Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Msgr. John Steiner – pastor, diocesan administrator, liturgist – to retire June 30
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the April 29, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
Msgr. John Steiner, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Spokane Valley, as well as co-Vicar General for the diocese, is retiring this year. (IR photo)
Ordained by the late Bishop Bernard Topel at Spokane’s St. Charles Church on April 12, 1969 – together with the late Father James Mangan (d. 2009) – Msgr. John Steiner, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Spokane Valley, will officially retire on June 30.
The future priest was born in Spokane, on June 11, 1943, to the late Milton and Eloise (Kennedy) Steiner. He attended St. Anthony and St. Charles Schools before entering Bishop White Seminary. where he completed the first two years of high school before moving to St. Edward Seminary in Kenmore, Wash. for his junior and senior years. Four years later, in 1965, he received a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Thomas Seminary. He then completed four years of theology, also at St. Thomas.
He spent the summer breaks from college in a seminarian-owned painting business, including three summers at Spokane’s Fort Wright College. Like many seminarians of that time, he also spent summers teaching children’s religious education classes in various rural parishes of the diocese. During his deacon year, 1968, he did what was then called “cadet” teaching at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School. He also was assigned to St. Louise Parish in Bellevue, and taught religion for one semester at St. Edward Seminary and RE classes at St. Monica Parish in Mercer Island. From 1965-1968, he also did hospital ministry at a U.S. Public Health Service hospital in Seattle.
Msgr. Steiner’s first assignment after ordination was to the faculty of Mater Cleri, the diocese’s high school seminary in Colbert, Wash. He taught various courses there until 1974, when Mater Cleri was closed.
“I always considered myself blessed during those years, “Msgr. Steiner said. “A lot of my contemporaries, newly ordained priests in Seattle, Portland, Montana, many of them went through hell. It was tough times – struggles involving a vision of church and implementing Conciliar (Vatican II) stuff with folks that found it very difficult and who had never bought into a new, transformed church. It was an awesome transformation that took place, with the changes of the Council. It wasn’t just the past with new paint on it, it was really transformational stuff, and today I have much more appreciation for the pain, anxiety, and angst of the priests who were ordained in the ’30s and ’40s who ended up having the Council and transformation dropped on them.
“Today, there’s a similar thing going on with the ‘reform of the reform,’ which is difficult for my peers,” he said. “If I put on a prophetic hat, I suspect that it will be that way every other generation in the future. The church is going to continue to evolve, and change, and go forward five steps and come back three, and then go forward another five steps, and back three, with all the pain and difficulty that’s going to bring for all kinds of folks in the church.”
After a year as associate pastor at the Cathedral at Our Lady of Lourdes, Father Steiner returned to school for three summers at the University of Notre Dame, where he pursued graduate studies in Liturgy.
“I did not study liturgy to enhance smells and bells,” he said. “I did it to understand where the prayer tradition of the church came from and how it can capture people, and how it can help people to live lives that lead them to God. I really believe that.”
Upon returning to Spokane, Bishop Topel appointed Father Steiner as Director of Liturgy for the Diocese of Spokane. In March of 1977 he also became Chancellor for the diocese, and in June of 1980 he left diocesan administration to be pastor of Spokane’s Our Lady of Fatima Parish.
In 1985, Father Steiner became pastor of St. John Vianney Parish, in what is now Spokane Valley. Two years later, his diocesan title changed to Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia. Another two years passed, and he remained in residence at St. John Vianney Parish but was no longer pastor, his diocesan responsibilities being more than enough to keep him occupied.
He was appointed pastor of Spokane’s St. Thomas More Parish in 1992. In March of 1997, he received word that he was being named a “Prelate to his Holiness,” which brought the honorific title of “monsignor.” After a sabbatical at the American College in Louvain, Belgium, he returned to the diocese as pastor of St. Mary.
Looking back over his 40-plus years of priestly ministry, Msgr. Steiner takes a deep breath and ponders silently for a few moments before describing how his own faith has changed along the way.
“That’s a really tough question,” he said. “I believe in a lot less than I used to. Anybody who knows me knows that I have not a great deal of cotton for various pieties. The central issue of faith is one, and that is, how the great mystery, majesty, of God is manifest in the awesome creation that we live in and in the revelation of Christ. That’s a pretty narrow focus. A faith or belief in seven days of creation gives way to the faith in the God who created the universe; it has magnified the mystery, and the power, and the presence of God and really diminished the human endeavors in trying to capture that in Scripture, in ritual. Those efforts are much less from God.
“I believe in the human authorship of the Scriptures far more deeply than I ever did, and how that is the hand of God, but it’s still the hand of man. The attempt to dehumanize the rituals of the church and to put any kind of God-given sanction on their form and their structure, I’m sorry, I just can’t buy that. I may have bought it more in another day and another age. I think the church has the power to make the rituals of its life and its prayer become vital. I have a hard time with the real concern of, ‘Let’s play with the language,’ that we can make the language all that much better. It’s not possible. We can’t capture God. I’m absolutely certain of the transcendence of God.”
Asked if he has any advice he would offer to newly ordained priests today, he pauses again, and pauses some more.
“I would say that their primary responsibility is to share the faith experience with the folks who come to church – and those who don’t come to church – and that the ultimate recipients of the prayer life of the church are the folks and not the clergy, and not the hierarchy, but the people in the pew. (Priests) should ‘do church’ in ways that are transformational for people’s lives. The challenge I would see for young priests is, how do you do church in a way that touches the hearts of the folks there? Mass ad orientem?” with priest and assembly facing the same direction. “It depends how you’re doing it. If (the priest) is doing it to meet (his) own needs and (his) own spirituality, it’s not going to touch the folks behind (him). I’m not sure it makes a heck of a lot of difference. But the celebration of the rituals of the church are meant to reach out and touch people’s lives.”
The one thing that came from Vatican II “that really transformed the church, it was the new Lectionary,” he said. “Before 1969, every year the same readings, no Old Testament. Contrary to some of the ‘reform of the reform’ folks, the wisdom in the reform (of Vatican II) was deep, it was very deep. Really good Scripture scholarship, and its vision, and the faith that’s found in the Gospels was shared with the church in a way it was never shared before in history – at least, not since ancient days when the choice of Scriptures (for the liturgy) was very local and very much a matter of the celebrant’s choice. For the whole church, the new Lectionary was an awesome gift, and it has transformed not just the Roman Catholic community but the Reformed traditions, as well,” because they use an adapted version of the same Lectionary. “It has affected all of Christianity and the way that Scripture has come alive.”
What has he enjoyed most during 40 years of priesthood? “Teaching.” What he has enjoyed least? “All that has gone on concerning the clergy sex abuse crisis, and the diocesan bankruptcy, and so forth. That has been just awful.”
When it comes to plans for after he retires, “God will provide,” he said. One thing is settled, however: he will be living in an apartment at Spokane’s Rockwood Lane, and – typical for “retired” priests today – he’ll be available to help out in parishes.