Bishop Doerfler: “Every follower of Jesus has a role to play in evangelization”

The bishop of Marquette, Michigan on evangelization, vocations, and the liturgical reforms he’s undertaken in his diocese.

Bishop John Doerfler of the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan (CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass)

Bishop John Doerfler, 53, is the 13th bishop of the Diocese of Marquette. He grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, about 30 miles south of Green Bay. He was active in youth ministry as a teen, and entered seminary as a college freshman. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Green Bay in 1991. He served as a parish priest for four years before earning a licentiate in canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He also earned a licentiate and doctorate in sacred theology from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family.

He held a variety of positions in Green Bay, including assistant chancellor, chancellor, and vicar general, as well as serving on the marriage tribunal and in parishes. He has worked with a variety of organizations, including Teens Encounter Christ, Courage, Widows of Prayer, and Retrouvaille. He has served as bishop of Marquette since 2014.

CWR: Please give me an overview of the Diocese of Marquette.

Bishop John Doerfler: We’re slightly larger than the country of Switzerland, and encompass the upper peninsula of Michigan. We’re bordered on three sides by the Great Lakes, and we also share a border with Wisconsin. We’re sparsely populated, with 85 percent of our territory being made up of forest. Tourism makes up the biggest part of our economy, although in general we’re struggling economically. There was once an active mining industry here in which European immigrants worked, although most of this industry has dried up as have most of the jobs.

We have 69,000 Catholics and 57 active priests. They serve in 72 parishes and 21 missions. We have a Carmelite monastery, a small Catholic hospital, and nine Catholic grade schools.

CWR: How are you doing for vocations to the priesthood?

Bishop Doerfler: We have 10 seminarians, which is not quite where we need to be for the long run. But, our numbers have shown some growth in recent years. For the number of Catholics we have, we’re doing okay. We have wonderful priests here who attract vocations.

CWR: Last year, you released a letter on evangelization. What are some of the key points you made?

Bishop Doerfler: First off, prior to the release of this letter, I sent every priest in the diocese a draft and invited their comments on it. I also consulted with our diocesan evangelization council, which was set up by my predecessor, Bishop Alexander Sample, who is today archbishop of Portland. People were very active and engaged in giving me ideas. I was not able to include all the input I received, as I was concerned that the letter would become too long and people wouldn’t read it.

We released it last Pentecost; copies were mailed to the households of our diocese. It lays out a five-year plan for evangelization. Each parish is supposed to develop their own plan for evangelization and submit it to me by this coming Pentecost.

Its focus is stated succinctly on the first page: To evangelize means helping people encounter Jesus by sharing the Gospel message so that they make a personal decision to follow Jesus in faith. Its focus is to open us all up to the Holy Spirit, as evangelization is not a program, but a work of the Holy Spirit. As I say, “The focus of the pastoral plan is for us to allow the Holy Spirit to form each and every one of us into a Spirit-filled evangelizer, like our first bishop, the Venerable Frederic Baraga. Spirit-filled evangelizers are Christians who are transformed by the love of the Holy Spirit and follow the Spirit’s lead to share Jesus with others.”

This begins with our own encounter with Jesus, involving such elements as daily prayer, weekly Mass, and regular confession. Second, I encourage people to “‘make a friend’ and form a community of love and welcoming parishes.” And third, we must learn how to share Jesus with others.

The need to evangelize was an important component of the Second Vatican Council, but it needs to be developed and implemented further. Every follower of Jesus has a role to play in evangelization and spreading the faith. People need to be formed in missionary consciousness; the lay faithful can reach out to so many different people in different walks of life, giving witness of how important the Lord is in their own lives.

CWR: What prompted the letter?

Bishop Doerfler: Evangelization is the greatest pastoral need we have. Like in many places in the US, we’ve seen declining numbers of people going to Mass, and few active Catholics. We’ve been taking Mass counts since 2000, and we’ve seen a drop in attendance of more than 40 percent. That’s pretty stunning.

I think it’s related to the secularization of society, as well as our economic problems. People are moving away from the Upper Peninsula to where the jobs are. But regardless, there are many people here who are practicing no faith at all, so the harvest is ripe and there to be gathered in.

CWR: In 2016, you released a letter on church music. Where would you like your parishes to be in regards to music in the next five to 10 years?

Bishop Doerfler: Music has a great capacity to turn our minds and hearts to the beauty of God, helping to enhance and foster our worship of God. It is important that we have this aspect of the beautiful.

Bishop Sample released Rejoice in the Lord Always, a letter on sacred music, but was transferred to Portland before he had the chance to see it implemented. So, I took up the baton and laid out some concrete steps that parishes can take over the next five years.

I ask that our parishes and schools learn to chant the Ordinary parts of the Mass in English that are found in the Roman Missal, and that they be sung by the congregation at some time throughout the year. I also ask that they learn to chant the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei from the Missa lubilate Deo, and that they be sung by the congregation at some time throughout the year.

I also ask that they learn to chant the Communion Antiphon in English on Sundays. We’ll also be rolling out a diocesan hymnal to ensure the musical quality and doctrinal integrity of the sacred music. The hymnal has been taking longer than anticipated to prepare, but we expect it to be in parishes for their mandatory use by the first Sunday in Advent.

CWR: What other initiatives do you have?

Bishop Doerfler: We’re moving our nine Catholic elementary schools towards a classical liberal arts curriculum; we have some information about it on our website. We’re taking some steps to enhance our marriage preparation and ministry.

We also have an outreach going on through our Catholic Social Services for those suffering from addictions. We have a severe drug problem in this part of the world. In our Catholic hospital, for example, one of four babies born is affected by drug use, which demonstrates how grave our problem is. Last Spring, I joined with Protestant leaders to issue a joint Ecumenical Statement on Addictions to address the problem. We’ll be opening up a small substance abuse treatment center in one of our cities; this is one way we’re reaching out to bring the Lord’s peace and healing to help those struggling with addictions.

CWR: You mentioned Bishop Frederic Baraga (1797-1868). Your diocese has been active in supporting his cause for canonization. What is the status of the cause, and why do you think he’s a good candidate for sainthood?

Bishop Doerfler: He was declared “venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. We need one miracle for beatification, and another for sainthood. There’s an unexplained cure that we’re beginning to investigate that looks promising.

When I look at Bishop Baraga, I see an example for our time. He had a great zeal for evangelization and bringing Christ to others. He came from Slovenia to minister to the Native Americans here. We were part of the Diocese of Cincinnati at the time. He later became the first bishop of this diocese when it was established.

He was known as the Snowshoe Priest. We have severe winters here, and you have to make friends with the snow if you live here. Bishop Baraga would travel miles and miles to people in the severest of conditions, whether it be to provide Mass and the sacraments, or anoint the dying. His outreach and care for people was admirable. He is a strong model for us.

CWR: You worked with the marriage tribunal in Green Bay and with the Retrouvaille apostolate. What did these experiences teach you about marriage?

Bishop Doerfler: What I would say to married couples who are having struggles and problems is that what they’re experiencing is a normal part of life. There are always going to be problems. I would also say that there is hope through the love of Jesus Christ and the support of the Christian community. You can work through difficulties. There are resources and people who want to help, so please take advantage of it before it is too late.

CWR: You were also a chaplain for Courage, the Catholic Church’s ministry to people with same-sex attraction.

Bishop Doerfler: Yes. Working with the Courage chapter in Green Bay was a great joy and privilege for me as a priest. I was able to walk closely with wonderful men pursuing a life of holiness and chastity.

I’d like to get a chapter going in Marquette, but we’re so sparsely populated that it’s been difficult. The City of Marquette is our largest city, and we only have 21,000 people. Trying to get enough members in a spread out area is difficult, as you may have one person here, and another a two- or three-hour drive away. We don’t have a chapter yet, but it’s in my mind and heart to start one.

CWR: Tell me about your upbringing.

Bishop Doerfler: I had outstanding parents growing up. My mother and father were strong people of faith. One of my earliest memories was of my dad taking me to church. He had a devotion to St. Anthony, and they had a side chapel there where he’d go to pray.

My mother was a faith-filled woman who was a novice in a Carmelite monastery. She had a rich prayer life. I also had two uncles who were Capuchin priests. There was no time when I did not know and love God. I thank my parents for passing on the Faith to me.

When I was in high school, I was involved in youth ministry. I wanted my friends to know Jesus. It was during that time, in my junior or senior year, that the thought of priesthood flowed through my mind. I entered seminary after graduating high school.

CWR: Besides your mother and father, who are some Catholics you particularly admire?

Bishop Doerfler: I would have to start with the saints. My favorites include St. John of the Cross, who is my patron, St. Francis de Sales, St. Therese, and St. Thomas More.

As a young man, my heroes included Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict. When I was a seminarian, I studied theology at North American College in Rome. I had the privilege of serving Mass for Pope John Paul II. It was the beatification Mass of St. Katharine Drexel, and they wanted American seminarians to serve at the Mass. I was one of the lucky ones whose name was pulled out of the hat.

I met Pope John Paul briefly after Mass. I remember my exchange with him. I assured the Holy Father I was praying for him. He said, “Well, we’ll pray for each other.”

I met Pope Benedict when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. I was attending the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He came to address the college. Later, while vicar general at Green Bay, I accompanied Bishop David Ricken on his ad limina visit and met him as Pope Benedict. I admire him as a simple, gentle, deeply faith-filled man who has an amazing gift of writing so deeply and clearly at the same time.

CWR: What program of basic spirituality do you recommend to the average man-in-the-pew?

Bishop Doerfler: The basics, like weekly Mass and regular confession, go without saying. I’d also especially mention three other things: the Rosary, Lectio Divina or praying with Sacred Scripture, and Eucharistic adoration.

About Jim Graves 157 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

6 Comments

  1. “Second, I encourage people to “‘make a friend’ and form a community of love and welcoming parishes.””

    Good, but this is only a start. People will need more concrete guidance than this, as to what norms will rule communal life. A “community of love” is more than mouthing platitudes at other people or the exercise of friendliness.

  2. It is interesting that the good bishop’s own journey to the priesthood was so closely tied to his family, particularly to his father. It would be interesting to hear him speak more of how parents, and especially fathers, inspire their children.

  3. At least we hear of a faithful CATHOLIC Bishop guiding his flock. True Catholicism is very hard to come by among our Bishops these days.

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