An Interview With Bishop Thomas John Paprocki (Part 1)


Thomas John Paprocki is the Bishop of Springfield in Illinois. The occasion of this interview was the recently-completed Springfield Diocesan Synod, the first since 1963.

Kevin: The previous diocesan synod was in 1963 under Bishop O’Connor. Its statutes are impressive but I suspect many things fell by the wayside due to the radical changes that followed the Second Vatican Council. You organized a new diocesan synod in 2017, which has now finished its work. Why did you call for this synod, what has it accomplished, and what do you hope its fruits will be?

Bishop Paprocki: In my homily for Evening Prayer at the Vigil the night before my installation as Bishop of Springfield in Illinois in 2010, I quoted from the Apostolic Letter of Pope Saint John Paul II, entitled, Novo Millennio Ineunte, which in Latin means “On entering the New Millennium.”

Issued on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, January 6, 2001, Pope Saint John Paul II indicated the pastoral priorities that we must have to revitalize our communities of faith, saying, “First of all, I have no hesitation in saying that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness.” That sounds quite simple, but it is deeply profound! In our very busy lives, we can often get distracted from the true purpose of what we are doing. Pope St. John II made it clear that everything we do in our parishes, in our schools, and indeed throughout our dioceses should have holiness as its clear and unmistakable goal.

After Bishop Carl Kemme, my former Vicar General, was appointed Bishop of Wichita in 2014, we began talking about how our diocese could be more committed to discipleship and stewardship, since the Diocese of Wichita has been doing this earnestly for several decades now.

Our diocesan synod in 2017 specifically focused on this topic and said in its very first declaration,

The mission of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield in Illinois is to build a fervent community of intentional and dedicated missionary disciples of the Risen Lord and steadfast stewards of God’s creation who seek to become saints. Accordingly, the community of Catholic faithful in this diocese is committed to the discipleship and stewardship way of life as commanded by Christ Our Savior and as revealed by Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

I have just finished my third pastoral letter as a type of post-synodal exhortation entitled, Ars vivendi et moriendi in Dei gratia, which is Latin for, “The Art of Living and Dying in God’s Grace.”

It will be published soon and will be the basis for my conversations with parish pastoral councils, finance councils, and school boards when I begin a new round of parish pastoral visitations in the Fall of 2018.

Kevin: While a diocesan priest in Chicago, you earned a doctorate in secular law. Then you earned both a licensure and a doctorate in canon law. Why all this law? Why did you develop this expertise? Why do you think law is so important?

Bishop Paprocki: My initial motivation for studying civil law was to acquire a tool for helping the poor.

I wanted a key focus of my ministry as a priest to be on helping the poor, but I did not want just to talk about it; I wanted to put my words into action by doing something concrete. So I co-founded the South Chicago Legal Clinic in 1981, which later became simply the Chicago Legal Clinic as we expanded into different neighborhoods in Chicago to help the poor. My specific practice as a civil lawyer focused on immigration law.

That was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but my Archbishop, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, had other plans for me and sent me to Rome to study canon law in 1987. When I finished my doctorate in canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1991, I returned to Chicago and Cardinal Bernardin then named me Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1992. As Chancellor, you might say that I functioned as a sort of attorney general or minister of justice. I served in that capacity for Cardinal Bernardin until he died in 1996 and then continued under Cardinal Francis George, who succeeded him.

In 2001, Cardinal George appointed me pastor of a large parish on the northwest side of Chicago near O’Hare Airport. In 2003, Pope St. John Paul II appointed me Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago and in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI appointed me Bishop of Springfield in Illinois. During all those years, I continued to maintain an interest in the work of the Chicago Legal Clinic and served as its President until 2014.

Here in Springfield, I established Catholic Charities Legal Services to help the poor. Whether in civil law or in canon law, I have always seen working for justice as a key component of my ministry, taking my cue from the 1970 Synods of Bishops, which proclaimed, “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of preaching the Gospel.” In other words, working for justice is not ancillary to preaching the Gospel, but is an essential aspect of it.

Kevin: You are a marathon runner and a hockey player and coach. What do you see as the proper role of physical fitness and competitive sports in your life and the lives of the folks of the diocese of Springfield?

Bishop Paprocki: I believe in the maxim, “a sound mind in a sound body.” Our spirituality must be holistic, that is, concerned with the whole person, body and soul.

I started running when I was a senior in high school. Three of my grandparents died in their 50’s from heart disease before I was born, and as I came across some books and magazine articles that talked about the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic training, I thought if I wanted to live beyond my mid-fifties, I had better do some running.

I found that I feel better and think more clearly when I run. After running shorter distances for several years, I ran my first marathon in 1995 with my youngest brother, Allen. Marathon running also became a way for me to raise money for charitable purposes. As of now, I have run 23 marathons in 23 years, raising almost half a million dollars for charity along the way!

Running also keeps me in shape to play hockey, which is my favorite sport. As a goalie, I just focus on trying to keep the puck out of the net, which is very therapeutic since it helps me put everything else out of my mind while I am playing.

I am also helping to coach the hockey team at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield, which is a great way to meet and relate to young people and their parents in a different venue outside of church.

I try to promote the virtues through sports. I serve as Chairman of the Episcopal Advisory Board of Catholic Athletes for Christ and I have written a book called, Holy Goals for Body and Soul: Eight Steps to Connect Sports with God and Faith.

As much as I love sports, I think we need to keep athletics in their proper perspective. In some ways our society has turned competitive sports into a sort of religion. We have to remember that winning is not everything. Sports should be fun and should never be considered more important than going to church and practicing our faith.

Kevin: You have written a pastoral letter on the art of celebrating the liturgy properly and adoring the Lord in the Eucharist. What would you like to see in the Springfield diocese in the parishes in regard to the appearance of churches, liturgical music, homiletics, and so on?

Bishop Paprocki: I consider my first pastoral letter, Ars celebrandi et adorandi (“The Art of Celebrating the Liturgy Properly and Adoring the Lord in the Eucharist Devoutly”), as the first part of a trilogy of pastoral letters, with each pastoral letter building on the preceding one: ars celebrandi leads to the ars crescendi, which leads to ars vivendi et moriendi.

This is in keeping with the maxim that addresses the centrality of worship in the life, identity, and mission of the Catholic Church, lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer (i.e., the way we worship) is the law of belief (i.e., what we believe).

It is sometimes expanded to lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, further deepening the implications of this truth: how we worship reflects what we believe and determines how we will live.

In my second pastoral letter, Ars crescendi in Dei gratia (“The Art of Growing in God’s Grace”), I sought to offer a vision for robust and sustained growth for us as individual believers and as a community of faith. I said, “Every parish must strive to become a total stewardship parish so that we may become a total stewardship diocese of intentional disciples.” I also proposed some constructive steps to build a culture of growth in the Church. These steps for growth were designed to build on the foundation that I laid in my first pastoral letter.

The main thrust of our efforts to foster discipleship in our parishes depends to a great extent on the proper celebration of the liturgy itself. If we want our parishes to grow, we must offer good liturgical experiences that will attract people. If we want our parishioners to become dedicated missionary disciples, we must help them to experience the liturgy as a genuine encounter with the Lord.

Then we must link the discipleship and stewardship way of life to the ars moriendi because there is no compelling reason to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ if it is not understood as essentially linked to dying in God’s grace. Once a person has committed himself or herself to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, stewardship flows from that as a way of living and then the ars vivendi et moriendi helps to specify in greater detail how to live well in holiness so as to die well in God’s grace.

Kevin: You are one of the architects (maybe the chief architect) of Fortnight for Freedom. What is the Fortnight for Freedom and why do you think it is important?

Bishop Paprocki: When I was a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty after it was first formed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2011, we were discussing ideas for an initiative to promote greater respect for religious liberty and I thought of my patron saints, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, who died as martyrs for the faith. Their feast day is June 22.

It occurred to me that there were several other feast days in the next two-week period leading up to the 4th of July. June 24th is the Solemnity of the birth of St. John the Baptist, who was beheaded by King Herod for telling the King that it was wrong for him to have divorced his wife so he could marry his brother’s wife (cf. Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21; Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9).

June 28th is the Memorial of St. Irenaeus, bishop and martyr, who gave his life defending the fullness of the Christian faith. His greatest work is “Against Heresies.” As a bishop, he understood that he held a particular charism and responsibility to witness to the fullness of truth.

June 29th is the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, both of whom died as martyrs in Rome, during the persecution of the Emperor Nero, for their public witness of faith in Jesus Christ.

June 30th is the memorial of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, honoring those many Christian who were tortured, crucified, and burned alive in 64 A.D. in Nero’s gardens on the Vatican Hill.

July 3rd is the Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, who evangelized Syria, Persia, and India. He also died as a martyr for the faith.

There are other saints’ feast days during the fortnight who were not martyrs, but who nevertheless bore great witness to the Christian faith. June 21st is the Memorial of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, who cared for the sick during a plague until he contracted the disease and died from it himself. Technically this means that he was not a martyr, but he did give his life as a consequence of living out his Christian beliefs.

June 26th is the Feast of St. Josemaría Escrivá, the Founder of Opus Dei, who taught that God calls us to lead a holy life in ordinary things, not just in church, but also in our work and our family and social life.

June 27th is the Memorial of St. Cyril of Alexandria, bishop and doctor, who wrote treatises that clarified the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. By doing so, he helped prevent heresies from taking root in the Christian community. He was the most brilliant theologian of the Alexandrian tradition. His writings are characterized by accurate thinking, precise exposition, and great reasoning skills.

All of these commemorations of courageous witnesses of faith culminate on the Fourth of July, which of course is not an ecclesiastical holy day, but a civic holiday. Nevertheless, the Roman Missal for the United States does provide liturgical texts for Independence Day. The Collect for Independence Day provides a very fitting culmination to our Fortnight for Freedom:

God of justice, Father of truth, who guide creation in wisdom and goodness to fulfillment in Christ your Son, open our hearts to the truth of his Gospel, that your peace may rule in our hearts and your justice guide our lives.

This prayer helps to put this fortnight in its proper perspective, praying for justice, truth, wisdom, goodness, and peace. Since a two-week period is called a fortnight, I proposed that name and we used it for several years.

This year the Bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty decided that Religious Freedom Week would replace the Fortnight for Freedom. They explained that many public awareness campaigns take place over the course of a week—such as Catholic Schools Week, National Migration Week, and National Marriage Week. The hope was that a week would provide a focused period of time to concentrate our attention on the issue of religious freedom.

Part II, July 24

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2 thoughts on “An Interview With Bishop Thomas John Paprocki (Part 1)”

  1. Pingback: This bishop, a former Chicagoan, runs marathons, plays hockey as goalie, talks worship to his priests . . . | Blithe Spirit

  2. Pingback: MONDAY AFTERNOON EDITION – Big Pulpit

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