Bishop Paprocki on sharing the Gospel, running marathons, and building a culture of life

Springfield’s bishop shares his passion for spreading the Good News, protecting the most vulnerable, assisting the poor with needed legal services—and running marathons.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki, 64, has served as bishop of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois since 2010. He was born and reared in Chicago, and attended Catholic schools there. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1978, and ordained an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese in 2003.

While in Chicago he served as a pastor, and in a variety of administrative chancery positions, including chancellor. He earned a law degree from DePaul University in 1981, and, in an attempt to help the poor with legal services, co-founded the Chicago Legal Clinic (of which he is president emeritus). He has also run in 22 marathons and is an avid hockey player.

He recently spoke with CWR.

CWR: Many people are familiar with the Archdiocese of Chicago, but not so much the Diocese of Springfield.  Can you give us an overview of the diocese? 

Bishop Thomas Paprocki: We’re located in central Illinois, about a three-hour drive to Chicago and a two-hour drive to St. Louis. We encompass 28 counties across the middle of the State of Illinois.

Springfield is the capitol of the state, and we’re also a hub for healthcare, which makes up a big part of our local economy. Abraham Lincoln lived here with his family for more than 20 years before he was elected president, so Lincoln tourism is also big here. The Lincoln Library and Museum is here, as are the graves of Lincoln and most of his family members. His home is located just a few blocks from our cathedral. It gets lots of visitors, who also come to our cathedral. 

Other larger population centers in the diocese include the city of Quincy and the city of Alton, both of which are on the Mississippi River. Our diocese, in fact, started out as the Diocese of Quincy, and then Alton, before the See was moved to Springfield in 1924.

Outside of our cities we’re a pretty rural diocese; mostly flat farmland used to grow corn and soy. The rural areas have fewer Catholics than the more heavily populated areas.

The Diocese of Springfield has 146,000 Catholics, or 12 percent of the population, which makes us a missionary diocese. About 30 percent of our Catholics attend Mass regularly, a number which we’re always trying to improve. We have about 100 diocesan priests, about 25 of whom are retired or senior priests. We have another 50 priests who belong to religious orders, mostly Franciscan.

Historically, our diocese was home to many German Catholics fleeing the persecution of Kulturkampf under Otto von Bismarck.

CWR: When you came to Springfield six years ago, what were some of the immediate challenges you recognized, and how did you meet those challenges?

Bishop Paprocki: My immediate challenge was getting to know people. I was a priest and auxiliary bishop in Chicago, and I knew the parishes and priests there. I served under both Cardinals Bernardin and George, so I had a good idea about the responsibilities of a bishop. However, when I came to Springfield, I didn’t know the people, the parishes or the towns. 

So, in my first five years, I had the opportunity to visit each of my parishes. I got to know many of the priests and people by name, to learn something about them, and to feel at home here. I’m now in my second round of parish visitations, and I’m meeting with parish councils and visiting schools and taking it to a deeper level.

It was also clear when I arrived that I needed to promote vocations. We had only 11 seminarians, so it was a priority. We’ve engaged in various projects to promote vocations since, and I’m pleased that we’ve been able to double our number of seminarians to 22.

CWR: What are some of the initiatives you have in your diocese?

Bishop Paprocki: I talk a lot about growth. How do we grow as a Church? Growth is my word for evangelization. The Lord told us to go out and tell the Good News; he also calls us to grow in the depth of our faith. We don’t just want a handful of strong believers, nor do we want to have many believers who have little depth. So, I’m always asking, “How can we draw more people into our churches and call them to a deeper relationship with the Lord?”

CWR: Which touches on a related issue; according to surveys, young adults are attending church less frequently than those of previous generations, and are less likely to identify themselves with a religious denomination.  How can we turn this around? 

Bishop Paprocki: Yes, I believe that’s true.

In our diocese, every October we have what we call our “October Count.” We count the number of people we have coming to Mass. When I received my first report after coming to Springfield, I was also given the October Counts from the previous 15 years. During that 15-year time period there had been a 30 percent drop in Mass attendance. That was shocking to me.

Yet, all I had was raw numbers, not the reasons why. So, I started asking people, who conjectured at the reasons behind the numbers. One thought was that the population in central Illinois was in decline. But I checked, and that was not the case. Our population had been pretty stable.

We commissioned two surveys through Benedictine University, which has a branch campus in Springfield. In one, we surveyed people who didn’t go to church, and in the other those who did. The surveys came up with a lot of different reasons, but one in particular was a common denominator in both the surveys: there was a need for a sense of community. Many people who stopped going to church did so because they didn’t feel connected. Since they didn’t feel connected, it was easy for them to walk away. Conversely, those who did come regularly cited a positive sense of community. They thought something would be missing in their lives without church.

I published two pastoral letters related to the surveys. The first was Ars Celebrandi et Adorandi (“The Art of Celebrating and Adoring”), which focused on the spiritual and sacramental life of divine worship. If we’re going to invite people to Mass, we have to give them a good experience of prayer and liturgy. We have to have good liturgies, good music, and good homilies.

The second was Ars Crescendo in Dei Gratia (“The Art of Growing in God’s Grace”). It went into some detail about the surveys and was a call to growth for our Church. At the end of the second pastoral letter, I offered four pillars of discipleship and stewardship, which included four nouns accompanying verbs. The first pillar and noun was hospitality, with invite being the verb. What are we doing to go out and invite people to church in one-on-one conversations, such as when we share with a co-worker what we did over the weekend? This could include mention of attending Mass at our parish.

The second pillar and noun was formation, with the accompanying verbs being to study and to learn. We have to study the Bible and we have to study the Catechism of the Catholic Church to learn about our faith. The third pillar and noun is prayer, with the verb being to provide opportunities for prayer. And the fourth pillar and noun is service, with the verb being to serve. What are we doing to serve the poor and vulnerable?

CWR: Have your Mass attendance statistics improved in the six years since you’ve arrived in Springfield?

Bishop Paprocki: They are up slightly, but mostly stable. We’re not losing people anymore, which is a good thing. But, we haven’t seen the bump in growth that I would hope to see.

To help improve things, we’re planning a diocesan synod beginning January 22. It is the first in our diocese since 1963, and the fourth overall since our diocese’s founding. Its focus will be on promoting discipleship and stewardship as a way of life. We’re hoping our results will bring about a broad buy-in by our people; as a bishop, I can issue a decree, but without that buy-in all we’ll have is a nice piece of paper on file.

CWR: It sounds like this approach to evangelization begins with the emotional, rather than the intellectual.

Bishop Paprocki: The Catholic faith is based on reason and revelation, so the intellectual side is important. But if our first pillar was merely an invitation for people to come by and study with us, we’re not going to attract many people.

I knew Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, when he was a priest in Chicago. He liked to use a sports analogy. If you’re going to play a sport, you need to know the rules. But, if you’re going to interest someone in, say, baseball, you don’t start out by saying, “Let me tell you about the infield fly rule.” Rather, you get them excited about playing the game, and then in the course of playing that game the infield fly rule will become of interest to them.

In the same way, we won’t get too many people interested in coming to church if we say, “Come on over and we’re going to study the details of eschatology.” We want to first get people attracted by the power of the message, and then we can go into more detail.

CWR: Can you think of a related example in Scripture?

Bishop Paprocki: When Christ spoke to his disciples about the Eucharist, he said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you” [John 6:53].

Many of his followers thought he was speaking of cannibalism and walked away. But the Apostles didn’t walk away, because they knew him and loved him. They weren’t repulsed; they wanted to know more. Peter said, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” [John 6:68].

The people who didn’t have a close relationship with Jesus heard the message, but hadn’t yet fallen in love with Jesus, and walked away. Those who stayed had fallen in love with the Lord and wanted to deepen their relationship with him. We want to reach out to people and invite them to fall in love with Our Lord, demonstrating that we can help them to do that through prayer and the sacraments.

CWR: Four cardinals and a number of prominent lay people have asked the Holy Father for a clarification of Amoris Laetitia, specifically relating to the issue of the reception of Holy Communion by those divorced and civilly remarried (who don’t have an annulment). Do you see the need for such a clarification?

Bishop Paprocki: All the Christian faithful have the right to express their opinions. And, when they have questions, by all means those questions should be asked. This is especially true when those who ask are cardinals, special advisors to the pope. The dubia, or doubts, of the four cardinals are merely asking questions about Amoris Laetitia, and do so in a respectful way.

CWR: You wrote an article for the National Catholic Register on voting and the presidential election. Now that the election has passed, do you have any thoughts on it and any hopes as to the direction the new presidential administration will take?

Bishop Paprocki: I wrote a couple of columns during the campaign for my diocesan newspaper, one of which was reprinted in the Register. Some people were saying to me, “I don’t think I can vote for either candidate.” I offered some advice, indicating that the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well the USCCB’s Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship indicate that we have an obligation to participate in public life. We can’t sit out an election, even when choices are difficult. If we feel we can’t vote for either candidate at the top of the ticket, we can still vote on the rest of the ballot. We shouldn’t sit out the whole election.

I wrote a follow-up column, however, talking about the importance of the issue of abortion using the analogy of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. These were a series of seven debates that were focused almost exclusively on slavery. It was the defining issue of the time.

When I talk about the right to life, I say that abortion is the defining issue of our time. Will we be a culture of life, or, as Pope St. John Paul II said, a “culture of death”? Unfortunately, I don’t see many of our politicians talking about it. We can’t ignore the defining issue of our time; this issue must be front and center when we choose candidates for public office.

When I talk to pro-life people and the election, they talk to me about the importance of the US Supreme Court. President-elect Trump says he’s pro-life and will appoint judges that will respect the right to life. I hope he will follow through on that pledge.

I also hope that the new administration will be more respectful of religious liberty than the current administration. I’m referring to such things as, for example, the HHS mandate, which sought to prevent the Little Sisters of the Poor from running their nursing homes in accordance with Catholic teaching.

CWR: Speaking of abortion, Roe v. Wade’s 44th anniversary is January 22. Do you think the pro-life movement has made progress over the course of your lifetime?

Bishop Paprocki: I think we’re in a stronger position than we were in back in the 1970s. Back then, many people thought that this was the trend, and that abortion will always be with us. The Supreme Court has spoken, and the matter is ended. But that is far from the case.

Today, we see that many young people are very pro-life. But before we can change laws, we have to change hearts.

I think we have to take heart in the so-called culture wars. There is no question we’ve been on the losing end of some battles, such as those related to the definition of marriage. But, I think we’ll see the same thing with marriage and Obergefell as we have with abortion and Roe. Many people may believe the marriage issue is settled, but over time we’ll see that more will come to realize that marriage can only be between one man and one woman.

CWR: What made you want to become a priest?

Bishop Paprocki: I’ve wanted to be a priest for as long as I can remember. I had many good role models. My parents were devout Catholics. My mom is still with us, living in a retirement home, and my father passed away 19 years ago. Both were strong role models.

I knew many good priests growing up in St. Casimir’s parish on the South Side of Chicago. I attended a high school seminary while living at home and was ordained a priest in 1978.

After my ordination, however, I did something different. I went to DePaul’s law school and earned a law degree. I thought it would be a useful tool for my ministry.

I had planned to be a parish priest for the rest of my priesthood, and help the poor with legal services on the side. But I was called to help in the chancery office, which led me to being named a bishop. There’s the old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him what your plans are.”

I’ve kept an interest in Chicago Legal Clinic, and still serve on the board of directors. I also started Catholic Charities Legal Services in the Springfield diocese.

CWR: You’ve run 22 marathons and play hockey. You wrote a book, too, titled Holy Goals for Body and Soul

Bishop Paprocki: I’ve always had a big interest in sports, and I’m a big hockey fan. I play goalie; my nickname is “Holy Goalie.” I started running to stay in shape so that I could keep playing hockey. I made the connection between sports and faith, and wrote a book about it. I’ve also been involved in some sports organizations, such as Catholic Athletes for Christ.

CWR: Besides your discipleship synod, do you have any other big news or initiatives in the diocese?

Bishop Paprocki: We have a brand new Catholic high school, Father McGivney, which we opened in Glen Carbon, which is near St. Louis. I know that many of our Catholic schools are facing challenges in terms of enrollment and financing, so we’re pleased. It shows we have some positive things going on in Springfield.

About Jim Graves 134 Articles

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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