by Fr. Nicholas Kipper, editor
Q: Tell us about your family life growing up and how the Catholic faith was a part of your upbringing.
I was born and raised on a farm about 10 miles north of Creighton, Neb. My father was Missouri Synod Lutheran. He entered the Church when he married my mom back in 1953. I went to second, third and fourth grade in the Catholic school in our town, St. Ludger’s Academy, and then went back to the public school. I was raised to go to church every Sunday; mom took us to confession probably every two or three weeks on a Saturday. I was a cantor in my parish from about eighth grade on; I loved to sing. I was in high school choir and I played in band as well. I also was part of the church choir. I think I had a regular formation by example.
Q: Before deciding to go into the seminary, were there other pursuits you had in your life, or other vocations you were seeking, or other occupations at one point?
I grew up on a farm. I didn’t think that was really my talent. I often joke that if I was still on the farm, there would probably be no farm left. We had high, rolling hills and couldn’t irrigate. It was poor quality land and old machinery. My father encouraged us to think about something else other than that.
What was really big for me was Roe vs. Wade. I was a freshman in high school when Roe vs. Wade happened and I was so stunned that it was actually legalized. I couldn’t believe it and I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to do something about that. I’ve got to do something to make the world a better place.’ But I was thinking more in terms of politics. I was going to get a degree in political science. I thought the government was the answer: changing laws, etc.
And so in high school I set out to figure out what I was going to do with my life, because I really did not think I would be on the farm. I wasn’t praying every night on my knees, “Lord, help me know –” but throughout high school, actually, I was asking the Lord to show me what it was that He wanted me to do.
In my senior year of high school I had a chance to visit St. John Vianney Seminary in Minnesota. It was the only year, in fact, that the Diocese Vocations Office had an opportunity for high-school guys to go visit for the weekend and see the seminary.
The nun who was the organist in my parish where I was cantor said, “Did you see this in the bulletin?” I said no and she said, “Did you ever think about being a priest?” and I said, “Well, no” and she said, “Well, you should go talk to Father.”
So I went and talked to the pastor, but the bus was full. However, one week before it went, there were two openings and so I was able to go.
Now, I have to be honest: I was thinking I had never been to Minnesota, and this would be two days out of school, and so a great opportunity. I walked into that seminary and it was clear: ‘this is my vocation, the priesthood.’ I see that it sort of snuck up on me. I didn’t imagine when I was going there that I would actually end up a seminarian there.
Q: You have had a wide variety of pastoral experiences. How have these different ministries shaped your priesthood?
I often think how all our assignments are ongoing formation. While we’re there for them and their particular needs, what we are called to do as priests really is formative for us.
If we’re really noticing in our own prayer what we are experiencing as priests, I think it’s an amazing thing how the Lord furthers our own spiritual development and our own spiritual formation by virtue of the things that happen in our ministry – joyful things, sorrowful things, tragic things, amazingly beautiful things, and everything in between.
Q: You studied as a seminarian in Rome and you were a spiritual director at the North American College in Rome as well. What memories and events stand out in your mind during the years you spent in the Eternal City?
That could probably be a long list! I was in Rome from 1980-1984, so I arrived in Rome when Pope John Paul II was right at the second anniversary of his papacy. I was in Rome the day Pope John Paul II was shot. I was actually in the square; I heard the shots, which was unbelievable, to put it mildly. I remember praying for his recovery and then, later on, joyfully celebrating so many things. One would be my own ordination to the diaconate in the Basilica of St. Peter. The next day our class was able to meet with Pope John Paul II, along with our families, and he was like such a beloved father to all of us.
More recently I served in Rome at the seminary as spiritual director from 2007-2012. It was really a beautiful thing to be there for the Year of the Priests and to be in the Basilica for Vespers when our Holy Father Benedict opened the Year for Priests and to be in the square to concelebrate the largest concelebrated Mass in the history of the Church, an estimated 15,000 priests concelebrating with Pope Benedict in St. Peter’s Square. So there are different things like that, great opportunities that stand out.
It seems very far away, I’m sure, to many people in the diocese who’ve never had or never will have a chance to go there, but I feel like I can be the link for them, with our Holy Father and with the Universal Church, its teaching, its beauty, and what the Church asks of them.
Q: Could you describe your reaction when you found out that Pope Francis had named you Bishop of Grand Island?
So, on a Saturday morning, December 20, I looked at my phone and saw that the light was blinking. Because we cover Methodist Hospital in Omaha, I thought “it might be the hospital and so I should see what the call is before I start working on my homily.” It was the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the Gospel is the Annunciation, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”
It was the voice of Archbishop Viganò, the nuncio of the Vatican in Washington, asking me to please call the nunciature as soon as I got the message. I could only think of one reason why the nuncio would be calling me.
So I went over to the chapel and made a visit for about 20 minutes and just asked the Lord, “If this is what I think it is, give me the strength.” I was thinking afterward, “how could I have said to everyone on Sunday, the next day, ‘Do what Mary did’ if I wouldn’t have said yes.”
So in many ways, I think, Our Lady prepared me by virtue of the timing of it all, the Annunciation Gospel, to be able to say yes after having reflected on that Gospel in preparation for Sunday Mass. They didn’t know it, but it was easier to preach that Sunday!
Q: Obviously you’re very new to the Grand Island Diocese. What are your impressions and thoughts so far?
I’ve found in having 11 Confirmations last month, the people are very welcoming, eager to meet me, very grateful that I’m here rather than delegating the Confirmations to Bishop Dendinger since I am so new; they’re very open, they’re very eager.
After homilies and at Confirmation receptions people are noting things I said in my homily. They’re very personal. I’ve also noticed that in every parish I’ve been to, I’ve met someone who knows someone I know. I’ve been very welcomed and very impressed by the thirst for ongoing spiritual development and growth in their lives.
Q: You chose as your Episcopal motto, “REMAIN IN ME.” What led you to select that motto?
“REMAIN IN ME” comes from a couple retreats that I’ve done. It’s a place where I’ve gone back to in prayer.
I was led there in prayer by my spiritual director, but then it was something I returned to and it has grown in my heart over, probably the last five years now, as the way of the Christian life. “He who remains in Me and I in him will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing.” The image of the vine and the branches (John 15) really is a way of living the Christian life for all of us. We see what beautiful grapes grow way out there on the vine, on that little “wire” you might say of nourishment and life, because the branch is still attached to the vine. They are together and that togetherness bears much fruit. I think it’s a way for me to live; it’s a good reminder; it’s the way I hope to run this diocese, always attached to Christ.
In my coat of arms the vine is the center and Christ is the center of our life. Attached to Christ, remaining in Him, the rest follows. I hope to live that way; I hope to teach it. I chose that motto for that reason, to remind me and to encourage others.
Q: As the director of spiritual formation at the North American College, you helped men discern their call to the priesthood and to become holier priests. What do you plan to do to promote vocations to the priesthood and the religious life?
One of the things I’m planning to do is to nourish the vocations that are here, to be a spiritual father for the priests of my diocese, which I think in turn is life-giving to them. It will bear fruit in their own ministry and also increase the number of vocations. I think one of the primary responsibilities of the bishop of any diocese is to be a spiritual father for the priests and, so to attend to that first and foremost.
Secondly, to invite people to a reflection on asking the Lord what he wants for them. I think it’s one thing to encourage people to think about priesthood or consecrated life, but it can be, in a sense, reduced simply to a list of possible careers. But I think if we teach people to ask the Lord what he wants, to teach people as a starting point to consider what the Lord wants, to be courageous enough to ask, and to be courageous enough to follow through with what the Lord reveals.
I really believe, and I’ve been telling young people when I preach for Confirmations, that I believe the Lord will lead them to something that they will enjoy because that’s where their natural gifts lie, that’s why He gave them those gifts.
Q: Your diocese covers a great deal of land geographically. Could you elaborate on what some of the challenges are and also the opportunities in being in a largely rural diocese here in Grand Island?
I think one of the challenges for a rural diocese is to maintain a sense of community because every year many graduates go off to college or move away for education. There are some communities, such as my hometown, which are becoming smaller and smaller.
I think there are some parish communities that are small and strong and I think there are other parish communities where, other than a Sunday Mass, there’s not much parish life left. We have to ask who is there and what are the numbers. We also have parishes of 1,200-1,500 families in the diocese as well, where there is a lot going on.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better; there are just different challenges to face. I think there is no one way of “doing” parish life, but if the parish is strong in its smallness or vibrant in its largeness, I think really it’s a matter of trying to address the Gospel to every person, and if we can do that well, that is the goal.
Q: You mentioned that in many ways your vocation was prompted and enhanced by the reality of Roe vs. Wade, and you did pro-life work in the Archdiocese of Omaha. How do you see the pro-life movement moving forward into the future?
I think the goal really is to proclaim the truth about human life, so, as with anything else, it is catechesis around the truth. We don’t ever give up on teaching the truth about human life. So it’s an extension of moral theology in some way, this ongoing catechesis about the truth, and that catechesis has to happen not only in elementary and high school age, but in an ongoing way for adults.
For adults particularly, with regard to public policy, whether it’s bills before the Legislature or things coming up in government, and particularly if a community wants to pass an ordinance or something that isn’t so favorable to life, I think there’s an ongoing formation that needs to happen. The way forward for the pro-life movement is to keep emphasizing the basics, the truth of human life, and then addressing the Gospel to the particulars that come up with regard to public policy or community action, or whatever it might be.
I really like the Bishops Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities and the three pillars: the educational piece, the pastoral care and the actual direct aid and assistance to people in need; but also the policy formation piece where the Church is trying to be involved. A lot of people think the Church should stay out of politics. The Church has a duty to proclaim the truth about human life everywhere and it’s not a political agenda. It’s rooted in the Gospel and we shouldn’t reduce it down to simply politics when the Church is trying to teach and form and shape things that are related to government decisions.
Q: Are you hopeful with regard to the future of the pro-life movement, that some of these policy efforts can be enacted and also hearts can start to be changed toward people seeing the reality of the unborn child?
I am hopeful in the long run. I’m not so sure in the short-term.
Sometimes people say things have to get bad before they get better. I’m not sure we’re there yet; it’s scary to think it could get worse than it is, but I think there is a lot already in terms of understanding and awareness about the truth of the human person, the unborn child. The scary part is the numbness that I think has occurred over the last 40 years with regard to being willing to look at and be affected by the truth.
So long-term I’m hopeful, because I believe that emphasizing the basics, going back to the basics, is working. In the short-term I think there are some really dark things and sad things, unfortunate things, and a helpless feeling for a lot of people, and I think that only allows the trend to move the wrong way.
Q: What do you see as the major problems and challenges the Church faces, particularly in our own country?
I’m a back-to-the-basics kind of guy. I think the people of Grand Island will probably get that pretty soon. You can’t have a sturdy structure if you don’t have a good foundation. So part of what the Church has to do is catechetically just get back to the foundation. I don’t think, though, we will do that in the same way we used to do it. I think it’s going to be a lot of one-on-one, a lot of witnessing. In other words, it isn’t just catechesis; it’s catechesis that has a praxis to it, an action, an authenticity that isn’t just verbal but that is witnessed.
I’ve often said to people in my parish, “You know, you don’t know how much just backing out of your driveway every Sunday to go to Mass says to your neighbors.” They may never stop you and ask you about your faith, but they know that you have a faith practice. I think the way forward is going to be when Catholic people accept the responsibility of sharing with other people why they believe.
I think much of it is going to come around the cross; it’s going to come around challenges. I think we have to be ready to be beat up for our faith, discredited for our faith, discriminated against for our faith, persecuted verbally or perhaps financially for our faith. I think it’s going to take that kind of witness and I think that’s what lies ahead for all of us. It’s true with some of the basic teachings of the Church that are being challenged right now in public policies.
Q: The bishops of the United States have dealt with attacks against religious liberty in recent years, to the point of defending the fact that the Church plays a vital role in society. What good does the Church play in our American culture?
I think historically the good we’ve done has been to care for people. I think that for unchurched people and even people of other faiths, since we have been in healthcare, education, and Catholic charities primarily, they see the immense amount of good that Catholic institutions have done in this country. I think when people look to the Church, they might hear sound bites that the pope said this or that, or teaches this or that, but I think the average person in the world, non-Catholic especially, has experienced the Church as a place of support and care.
I think we’re a real witness to people that the Church isn’t simply about doctrine. I think first and foremost we’re a witness of caring for the human needs of people. The Church has been a real asset in our culture for that.
Q: The Church is blessed with many saints who have gone before us as models of discipleship. Would you care to share any saints who are particularly close to you, or that you have been drawn to throughout your life?
Certainly–my own patron, St. Joseph. I was blessed to be able to be ordained a bishop on my feast day. I think St. Joseph in particular is someone I turn to in various ways, but particularly as a man, as a leader of the family, as someone who is a patron for all kinds of concerns in terms of sexuality, whether it’s being a married person, a celibate person, someone with same-sex attraction who believes that that might be justified in their eyes, to look at St. Joseph as well, in terms of his virtue of self-control.
St. Joseph is the head of the Holy Family, he’s a model of workmen, a real patron for men, the value and dignity of work, a patron for men in any state in life in regard to their own sexuality and self-control and a virtuous model of that. So, St. Joseph, in particular, is important to me.
I’ve always had a devotion to our Blessed Mother. I chose for my ordination card as a priest the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The original icon is in Rome and I would often go to the church of St. Alphonsus in Rome and so I just decided to have that holy card for ordination. There are so many times when we ought to turn to our Blessed Mother as children with spiritual needs. I think it is so important for our families to connect to the Holy Family versus the message the culture wants to give about families today. I’m close to those two saints in particular.
I’ve studied Ignatian spirituality and so St. Ignatius is a particular inspiration for me. My middle name is Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers. My mother gave me that name. Her first child was stillborn and then my sister was born. Mom prayed for a healthy boy and here I am, so I got the middle name Gerard for that.
I pray to St. Raymond Nonnatus, patron of the non-born. Raymond’s mother died before he was born and he was delivered and lived, and so he’s patron of the non-born. I often pray to St. Raymond Nonnatus for people who have miscarried and I pray for older women who have miscarried when they know they are pregnant again and I ask especially his intercession.
Q: Recent popes have spoken about the New Evangelization, where Catholics are renewed and strengthened in their faith in the Gospel message so that they, too, can be evangelizers. How do you see the New Evangelization enfolding in the Diocese of Grand Island?
Here in Grand Island or anywhere else, I think from what I’ve noticed, I can get people to stop and reflect prayerfully on letting the Lord affect them.
One of the things I’ve asked people is, “What have you noticed when you notice the Lord noticing you?”
I know for a lot of people that’s too many “notices” in there! But if you stop and think about it, it’s all relationship. What happens when we, as people who are baptized, whether we’re going to Church or not, notice God as he’s noticing us? How does that affect us?
This is what I think we have to do with the New Evangelization: teach people to notice God noticing them. In other words, not just know that God loves them, but to feel it, to be affected by it.
So my word is often to allow yourself to be affected by the love that you know God has for you. This is when people get married, when they notice the other noticing them, they’re affected by it, they fall in love and they commit themselves totally to each other. When we notice God loving us and we can allow ourselves to be affected by it, we can recommit ourselves to our Catholic faith and grow in love and serve the Lord accordingly as re-evangelized Catholics.
We have to know our faith. We have to know what our faith teaches, but I think the way back for a lot of people is affective. I think they have to be affected by the love God has for them. Then they will grow in their thirst for knowledge and understanding who this God is.