Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., center, leads a group of runners in prayer in 2012 before a marathon in St. Louis. (CNS photo/Jerry Naunheim Jr., St. Louis Review)
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
CWR: Can you think of a related example in
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
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
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
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
Today, we see that
many young people are very pro-life. But before we can change laws, we have to
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
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.