Bishop Kevin Rhoades, 60, is Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Located in Northeast Indiana, the diocese is home to160,000 Catholics, 81 parishes, and 41 Catholic schools. It is also home to five Catholic colleges, including the University of Notre Dame, and the headquarters of multiple religious congregations, including the Holy Cross Priests and Brothers. It was founded as the Diocese of Ft. Wayne in 1857, and became the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in 1960. As a “hyphenated” diocese with two see cities, the bishop must frequently make the two-hour drive between Fort Wayne and South Bend and repeat principal diocesan activities, such as Chrism Masses.
Bishop Rhoades was born in Mahanoy City, a coal mining region of Pennsylvania, and grew up in Lebanon, an hour’s drive away. His father, a Lutheran, was a civilian employee for the military and his mother, a Catholic, was a stay-at-home mom until the children reached high school, when she began working as a teacher; his devout Catholic grandmother also lived with the family. He has an older brother and younger sister.
While attending Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, he felt the call to the priesthood. He attended St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Pennsylvania, and the Pontifical North American College and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, before being ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1983. He continued his studies at the Gregorian in Rome, earning a Licentiate of Sacred Theology in 1986 and a Licentiate of Canon Law in 1988.
He served as rector of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, and was appointed Bishop of Harrisburg in 2004. He came to Fort Wayne-South Bend in 2010.
CWR: What were some of your priorities in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend when you arrived?
Bishop Kevin Rhoades: One of the major challenges I recognized was vocations. We had only 15 seminarians in 2010. Today, we have 30, and I will be ordaining five priests in June. That is the most that have been ordained here in over 40 years. So, we’re now on the upswing for vocations.
We have 65 active priests, with religious priests also assisting at our parishes. In fact, the Congregation of the Holy Cross staffs five or six of our parishes.
With vocations now going well, we’ve branched out into other areas. We have a number of college campuses in our dioceses, non-Catholic private and state schools, on which no Catholic ministry is occurring. That has now become an area of focus, building a Catholic campus ministry at these schools. I don’t want to see Catholic college students drifting away from the Faith.
Related to that is young adult ministry. I fact, that is my number one priority now. I’ve read articles about the loss of so many young adult Catholics to the Church—when it comes to religion, we’re seeing more and more young people categorize themselves as “nones”—but we can’t sit back and say, “That’s the way it is.”
So, we’ve tried to put more effort into reaching out to young adults. We try to engage them in our parishes through spiritual activities, groups such as Young Catholic Professionals, social events, Theology on Tap, participation in World Youth Day, and service activities. We want to get our young adults involved in parish life. Often, parishes are centered on families—which is good—but many of our young adults are not married, so we must find activities that interest them. I’ve tried to be personally involved in these efforts, getting to know young adults, and participating in some of these activities.
CWR: You are a former seminary rector. What is the best way to attract quality men to the seminary and form them to be good priests?
Bishop Rhoades: It starts with prayer. It must be a priority for our people in the parishes to be praying for vocations to the priesthood. This includes Holy Hours of adoration in parishes; we also have a diocesan-wide Holy Hour for vocations monthly at our cathedral in Fort Wayne.
Also, at the parish level, we need to have our priests actively engaged in promoting priestly vocations among young men. In parishes in which we have strong youth ministry programs, we’re seeing a lot of vocations. For example, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne has a strong youth ministry program, which helped produce eight or nine of our 30 seminarians.
I also try to assign some of our young priests as high school chaplains, who can inspire young men to become priests. And, as the family is the ultimate seed bed of vocations, we hope to see our families encouraging their children to consider the priesthood or religious life.
CWR: You were given permission by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship to celebrate the feast day of Blessed Solanus Casey (1870-1957) as an optional memorial. What is his connection to your diocese, and what most impresses you about his life?
Bishop Rhoades: He lived 10 years, 1946-56, at the St. Felix Catholic Center, a big Capuchin friary and novitiate in Huntington. He was a simplex priest, which meant he couldn’t hear confessions or deliver homilies. This doesn’t seem the normal model for priests, yet he has been declared “blessed.”
Blessed Solanus’ two great loves were the sick and the poor. So many came to him with their problems and experienced God’s grace. Like him, we priests should give special attention to the sick and the poor. As Pope Francis tells us, we must go out to the peripheries to help people in these situations.
Blessed Solanus was a very simple priest, humble and a man of deep prayer. Our diocese has been blessed in that he once lived here, and many Catholics today are devoted to him, especially in the Huntington area. I wrote the Vatican requesting that we be allowed to celebrate his feast day as an optional memorial; it’s not easy to get such permission. But we did.
St. Felix Catholic Center is now a retreat center. It had been sold, but was bought again by Catholics and restored, so that it is a beautiful facility. Pilgrims can come and see Blessed Solanus’ room and pray there.
CWR: Cardinal William Keeler (1931-2017), the former Archbishop of Baltimore who was also a bishop in Harrisburg when you were there, ordained you to the priesthood in 1983. You have referred to him as your “spiritual father.” Why he was important to you in your life?
Bishop Rhoades: We were from same home parish, and went to the schools in Lebanon. He was older than me, so he was a priest when I was in grade school. I met him when I applied for the seminary; he was an auxiliary bishop in Harrisburg when he ordained me. I served as his secretary for a couple of years.
I greatly admired him, especially when I saw him up close. He had a sharp intellect, and was known for that. But working with him closely, I saw his pastoral side. I’d drive him to different places, and he was always solicitous for the sick. If there was a priest in the hospital or just home from the hospital, we’d always make a detour and visit.
He was also chaplain for people with cancer and cancer survivors. He did this without any publicity, and it was close to his heart.
I also saw his prayer life. He’d never miss the Liturgy of the Hours. He’d do it while I drove, or he’d take his rosary out and pray it. He was nourished by the Lord in his prayer.
He was also known for his work in the ecumenical movement, and was highly respected by Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.
I always found Cardinal Keeler to be kind and gracious, and a great host when visitors would come. He also had a tremendous capacity for work. But, he kept the balance between prayer and work. It impressed me as a young priest. He showed me different aspects of the priesthood and the episcopate; he showed me how to be a bishop.
CWR: You are on the board of Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Earlier this year, you traveled to Ethiopia as part of CRS. What were some of the highlights of your trip?
Bishop Rhoades: Every year board members are asked to visit a different CRS project site. I’ve gone to Haiti and the West Bank and Gaza; this year, we went to Ethiopia. CRS’ work in Ethiopia inspired me. I was overwhelmed by the poverty; they had recently suffered from a bad drought.
In the 1980s, a million-plus died from famine. This year, widespread death was avoided, as the country was better prepared. CRS was a part of that preparation.
CRS received a large grant from the government, and distributed emergency food at 263 sites. I can’t imagine what would have happened to these people without this food. Many Catholics don’t realize all that CRS does.
CRS is also involved in sustainable development; we taught the people how to capture water when it rains, and how to terrace land to prevent soil erosion. We’ve taught them about irrigation, and how to build canals.
The people are grateful when we visit. Although Catholics make up less than one percent of the population, the Church has a huge presence in Ethiopia.
I was also moved by the work of the Missionaries of Charity there. We visited one of their houses where 650 destitute, sick and dying people are cared for. People would be dying in the streets, had the sisters not been there.
CWR: One of the best known Catholic universities in the country, Notre Dame, is in your diocese. In the past few years you’ve issued statements objecting to honoring the pro-abortion Catholic and former Vice President Joe Biden with a Notre Dame Laetare Medal because of his support for legalized abortion, and providing funding for contraception in its health insurance plans. What relationship to the university do you have, and what action can you take, as diocesan bishop, when they make high profile decisions such as these with which you disagree?
Bishop Rhoades: I have only the power of persuasion, but no governance authority. That’s how most Catholic colleges and universities have gone since the 1967 Land O’Lakes statement declaring that they no longer have a juridical connection to the Church, the bishop, or religious congregation that founded them.
But, I really believe in what Pope St. John Paul II said in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990), that the bishop should not be seen as an external agent but part of the community. Colleges should have a good relationship with the bishop; part of being Catholic is being in communion with the local bishop.
I am at Notre Dame a lot. I’m very involved, and they have some great things going on there as part of their Catholic mission. They have a solid theology department, McGrath Institute for Church Life and Center for Ethics and Culture. There are many good professors and student organizations.
At the same time, however, there are some problematic areas where the Catholic mission isn’t as strong. I work behind the scenes to challenge them, but sometimes I make a public statement. I won’t do that, however, unless I’ve privately dialogued with them first.
Such is the case in their funding for contraception in health insurance plans. To me, that’s clearly not being faithful to their Catholic mission. They have their arguments as to why they believe it is morally acceptable, but I don’t agree with them. I urged them to change the policy.
Notre Dame is a microcosm of the Church in the United States. There is division among Catholics on these issues. But, I wouldn’t give up hope.
CWR: Why do they favor funding contraceptives?
Bishop Rhoades: They issued a long explanation as to why they thought it was okay, which I read and did not understand. To summarize, I think they see it as a way of respecting the freedom of conscience of those who don’t agree with the Church. Notre Dame says they still accept Church teaching, but they don’t feel like they can impose it on all employees.
My response is that such employees are free to buy contraceptives, but Catholic institutions shouldn’t be providing them. If they want to use them, they can pay for them with their own money.
One thing I did praise them for was that their health insurance plans now provide funding for Natural Family Planning Services, and will not pay for abortion-causing drugs. That wasn’t the case before.
Notre Dame filed suit against the [Obama Administration’s] HHS mandate, and then freely provided contraception on its own, but not abortions. The community had people on both sides of the issue; I think this was Notre Dame’s attempt to compromise.
CWR: You are Chairman-elect of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine. What does this committee do, and what are some initiatives you hope to undertake as chairman?
Bishop Rhoades: I was a member five or six years ago; I will assume the chair in November. Our role is to study and offer opinions on doctrinal issues that come before us. We deal with challenges to Church teaching on sexual morality; 50 years after Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, there’s still a lot of dissent on contraception.
Gender ideology is also a huge issue, and it seems to be an area where we’re losing the battle, especially among young people. The more convincing ways we can present the truth, the more likely people will grasp it and believe it. Secularism and relativism also have grown in our culture and continues to advance.
We don’t merely want to take a defensive posture on these issues, but present the truth of Catholic teaching in a way that shows its beauty, and that it can lead to happiness and fulfillment in life.
We also are involved in the relationship between the Church and science. One reason some people give for rejecting Christianity is that they see a conflict between science and Church teaching. But, in reality, one of the great things about Catholicism is the compatibility between faith and reason.
We want to promote a dialogue between the Church and scientists. It is a special need today, as some people perceive that there is a conflict between the two.
CWR: What made you want to enter the seminary when you were a young man?
Bishop Rhoades: I had always had a positive view of the priesthood from the priests I’d known growing up. When I went to college, like most young adults, I had a lot of questions. But, I had an intellectual conversion as I delved into the writings of such men as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. I started going to daily Mass, and, as there was a seminary where I was going to school, I knew and was impressed by the seminarians I met.
One day, I was praying at a grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. I asked for guidance about the priesthood versus getting married. When I thought about becoming a priest, I was flooded by a sense of peace and joy. I had my answer.
CWR: You have made a number of spiritual recommendations to the faithful on your Facebook page, such as doing the Stations of the Cross and regular confession. What basic program of spirituality do you recommend to the average layman in the pew?
Bishop Rhoades: I have a lot of lay friends, and I recommend to them a regular discipline of daily prayer, such as praying the prayers of the Magnificat booklet in the morning and evening. Daily mass is important, and if they are unable to go, they can spend five or 10 minutes going over the readings of the day (Lectio Divina, basically). The daily rosary is wonderful.
Visits to the Blessed Sacrament are important. When I was a child, we’d never go downtown without stopping in to visit the Blessed Sacrament. It was part of life. People are hungry for these things, and they make quite a difference in their lives.
CWR: You mentioned your admiration for Cardinal Keeler. Who are some other Catholics that you particularly admire?
Bishop Rhoades: Pope St. John Paul II was my hero. When I was a seminarian, I’d go over and listen to him often. I remember listening to a series of talks that would become the Theology of the Body.
I also had the chance to work with the Missionaries of Charity and met Mother Teresa many times. She was also my hero. As I young priest, I’d celebrate Mass for her sisters, and twice a year she’d be there. Now, how do you preach a homily for Mother Teresa?
I loved her simplicity. I loved the joy she and her sisters had.
On one occasion, Mother Teresa gave me a holy card, with an image of Jesus scourged and bloody with hands tied. At the bottom were the words “I looked for someone to comfort me and there was no one.” Mother Teresa had added the words “Be the one!” I still keep that holy card in my breviary.
Some of my other favorite saints include St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Francis of Assisi.
I also admire Pope Benedict XVI; his writings are a principle source of spiritual inspiration for me. I use material from his second volume of Jesus of Nazareth for homilies. I didn’t know his writings as a seminarian or young priest; as a bishop, I’ve read a lot more, and I’m very grateful for his writings.
CWR: Do you have other thoughts?
Bishop Rhoades: When I was transferred to the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, I didn’t know anyone here. I was wondering what it would be like. But I have felt at home since I first arrived here. I love this diocese, and I feel blessed to serve here.