Kenneth Edward Untener

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The Most Reverend
Kenneth Edward Untener
Church Roman Catholic
Diocese Saginaw
Appointed October 4, 1980
In office November 24, 1980 – March 27, 2004
Predecessor Francis Frederick Reh
Successor Robert James Carlson
Ordination June 1, 1963
Consecration November 24, 1980
by John Francis Dearden
Personal details
Born (1937-08-03)August 3, 1937
Detroit, Michigan
Died March 27, 2004(2004-03-27) (aged 66)
Saginaw, Michigan

Kenneth Edward Untener (August 3, 1937 – March 27, 2004) was a Roman Catholic bishop, serving the Diocese of Saginaw from 1980 until his death.


Early life[edit]

Kenneth Edward Untener was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1937, and was the seventh of nine children. His family lived on Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River where his father worked. Untener attended the Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, followed by St. John's Seminary near Plymouth, Michigan.

He was an active athlete, playing sports such as golf, ice hockey, and handball. It was while playing the last that Untener broke his right leg, only a year before his ordination. Due to complications caused by a genetic deformity, doctors amputated the leg below the knee, and Untener wore a prosthesis for the remainder of his life.


Untener was ordained in 1963. After his ordination, he served in Detroit for a time, and then studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, earning a doctorate. He returned to the United States, taught for a period at Sacred Heart Seminary, and eventually became the rector of St. John's Seminary in 1977.


In 1980, Untener was named the fourth Bishop of Saginaw. His consecration to the episcopacy immediately became embroiled in controversy, however, as area Catholics filed complaints with the Vatican about a recent workshop on sexuality Untener authorized at St. John's Seminary. Detractors of the workshop claimed it promoted lewdness and promiscuity.[1] In the time leading up to Untener's consecration, he made two trips to the Vatican to defend himself and appeal to Pope John Paul II that he should become bishop. On the second trip, Detroit Cardinal John Dearden came with him and publicly gave his support.

Untener was consecrated bishop on November 24, 1980, aged 43. Untener later stated of the ordeal, "Having experienced that right away freed me of the burden of trying to be held in favor." [1]

Bishop Untener was roundly praised by his peers for his ability to manage his diocese, develop leadership skills in priests and laity, and delegate responsibilities. His approach allowed him the freedom to travel, teach, and give speeches regularly. Untener was frequently asked to speak to priests and ministers due to his reputation for a deep understanding of the scripture. Untener was perhaps best known for improving homilies by methods he promoted regarding preaching.

In 2000, he created the first Little Black Book, which followed lectio divina to help people spend some quiet time with the Lord. He soon decided to create similar versions of the book for the seasons of Easter, The Little White Book, and Advent/Christmas, The Little Blue Book. The books are still produced each year based on his different writings. From the same publisher, there are also The Little Burgundy Books, based on the different Gospels of John, Luke, Mark, and Matthew, and "My Name is Ken", which documents the life and faith of Untener in his own words.[2]

Untener's creative talents were also expressed in the written and spoken word, some traveling around the world. He penned a homily for John Cardinal Dearden, Archbishop of Detroit, from which the popular poetic reflection, "We are prophets of a future not our own," was taken. The cardinal delivered the homily at the Mass for Deceased Priests on October 25, 1979. Pope Francis quoted this reflection verbatim in his remarks to the Roman Curia on December 21, 2015.[3]

Sex abuse scandal[edit]

In the early 1990s Untener appointed John Hammer, a priest who had admitted to molesting an altar boy in Ohio, as a parish priest at Mt. St. Joseph Parish in St. Louis, MI. Hammer had received treatment in Baltimore for several years. Before accepting Hammer, the bishop requested the opinion of two physicians about Hammer's fitness to return to ministry. When he received a positive report, Hammer was accepted but was partnered with a senior priest who was to observe his behavior. In 1999, Hammer also assumed the role of pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Alma Michigan, while continuing as pastor of Mt. St. Joseph. As the national sex abuse crisis grew in 2002, Hammer's earlier victim came forward. Hammer was required to inform the parish of his background, and was removed from the churches and laicized.[4]



Bishop Untener's career was marked by a consistent focus on egalitarianism in the church, ministry to the poor and participative liturgy. His liberal views often put him at odds with conservative Catholics and with the Vatican. He was regarded as being sensitive to the viewpoints of liberal Catholics. His overall view was that one should keep an open mind, consider the logic of one's actions and how they affect the church, and reflect openly over controversial issues. He frequently derided the Vatican for avoiding debate on real issues that potentially harmed the entire church.


Untener frequently observed that Jesus kept quite diverse company in his lifetime, including many people who were unwelcome in the synagogues of the time. Untener felt that modern Catholics should adopt this view in welcoming people into their own parishes. He was noted for his advocation of helping the poor, and his emphasis that needy people should be treated equally and not judged for their worthiness of help. He spoke out for women's rights in society and in the church, although never outright endorsing the ordination of women as priests.

Birth control[edit]

Some of the more controversial issues that Untener addressed were modern church attitudes toward birth control and abortion. He occasionally lamented that the church was moving toward "corporate severity" instead of a more accepting state of mind. He was an outspoken critic of the church's ban on artificial birth control. He collaborated on writing about abortion issues, and advocated for developing programs that openly addressed abortion issues faced by families. Some referred to his views as "ultra-liberal", while others argued that Untener simply liked to question things, even when doing so was difficult or controversial.[1]


Untener also organized a series of preaching seminars for priests. At the 1993 National Conference of Bishops, Untener reportedly interrupted the proceedings by commenting on how many people felt bored during Mass. Untener told a reporter, "They were talking about the niceties of phrases - debating whether `prince' or `ruler' was a better word to use in the lectionary..." Untener stood up and shouted, "The biggest problem is not whether we use `prince' or `ruler.' The biggest problem is the Mass is boring for most people."[5] Untener encouraged priests to stick to one point in their homilies and to keep their talks at seven minutes or less.[5]


Untener's easygoing personality and free nature manifested themselves in many ways, often to comic effect. Upon his consecration, he sold the bishop's mansion and began a career-long practice of living for periods of time in the various rectories of his priests. He was known to have hosted a cherry stone spitting contest at the diocese every spring. Another example was a line he delivered during a greeting at the Saginaw Civic Center after his consecration: "Hello, I'm Ken, and I'll be your waiter." Untener also was made an honorary member of the Saginaw Gears hockey team in the early 1980s and took to the ice in a Gears jersey but was unable to help the team win; he also played hockey regularly with friends for many years after becoming a bishop.

Nearly three years after Untener's death, some of his reflections were collected in a book, The Practical Prophet: Pastoral Writings.[6]


After a period of illness, Bishop Untener died at the age of 66 of a form of leukemia on March 27, 2004. His death was a shock to many people, as it had only been announced six weeks prior that he suffered from leukemia.

His funeral Mass was celebrated in Saginaw and included a homily by Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, California.[7]


  1. ^ a b c McClory, Robert (April 9, 2004). "Bishop Untener dies at 66". National Catholic Reporter. Archived from the original on December 14, 2005. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2004
  4. ^ "Special Reports: Catholic Bishops and Sex Abuse". 18 February 2004. Archived from the original on 12 February 2004. 
  5. ^ a b Crumm, David. "Clergy struggle to cut bordeom from sermons." Detroit Free Press (April 19, 1995)
  6. ^ Untener, Ken (January 5, 2007). "The Practical Prophet: Pastoral Writings". Paulist Press. ISBN 0-8091-4429-8. 
  7. ^ Sirianni, Steve (April 3, 2004). "Bishop Ken Untener: The good shepherd of Saginaw remembered". National Catholic Reporter. 
Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Francis Frederick Reh
Bishop of Saginaw
Succeeded by
Robert J. Carlson