Editor’s note: Bishop-elect John Doerfler will be ordained the 13th bishop of Marquette, Mich., on Feb. 11. On Dec. 19, two days after his appointment by Pope Francis, Bishop-elect Doerfler, 49, agreed to answer a few questions about his new role as shepherd of the Marquette Diocese.
Q: Can you share with readers how you learned about your appointment as Marquette’s 13th bishop and the series of events that took place leading up until the appointment was announced Dec. 17?
A: On late afternoon of Dec. 9, I was down at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Milwaukee, where I’ve been teaching part-time, and Terri Wickman (executive assistant at the chancery) called me and said the nuncio called for me. So I called the nuncio’s office. … Because they are in the Eastern Time zone, by the time I called their office had just closed. I had a good amount of time to spend in the chapel on Monday night, not knowing exactly what this is about. It would not have been too unusual if it had been a member of the nuncio’s staff who called because there is diocesan business sometimes that we have with the nunciature, but it would be a little bit unusual if the nuncio called. So I was asking myself a little bit Monday night, “Did (Wickman) really mean the nuncio or a member of his staff?” So the next morning on Tuesday, it was about 8:15, I called the nuncio’s office, indicating that I was returning the nuncio’s call. The person who answered the phone said, “Are you sure it was the nuncio who called or a member of his staff?” I just indicated that this was the message I received. She said that she would find out who called for me and they would get back to me. Five minutes later the nuncio called back and at that time informed me that the Holy Father had chosen me to be the next bishop of Marquette. So I had some remote preparation from spending a fair amount of time in the chapel the night before. So
I very readily said that I would accept this. I told the Lord, “Whatever you want me to do, I will do.” It happened to be exam week at the seminary, so this was around 8:20 that I was on the phone with the nuncio. At 9 o’clock began my round of oral final exams for the students I was teaching. So it was an interesting day to say the least.
Subsequently, the time and date was set to have this announced on Dec. 17.
Q: What was your family’s reaction to your news? Particularly your mother?
A: This is a matter that needs to be strictly confidential, so we were to keep it confidential until the Vatican announced it at noon Vatican time or 5 in the morning our time. So I called my mother early Tuesday morning, after it was made public, and informed her. Her reaction? I think she was very much joyful about the announcement.
Q: Could you discuss how your 20-plus years of ministry have helped prepare you for your new role?
A: I’ve really had the privilege of serving God’s people in a variety of ways over 22-plus years of priesthood. From parish ministry to our tribunal to diocesan administration and also some teaching. It’s just formed me and prepared me for many things that I may be addressing as a bishop. It’s been a variety of different experiences and I think that variety has been very, very helpful to me in my life. I believe that the people who I have met throughout priestly ministry have had the biggest impact on me. Just the fact of serving people, having people let me serve them, changes me — and changes me for the better. I don’t want to underestimate the grace that has been in my life as a priest.
Q: You have served under three bishops and one auxiliary bishop. Can you briefly describe how each one of them has influenced your ministry?
A: Each of the bishops brings some wonderful gifts to ministry. It might be hard to sum all of that up. Bishop Banks has that warm heart and an outstanding sense of humor and a great way in his homilies to explain things in a pastoral manner to the people. And I also found him to be a very fine administrator. He brings some wonderful gifts.
Bishop Zubik was so energetic and full of joy and he taught me a lot about diocesan administration. He was the one who moved me from the tribunal into some chancery work and in many ways trained me to do chancery work. So I am very grateful for some of those things that he passed on to me.
I truly admire Bishop Ricken’s deep spiritual roots. A great man of prayer and a great man of spiritual wisdom. I very much admire this. Though I will never be a poet, how can one not be affected by Bishop Morneau and his great teaching ability and the way he uses poetry to illustrate the Gospel? I could probably go on and on about the many gifts these bishops have brought to the church and to my life.
Q: Your road to the priesthood began as a child. Can you recall the some of the people in your life who influenced your vocation?
A: First it was probably my parents and family. One of my earliest memories is a memory of my father taking me to St. Joseph Church in Appleton. My dad had a devotion to St. Anthony and they have a side altar to St. Anthony in that church. So one of my earliest memories is dad taking me into the church, giving me some money to put in the poor box and the two of us kneeling down to pray. I was very young and it’s a treasured memory. My dad was a very prayerful man, very faithful man, very generous man. That memory kind of puts all of those things together.
My mother is also a woman of deep prayer and faith and I can’t remember a time in my life when I did not know God or have faith. I credit my parents for … providing sort of a fertile soil for the seed of a vocation to germinate and take root.
I think of the different priests I’ve known in parish or youth ministry in high school who influenced me. I also have two uncles who were Capuchin priests. I grew up playing football with them in the back yard and other kinds of things. You just have a chance to see priests as real people and a normal part of life. So all of that, I think, has an impact in one way or another.
Q: You were active in youth ministry programs while at Appleton West High School. Can you recount the series of events that led you to seriously consider the priesthood?
A: The end of my junior year of high school I was interviewed for confirmation. I was to be confirmed that fall, and Deacon Kurt Grube was the director of religious education. This was before he was a deacon. At the end of the interview, he asked if I ever thought about being a priest. He was the only person to ever ask me that question. The thought had crossed my mind occasionally, but I never really did much with it. He encouraged me to think about that more, to do something about it.
Then some weeks later, I don’t remember the exact time frame, … I went to a national youth conference in Indianapolis. On my way home on the bus this thought popped into my mind: You spent a lot of time doing things with the church these last few years.
Can you picture yourself doing anything else with your life? Right away I knew the answer to that question. The answer was no, I can’t picture myself doing anything else. So eventually that led to the decision to enter college seminary after I graduated from high school.
Q: You spent a summer in India while in the seminary and some time at a men’s home run by Mother Teresa’s order. How did that experience influence your understanding of service to the Lord and to others?
A: That was kind of a life-changing summer in some ways. I volunteered at the house for the dying. It was the first house for the dying that Mother Teresa had opened in Calcutta. It was a matter of just providing some basic care for people who were in the last days of their life, helping to feed them or bathe them. Simply showing them kindness. The poverty in Calcutta was just terribly extreme and makes one take a look — at least in my own life — at my own attitude towards material possessions. We take so many things for granted here in the United States and it’s so easy to become attached to a comfortable way of life. It really makes one take a look at one’s own life and to live a life of generosity, a life of service. And it’s challenging these days. We take for granted, for example, that we have clean water to drink. A lot of people in the world don’t.
Q: Your ministry as a pastor was interrupted when Bishop Banks asked you to study canon law. Did you have any regrets at the time?
A: I was actually a parochial vicar in my first parish assignment when Bishop Banks asked me to study canon law. So I went back to study canon law four years after I was ordained and before I had become a pastor. For some time after I completed a canon law degree, and when I was working in the tribunal part time, I was administrator of Holy Trinity Parish in Casco for several years. So I had a balance of some tribunal work and parish work at that time. I have absolutely no regrets with the ministry that I’ve had the opportunity to serve in. In God’s providence, this has all been arranged for his glory and I have no regrets. But there is a certain desire that I think every priest has to work directly with the people as much as possible. That’s part of our pastoral heart and our desire and I don’t think that ever leaves us, in whatever type of ministry we may have.
Q: You chose as your episcopal motto, “The Joy of the Gospel,” the title of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation. How did that decision come about?
A: What attracts me to this, first of all, (is that) Jesus is the great love and joy of my life. Pope Francis, in his document, expresses a great framework for evangelization that is really filled with this joy, the joy of knowing and loving Jesus Christ. I was really attracted to the priesthood in the first place because I wanted people to come to know Jesus and what a great way to spend one’s life. So it just seemed to be a way to kind of continue and more fully express that desire to help people to come to know Jesus and the joy that comes with that encounter. So I hope to, the best that I can and by the grace of God, follow the example of the Holy Father in proclaiming the Gospel with great joy.
Q: Pope Francis has seemed to breathe new life into the church’s outreach to non-believers and fallen-away Catholics, especially by his example. Is he someone you hope to model your episcopal ministry after?
A: Yes, I would like to model my ministry after Pope Francis, although I am not Pope Francis. So I don’t think I can. … I’d like to be like him, but I don’t know that I can be like him. I need to be like John Doerfler. But what I hope to at least be able to embody is that warm pastoral heart, that joy that he brings to ministry, and really his apostolic zeal to reach out to people who do not know Jesus and to encounter him.
Q: Is there a message you would like to share with members of the Green Bay Diocese?
A: I would like to paraphrase or summarize a little invitation that Pope Francis gives in his apostolic exhortation. I invite all people to a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ every day. Every day. Or at least an openness to let Jesus encounter them.