Bishop Donald Kettler: An interview with The Visitor

Categories: Around the Diocese

Sept. 27, 2013, edition
By Sue Schulzetenberg-Gully and Bob Zyskowski

The divided Catholic Church of the 21st century will come together, Bishop Donald Kettler said, when Catholics “focus on what we’re trying to do and what we’re about.”

The bishop-elect of the Diocese of St. Cloud said that rather than focus on particular differences in style, he would urge Catholics “not to be too critical or too defensive about how they’re done.”

“You got to have a vision in view,” Bishop Kettler said, “and you keep that in mind always, and that becomes more important than particular differences in style.”In an hour-long interview with The Visitor, Bishop Kettler addressed a number of timely issues including the sexual abuse crisis and young people leaving the church, recalled his own vocational calling, his time in college and the seminary at St. John’s University in Collegeville and his ministry in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he has been the bishop since 2002, and more.

On the call to move to the St. Cloud Diocese

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States, phoned Bishop Kettler the day after Labor Day, identified himself and said “The Holy Father wants you to go to St. Cloud.”

“I was ready to answer,” the bishop said, and he explained why.

“After a while there is a temptation to go into a maintenance mode in what you’re doing. After a while you’re less creative and energetic.”

The bishop said he wasn’t looking for a change of ministry and wasn’t expecting the nuncio’s call, but he acknowledged a realization he had come to: “You reach certain people and don’t reach other people.” He felt it was time to give someone else with a fresh approach the opportunity to try.

Sexual abuse cases and the resulting bankruptcy

The Fairbanks Diocese had numerous sexual abuse issues and as a result went through bankruptcy.

Bishop Kettler said he “felt a certain stigma” about having to file for bankruptcy, but “there were just a lot of cases, and we’re a poor diocese.”

The cases came to light almost as soon as he arrived in Fairbanks, he said. “Nothing had been hidden, it just started surfacing.”

He responded by first apologizing to victims in writing. He wrote again to apologize and to invite victims and survivors to meet with him. He traveled to 30-some places visiting with those victims who chose to meet with him and visiting the parish communities in which abuses had occurred, spending three or four days in a village to hold listening sessions.

“I would let them tell their story, say I was sorry and ask how I could help.”

He said he learned that he couldn’t be defensive or make excuses for the church, just apologize.

“I found the listening sessions to be helpful — helpful for them and helpful for us,” he said.

Healing services afterward were similarly productive, Bishop Kettler said. “I would simply say, ‘Please forgive me and the church for what has happened to you.’ ”

How he prays

Asked how he prays best, the bishop said praying the first thing in the morning and again in the evening are important to him. He says his office, does spiritual reading and has quiet time.

“I spend a great deal of time on intercessory prayer,” Bishop Kettler said. “Retreats are important to me, and other days of recollection.”

He said he doesn’t like to celebrate Mass alone. “I like celebrating it with a community,” he explained, and rather than say Mass at his residence he prefers to preside at a liturgy at the diocesan offices.

He added that he is really enlivened when he leads celebrations like confirmations and deacon ordinations when people participate in the celebration well.

On the divide between ‘Vatican II priests’ and ‘John Paul II priests’

“I would encourage older and younger priests to stretch,” Bishop Kettler said, “not to think you have the corner on everything. You can look and notice different styles and appreciate them too.”

He added, “I’m just glad we’ve got the younger priests — and religious sisters.”

On vocations

Talking about a religious vocation is the best way to encourage vocations, the bishop said. “I don’t think God has lessened his call. Somehow the call isn’t heard. So I think it is important to suggest it to people who might be good candidates.”

Bishop Kettler said he would help people identify themselves as possible candidates by asking, “Do you have a generous heart? Do you like to do things for others? If you think you do that, then I would suggest thinking about becoming a sister, priest or deacon.”

He said it is important for people to hear it often, and, if they show some interest, work with them, encourage them to visit communities of religious and to think about the seminary, where discernment can happen.

On his own vocation

Faith was important to his parents, the bishop said, and the fact that there were clergy and sisters in his extended family allowed him to see and know people living religious vocations.

A step-uncle on his French mother’s side was the long-time pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, the French parish in Minneapolis, and his mother’s sister, St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Annabelle Raiche, taught for many years at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. His dad also had relatives who were religious sisters.

He was also influenced by the priests at his home parish at the cathedral in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The bishop said he felt called to the priesthood early on, attended Crosier Seminary Junior College in Onamia for two years and then went to St. John’s, where he said his vocation was affirmed because he connected with the Benedictine priests there.

On his years at St. John’s

Bishop Kettler has stayed in contact with priests he met at St. John’s University during his time in both the undergraduate school and in the seminary at Collegeville.

“I liked St. John’s a lot and I liked Crosier too,” he said. “I connected through sports with the priests. We’d play basketball or softball.”

Asked if he were a good student, he answered honestly.

“Better than average, but I didn’t work at it,” the bishop acknowledged. “If I could play basketball rather than study, that’s what I did.”

He admitted he wasn’t very good in Latin, and he had some fears about that at the time because Latin was so important for priests to know.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was in session during his early seminary years, and priests from St. John’s were involved in the liturgical movement that greatly influenced changes in the Mass that were promoted by the council, including celebrating Mass in the vernacular.

While his understanding of the importance of the council has grown during his 43 years as a priest, that wasn’t the case in his formation years. Bishop Kettler said, “I wish I’d appreciated the council at the time.”

About his style of being a bishop

Bishop Kettler mentioned two ways in particular that he has learned how to be a bishop: from other bishops in the region and “under fire.”

He talked openly about his administrative style:

• “Personnel issues are never fun. I don’t like conflict.”

• “I don’t mind meetings. I don’t like long meetings.”

• “I’ve learned over the years you need to support staff more, pop in [to offices], not to check up on people but to ask how you can help.”

About young people and the church

“I’m concerned about where society is and the secularism,” Bishop Kettler said. “It’s not all our fault people are drifting away from the church, but we have to try to do something about it.”

After a quick visit to Cathedral School in St. Cloud the bishop said he came away impressed with the students and the activities of the school.

“Young people are the key to evangelization.”