Bishop-elect George H. Niederauer apparently told this story more than once. As a small boy, he accompanied his father to town and found the streets and stores all hung with flags and bunting.

It was June 14, Flag Day, which also happens to be Bishop Niederauer's birthday."Isn't it great they put up all these decorations for me?" he said to his father - at least that's the way his friends tell the tale.

So when he turned 50, his friends came up with just the present for the former little boy who thought all the town celebrated his special day: a U.S. flag large enough to cover a ceiling.

"Or casket," cracks Rose Reilly, a Malibu, Calif., resident whose friendship with Bishop Nied-erauer spans 30 years.

Bishop Niederauer, whose wit and good humor are renowned, took the ribbing in stride. The egocentric boy's view of the world gave way long ago to a willingness to serve the Roman Catholic Church in the most demanding way - as a priest and now, in Utah, as bishop to the state's 80,000 Catholics.

Bishop Niederauer comes to Utah well-loved and respected, by both fellow priests and lay Catholics who've enjoyed his friendship.

"People are just nuts about him," Reilly said. "He is so much fun, so warm. George shines. He has stood out from the seminary on."

Linda Stanley, who has attended St. Victor's Church in West Hollywood, where Bishop Nied-erauer says the daily morning Mass, is blunt.

"Everybody is very angry that he's leaving," she said. "God sent an angel here. You're lucky he wants to go there."

The move is not a matter of Bishop Niederauer's wants or desires, however. And frankly, he's a bit overwhelmed.

"Why I'm at peace with this big move is I didn't seek it and it's not my idea. So I figure, if God got me into it, God is going to have to get me through it," Bishop Niederauer said. "As to Utah, well, it's a stretch, of course, for a 58-year- old Californian."

Among his lesser worries: learning to drive safely in winter weather.

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Bishop Niederauer learned early in life about yielding to the will of others.

His parents, George and Elaine Niederauer, married in Long Beach in 1936.

As is often the case in California, this bit of family history is marked by natural disaster. An earthquake six months earlier had destroyed their church.

"They were married in a tent because the church couldn't be used," Bishop Niederauer said. "My father loved to embarrass my mother by saying in front of people they didn't know very well `Oh yes, Elaine and I were married in a tent' because Catholics are not married in tents."

His mother was a homemaker while his father worked in banking and then as a contractor.

Their only son was born in 1936. When he was 10, the Niederauers, who are both deceased, enrolled him in St. Catherine's Military School in Anaheim, Calif.

"My parents came to the conviction that it would be good for an only child to find out about other kids," Bishop Niederauer said.

For the next four years, he boarded at the all-boys school, going home only on weekends and holidays.

"Oliver Twist it was not. It was not that. I know what it sounds like," he said. "Actually, I think it was very good for me. It was certainly the beginning of my vocation because I really took a lot of Catholicism taught to me very seriously."

After returning home for high school at St. Anthony's in Long Beach, he enrolled at Stanford University, declaring political science as his major. But neither the college nor the major would stick.

On a trip home for Christmas, he hooked up with several friends who'd gone from high school into the seminary, the first step in preparing for life as a priest. After the former classmates shared college experiences, Bishop Nied-erauer's life yielded once again.

"I decided really that I thought that was what I wanted to do and what I was called to," said Bishop Niederauer, who was 19 at the time.

He finished out the year at Stanford and then went into St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo, Calif.

For his parents there was undoubtedly joy but also the realization that their only child's decision would culminate in the end of their family line.

"They did not pressure me to go in or to stay out (of the seminary)," Bishop Niederauer said. "I think they really wanted what was best for me. And I think they also had the clear understanding, and I did too, that this was going to take seven years. So it wasn't like you were signing on the line and getting ordained a week later. There was going to be some testing of this, by the church and by me."

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At St. John's Seminary, located about 60 miles from Los Angeles, Bishop Niederauer joined what would prove to be an illustrious class. He will be the fourth of his classmates to receive appointments as bishops in the Catholic Church.

Most notable is Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles and a member of the College of Cardinals, who serve as advisers to Pope John Paul II. Bishop Niederauer remains a close friend of Cardinal Mahony's.

Cardinal Mahoney will ordain him as a bishop during a ceremony at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Jan. 25.

In addition to the deep friendships he developed at St. John's, many of the most pivotal experiences in Bishop Niederauer's life took place there.

Bishop Niederauer was in his final year of undergraduate studies at St. John's Seminary when an instructor kindled an interest in literature that would give shape and perspective to the rest of his life.

Between pursuing advanced degrees in English literature, he was ordained a priest. The study of literature proved, as predicted, a wise investment.

"Usually literature is a reflection upon or portrayal, a kind of stylized artistic portrayal of some truths about human experience," Bishop Niederauer said.

Literature and religion both try "to get at the truth, from different directions, of course," Bishop Niederauer said.

The blend of spiritual and literary backgrounds served Bishop Niederauer in dual roles as an instructor of English literature and spiritual director at St. John's College from 1965 to 1979.

"I don't know anybody who has brought home both the challenge and encouragement of the gospel that George Niederauer has for me," said Father Jim Stehly, one of Bishop Niederauer's former seminary students.

Bishop Niederauer loved both roles of teacher and spiritual director. So it came as a jolt in 1987 when the church called him to be rector of the college.

The assignment required that he give up the two things he enjoyed most and felt most able at.

When Bishop Niederauer describes the crises he's faced in his life as a priest, this "turning point" comes first to mind.

He describes his acceptance of the assignment as an "act of obedience."

"He really missed that part of his life. That was quite evident," said Sister Bernadette Murphy, who worked with Bishop Nied-erauer at the college.

Still, he threw himself into his new job, Sister Murphy said, applying a collaborative rather than "lone ranger" management style. "There is an excitement about whatever he is taking on, and that seems to compensate for whatever he is losing," Sister Murphy said.

That says much about how Bishop Niederauer is dealing with the newest turning point in his life: being called to serve as a bishop in Utah.

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From adolescence on, Bishop Niederauer has accepted the Catholic doctrine without a trace of doubt. He has a clear conception of what it means to be a Catholic in the 20th century and firm ideas about what it takes to serve God, whether as a priest or as a lay member of the faith.

"It means, as it always has, to swim against the current and to take a countercultural stand," Bishop Niederauer said. "The ways in which it is a countercultural stance vary from generation to generation, age to age, the particular circumstances, but it's always going to be that."

At its crux, Bishop Nied-erauer says, the choice the Catholic Church asks its members to make is between a life of service to and love for others and looking out only for oneself.

That's the example Bishop Niederauer will strive to provide as priest, prophet and shepherd for Utah's Catholics.

He's chosen to be installed as bishop on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, who, ironically, was a tentmaker and more important the greatest missionary in the church's history. Every bishop selects a motto to summarize his focus.

Bishop Niederauer's, taken from a verse in the Gospel of St. Mark, is "to serve and to give."

After counseling hundreds of priests about accepting the will of God, Bishop Niederauer is trying to rise to the challenge before him.

"If I'm not going to be a phony about that, I better live up to this," he said. "I don't want to be smarmy about it, but there is real sadness in leaving everybody and everything behind and a certain anxiety about all the things I'm supposed to know how to do and to know about, and I'm going to have to learn on the job, but there's also excitement, mostly from the people there who want to have somebody come and do this and have thus far been very welcoming."

In the midst of all the congratulations on his new role, Bishop Niederauer strives to keep his perspective clear.

"It is really important for me not to see this as a promotion or an achievement but as a call, because that's what it is," Bishop Nied-erauer said. "What the Holy Father says is not `Congratulations, we've decided to promote you.' What the Holy Father says is `We want you to go and be a shepherd to these people.' "

Of course, a dollop of humor about the ceremony that awaits him Jan. 25 helps to keep Bishop Niederauer humble. There's no beautiful word to describe putting people in office.

Installation, he says, always sounds to people like what you do to a muffler.