The Easter season is a very busy time for me as I travel the highways and byways to many different parishes to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation to our young people. This is one of the things I enjoy most about being the bishop — the chance to interact with our confirmation students, their families and parishioners in each parish.
Late April and early May is also a time for finalizing priest assignments for the following fiscal year. The departure of a number of priests from the diocese has made this process a real challenge this year. While the challenges are real, I have so much for which to be grateful.
It all began with Bishop-elect Steve Biegler being named the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne. What a gift the people of Cheyenne are getting! I am deeply grateful for his ministry in the Diocese of Rapid City for the past twenty-four years. But I am grateful that I will still see him at least twice a year at the U.S. Bishops’ Conference meetings.
I am saddened that Frs. Godfrey Muwanga and John Lule, our Ugandan priests, are being called home for new assignments, although I am grateful to their bishop for allowing them to remain here for ten years (five years longer than originally planned). They both provided wonderful ministry and were great additions to our presbyterate. They will be deeply missed. Thank you, Father Godfrey and Father John, for your service among us.
We will also say farewell to Fr. Andrea Benso, our priest from Italy. After serving in the diocese for the past three years on the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Reservations and completing his Native American Ministry experience, he will return to Italy to continue his priesthood in his own diocese. We wish him well and thank him for his service among us. Despite his short time with us, he, too, has left his mark.
It will also be hard to say goodbye to some of our Jesuit priests who will be leaving the diocese over the course of the next few months. Fr. John Hatcher, SJ, will be departing later in the summer after serving the Native American people for the past 45 years. He will be taking a well-deserved sabbatical over the next year. Fr. Rick Abert, SJ, who has been a dedicated servant to the people on the Pine Ridge Reservation for a total of 13 years, will be leaving the end of May to take on a new pastoral assignment in another diocese. Fr. Peter Etzel, SJ, who has served here for seven years as the
Director of the Sioux Spiritual Center, Director of the Deacon Formation Program and Director of the Lay Ministry Formation Program, will also be reassigned to another diocese-missioned to a new assignment, departing later in the summer.
I am deeply grateful for the presence of the Jesuit communities here in the diocese and for all that they have been doing to serve the Native American communities for these many, many years. Fr. DeSmet first arrived in the Dakota Territory with the “Black Robes” in 1838 — 179 years ago. Many wonderful Jesuit men have served here sharing their gifts, talents, and their love for the Native American people. They have taken on the most challenging ministry in the diocese and truly made a difference in the lives of many people. As I have traveled around the diocese, the names of many Jesuits who have served here have come up in the conversation with parishioners who have described how their lives have been touched by the ministry of these fine men. The Jesuits who will be leaving us are among the finest. Fr. John, Fr. Rick and Fr. Peter, I cannot thank you enough for your ministry. You have each left a lasting mark on the church in western South Dakota and all of you will be deeply missed.
In the face of these departures, the Lord has assisted us in meeting the challenges of assigning priests to provide necessary coverage for our parishes this year. The process has been difficult and it is only possible because of the generous priests we have in our diocese. I am deeply grateful to our priests for their willingness to give of themselves in many ways for the sake of the needs of the diocese.
I am grateful for those priests who are willing to move if asked, for those priests who are willing to delay their retirement, come out of retirement or remain out of retirement for another year. This has been extremely helpful in addressing the priest shortage this year because of the many departures. I am thankful for those priests willing to accept a new assignment before their current assignment has ended or who have accepted one that is not necessarily on their wish list. This is just another example of the many ways they serve sacrificially for the greater good of the diocese. We also rejoice in the return of Fr. Brian Christensen, who will complete his assignment at the North American College, and the arrival of several priests to serve in the diocese for the first time. (The assignment changes are listed on page 4 in this paper.)
Although it has been challenging to program the placement of priests this year, I will always trust that God will provide for the Diocese of Rapid City. However, I also know that we all MUST do our part by praying for vocations every day, by inviting your sons or other young men in your parishes to consider a vocation to the priesthood, and by helping to create a culture of vocations in your parishes. There is no reason why the Diocese of Rapid City should be facing a priest shortage. There is an abundance of priests in our diocese!
As I wrote in Through Him, With Him and In Him: “Families and local parish communities should be the seed beds for priestly and religious vocations. There are no shortages of vocations to the priesthood. They are in your families and parish communities. You have not called them forth. The only shortage is that of vocational discernment. If more Catholics were to intentionally
engage the Lord in a conversation about what his plan for their life might be, in other words, seek out their personal vocation, many would discover a call to the priesthood or religious life. This is precisely why families and parish communities must be engaged in the work of vocations.”
In conclusion, I offer my deepest thanks for the priests who have so generously served the people of God in the Diocese of Rapid City, those priests who are departing us and those who continue to give of themselves across western South Dakota. Be assured of my continued prayers for all of our priests and for those whom God is calling to discern a religious vocation. I also ask the People of God in our diocese to remember to regularly thank your priests and to thank God for them. We can never take their presence for granted.