptures, but a love for helping other people encounter the Scriptures on that level, and that was something I really wanted to bring back to the parish when I returned as a priest, so that when people study Scripture it’s not an academic pursuit, it is really a spiritual encounter of meeting the person of Jesus through the Scriptures.

Is there a particular verse or passage of Scripture that has had special meaning for you in your life?

… Probably the passage of Scripture that really has meant the most to me in a recurring way in my priesthood is simply when Jesus so frequently challenges his disciples with the phrase “Be not afraid.” I think that fear paralyzes us, and as a result of that I think one of the greatest obstacles to our ministry of the Gospel is because we’re afraid — whether it’s fear of inadequacy, fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of sacrifice, fear of the amount of work it will take, whatever it is. Fear can paralyze us in being effective ministers of the Gospel. And so when Jesus says “Be not afraid,” I find that always a personal challenge to identify whatever subtle fear is operating in my own life and to consciously dismiss it.

Have there been particular moments in your life when you’ve had to call that to mind when you’re facing a situation?

Yes, Sunday, March 26, when the apostolic nuncio called! That is the most recent and most memorable moment when I had to call that to mind, and I say that because there’s so much fear of the unknown. I know what my life is as a parish priest in Tulsa. … I don’t know the life of being an auxiliary bishop in Seattle. I don’t know the ministry challenges that I will face here. I don’t know what things will look like five or 10 years from now. And I just have to trust in the Lord’s goodness, trust that the Lord knows better than I do what my capabilities are, and trust his leadership and literally be not afraid.

A pivotal experience

Father Stanley Rother
Father Stanley Rother. Photo: CNS/Charlene Scott

Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg was “pretty much a typical college freshman enjoying the secular college life” at Oklahoma State University in the early 1980s, he said, but he felt “a certain emptiness, a certain disharmony.” He had closed himself to the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood.

In 1981, the spring of his freshman year, his aunt and uncle asked him to serve Mass for their 50th wedding anniversary in his hometown of Okarche, Oklahoma. Although initially reluctant, he eventually agreed. While in the sacristy before that Mass, he said, he became aware that something had changed in the room.

“To this day I still remember where I was standing in that sacristy. And I turned around to see what had changed, and I saw that a priest had come into the sacristy that I’d never met before. And I was very captivated by why this person had such an intense presence that I had not sensed before.”

Bishop Mueggenborg described it as “a quiet presence … one of a profound peace, a sincere joy and an authentic love.” As the priest concelebrated the Mass, Bishop Mueggenborg said, he was intrigued because the priest “possessed the very qualities that I wanted but I wasn’t finding in my secular pursuits.”

“And it was because of serving that Mass that I became open once again to the idea of being a priest.”

He later asked his parents about the priest and they explained that his name was Father Stanley Rother, and that he was a missionary in Santiago, Guatemala. Later that summer, Father Rother was martyred in Guatemala. He will be beatified this year on Sept. 23 in Oklahoma City.

“That experience of serving that Mass for him established within me a certain awareness of what priesthood is really about, in terms of laying down your life for others, and of imitating the love of Christ in a very real way,” Bishop Mueggenborg said. “From the day of his martyrdom, I began to pray for his intercession, and eventually did join the seminary after I graduated from Oklahoma State University.”

When he was ordained a priest, in 1989, he asked Father Rother’s parents if he could use his chalice to celebrate his first Mass. “It was an expression of gratitude to him, it was a recognition of the seed that was planted through his faithful witness, and it was also a prayer for his ongoing intercession that I could live out in my life as a priest the same sacrificial love that he had demonstrated for his people in Santiago.”

Read the Spanish version of this story.

Northwest Catholic - June 2017

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the interim editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.