July 1, 2011

Bishop Gettelfinger reflects on 50 years of ministry

Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger speaks with Pope John Paul II during the Evansville bishop’s 1993 ad limina visit to the Vatican. Bishops make an ad limina visit every five years to meet with the pope. Pope John Paul appointed Bishop Gettelfinger, a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, to lead the Church in southwestern Indiana in 1989. (Submitted photo)

Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger speaks with Pope John Paul II during the Evansville bishop’s 1993 ad limina visit to the Vatican. Bishops make an ad limina visit every five years to meet with the pope. Pope John Paul appointed Bishop Gettelfinger, a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, to lead the Church in southwestern Indiana in 1989. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: On May 26, Criterion reporter Sean Gallagher interviewed Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger, who recently retired as shepherd of the Diocese of Evansville, for Catholic Radio Indy 89.1 FM’s show “Faith in Action.” The following is an edited transcript of that interview.)

By Sean Gallagher

Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis 50 years ago.

Born in 1935, he grew up in a farming family in St. Bernard Parish in Frenchtown in the New Albany Deanery.

Bishop Gettelfinger discerned a possible call to the priesthood in the late 1940s, and soon became an archdiocesan seminarian, receiving his priestly formation at Saint Meinrad Seminary in St. Meinrad.

After his ordination on May 7, 1961, he ministered in central and southern Indiana for the next 28 years.

Bishop Gettelfinger spent much time in Catholic education and working closely with three archbishops—Paul C. Schulte, George J. Biskup and Edward T. O’Meara.

In the spring of 1989, Bishop Gettelfinger was ministering as the archdiocese’s vicar general and chancellor and as pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral Parish in Indianapolis when an official with the Vatican’s embassy in Washington called to tell him that Pope John Paul II had appointed him the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Evansville.

Bishop Gettelfinger was ordained and installed on April 11, 1989. Archbishop O’Meara was the principal ordaining bishop at the liturgy.

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein, then the bishop of Memphis, Tenn., was a co-ordaining bishop. They had known each other since their days together in the seminary.

For the next 22 years, Bishop Gettelfinger led the Church in southwestern Indiana. Last fall, he turned 75, the age at which canon law requires bishops to submit their resignation to the pope.

Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation on April 26. On the same day, his successor, Bishop-designate Charles C. Thompson, was announced. He was ordained and installed on June 29.

Q. What are some of the highlights of your tenure as the bishop of Evansville?

A. “That’s a tough question because there are both positives and negatives. The positive side is that the folks in the Evansville Diocese welcomed me most cordially. It’s been a great, great experience.

“The negative side, of course, is that we have been dealing with the sex-abuse scandal since the time [that] I became a bishop until now. Those are some of the less than bright highlights, but they’re real.

“The more important thing is that the people of Evansville and the diocese here have been wonderful and most welcoming in every way. It’s been a great, great experience for me.”

Q. You recently passed your 50th anniversary of your ordination to the priesthood. What are some of the fond memories you have of your 28 years of life and ministry as a priest in the archdiocese?

A. “First off, I was prepared to be a teacher in high school. I was involved in Catholic schooling and education from 1961 until 1980. That was the biggest highlight. Of course, the challenge was that I was part of the brand new Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis in 1961.

“Then I became the assistant principal and guidance director, and eventually principal from 1967-70. Then I was [the archdiocesan school] superintendent for 10 years. So Catholic education was my key ministry.

“But I always had my foot in pastoral ministry. I never lost my touch and love for being with people in parishes. In fact, in my last years there, I was the pastor of French Lick. I’d go down to Our Lady of the Springs [Parish] on Friday afternoon and come back on Sunday. After that, I became rector of the cathedral.

“The experience was really multifaceted, but most joyful in every way.”

Q. You grew up as a member of St. Bernard Parish in Frenchtown in the archdiocese’s New Albany Deanery. How did your vocation to the priesthood emerge in your life with your family, and in your life of faith in your home parish?

A. “Let me start with my family. In my family, I was the fourth of eight children. I had five sisters and two brothers.

“One thing that was very sacred in our house was that one never criticized a priest. We always respected the priesthood. And if we had difficulty with an individual priest, we dealt with him one-on-one. We learned that as children. So we had a great, deep respect for the priesthood and, of course, for the sacredness of individual priests as well.

“I really never thought about going to the seminary until after the end of the eighth grade. During catechism class for two weeks during May, [Benedictine] Sister Mary Philip Seib showed a film of Maryknoll missioners in Africa.

“And three of us first cousins all decided we ought to be priests. So we told the nun, and she told the pastor. And he made arrangements for us to take the entrance exam. Two of us took it, and I was the only one accepted. So what really started out as the Three Musketeers ended up being the Lone Ranger.

“So I began my seminary training at Saint Meinrad on Sept. 9, 1949, and spent 12 years there.

“I had 12 years to discern the priesthood. It was not just a momentary thing. It was only after the ninth year that I really ultimately said ‘Yes. This is what I want to do if the archbishop will accept [me].’

“Growing up on a family farm, each of us had responsibilities. It was a tremendous experience to know that we needed each other. But we also learned very clearly that, even when Mom and Dad did everything very well in terms of farming, if the weather did not cooperate [with] either too much rain or not enough rain or too much sun, the best was not always good enough. You know?

“That was comforting in many ways. Because in my 28 years in Indianapolis and 22 years here, my best has not always been good enough. I think that was a powerful experience growing up in a farm family in St. Bernard Parish in Frenchtown.”

Q. Being the son of a farmer might lead you to be a good pastor since that term itself is an animal husbandry term.

A. “If you look at my coat of arms, I have the symbol of the seed sower. I was born a farmer, trained as a teacher and a professed preacher.”

Q. You were ordained a year before the Second Vatican Council was convened. What was it like for you as a young priest to experience the years of the council and the reforms in the life of the Church that followed?

A. “My dad, back even in the 1950s, made the comment, ‘Why can’t we have Mass in English?’ I also remember [Benedictine] Archabbot Ignatius Esser of Saint Meinrad had written Pope Pius XII, and said that if there were ever to be any experimentation with the liturgy, Saint Meinrad Archabbey would be welcome to do that. And so I kind of grew up in that milieu.

“And then when the word came, we began to interject English into part of the liturgy. So it was kind of an evolutional thing that took place.

“Then, of course, being in a brand new high school and teaching and being an associate pastor at St. Matthew [the Apostle] Parish in Indianapolis, my life was consumed pretty well and I didn’t have a lot of chances to reflect on what was happening, but more to experience it.

“Superimposed over all of that was the Vietnam War. That was all there. And so the late 1960s for young priests was really a matter of survival.

“Then the changes came for the liturgy. And the tragic thing about that was that what was decided in Rome on Thursday, we precociously in the United States tried to implement on Friday, with no preparation.”

Q. In 1989, you received a call from the apostolic nuncio’s office telling you that Pope John Paul II had appointed you as bishop of Evansville. Please share your memories of receiving that life-changing phone call and what it meant to you at the time.

A. “It was most interesting. There had been rumors from June 1988 that kept ebbing and flowing all throughout the winter that I was going to be bishop of Evansville. And so as long as the diocese was not filled, it was a possibility.

“And so when the call came, it was a surprise, yes, but not totally so. Now I knew that both Archbishop O’Meara and Archbishop Pio Laghi, the nuncio, were in Rome. So I knew that it couldn’t happen that week. Well, it did.

“It was a monsignor from the nunciature that called and said that the Holy Father was inviting me to be bishop of Evansville and [asked] if I would accept it. He was that blunt and straightforward.

“I asked how long I had [to answer]. And he said that the bishop of Evansville was anxious to retire, and the people of Evansville were anxious to get a new bishop.

“So I said if the Holy Father was willing to have confidence in me to do it, as well as everybody else along the way, then I was willing to accept. And the monsignor said, ‘I congratulate you, bishop.’ It was just that quick.”

Q. Wow. Your life was certainly different from that point onward.

A. “Absolutely. Oh, absolutely. But it was one that I was not totally unprepared for because I had had three great archbishops. Archbishop Schulte appointed me as a high school teacher and principal. Then Archbishop Biskup made me school superintendent. And Archbishop O’Meara made me chancellor and vicar general.

“They all empowered me and gave me the chance to spread my wings and do what I could do. They had confidence in me. That was tremendously empowering to me.

“So when I became a bishop, I had learned an awful lot. And I also learned how to let others do what they could do well, which I didn’t have to do myself.”

Q. Like the pontiff who appointed you, Blessed Pope John Paul II, you were well known among people throughout the archdiocese for your love of the outdoors. How have your camping, canoeing and skiing trips remained an important part of your life since you were ordained a bishop in 1989?

A. “It’s all the Boy Scouts’ fault. Msgr. John Ryan, who died in 2005, of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, invited me to get involved with Scout Troop 174 there in Indianapolis, to which, by the way, I’m still affiliated.

“I started canoe trips and in the winter time with skiing.

“I had always prayed, even as a seminarian, that I might be helpful with youth. And I could not have written a better or more exciting script than I’ve had working in high school and then with Scouting along the way. I’ve kept my feet in both of those camps along the way.

“The outdoors is a fantastic way for young people to recognize their need to be interdependent on each other and also the fact that they are fragile. Our human nature is great in many ways, but we do have our fragility.

“I’ve always loved working with Scouting. I think young people can experience things in it that they wouldn’t do otherwise.”

Q. You were in the seminary at Saint Meinrad at the same time as Archbishop Buechlein. He was a few years behind you. He was also one of your co-ordaining bishops at your episcopal ordination. What has it been like for you to be a brother bishop with him over the past 22 years, especially since he came to Indianapolis in 1992?

A. “He is a beloved friend. Of course, he was [later] rector of Saint Meinrad, which is my home away from home, really. I grew up from age 13 to 25 at Saint Meinrad Seminary.

“When I had the choice to invite co-consecrators [for my episcopal ordination], I invited first my classmate, who was Bishop Thomas O’Brien in Phoenix. And then I invited then-Bishop, now Archbishop, Buechlein.

“It’s been a joy. He’s a great leader. He does very well in every way. I’m just so sorry that he’s struggling now with some health issues. But he’s a great man of the Church. I’m proud to be one with him.”

Q. Bishop-designate Charles C. Thompson, who is your successor in Evansville, is now in the same position that you were in 22 years ago. What advice have you given him thus far about adjusting to the life and ministry of a bishop?

A. “Bishop-elect Thompson and I have met several times. And my only advice to him at this point would be, number one, to be yourself. You’ve got to be who you are. You can’t put on airs. You can’t be phony. You’ve got to be yourself.

“And I can guarantee you, he will be. He is a wonderful man. And he will have a great life here, and will be a great bishop as well.”

Q. What are your thoughts about the challenges and opportunities that are currently before the Church in the Diocese of Evansville and in Indiana?

A. “All of the dioceses are struggling with the same main issue, and that is the shortage of priests. That’s facing the Church throughout [the U.S]. But, here in the Evansville Diocese, I have chosen not to bring in [foreign-born] priests because we are not a missionary territory.

“I’ve strived to get our people to recognize that we need to have our own indigenous priesthood. And we have the capability. But we need to draw on it. We can’t simply expect other people to come in and help us out. That masks the issue.

“The key thing is that the development of the priesthood comes from the family—around the dining room table, around the kitchen sink, in the farm, wherever else they are.

“That’s where the priesthood has grown. And to bring someone in from some other place simply masks that and makes people feel like nothing has changed. Well, things have changed.

“The other side of this [issue] has to do with the fact that many small parishes were formed by reason of the fasting laws prior to the Second Vatican Council, where people had to fast from midnight until Mass time without even having water.

“And so we have a lot of … small country parishes that have grown up, … but we don’t need them in terms of numbers because a larger place could work. But it’s very difficult to change that.”

Q. Do you have other plans for what you will do after Bishop-designate Thompson is ordained and installed as the new bishop of Evansville?

A. “Number one, I’m a priest. Number two, I’m a bishop. And I plan on being a supply priest on weekends to help our parishes out. I’m going to live here in the diocese.

“I plan on helping Bishop Charles anyway that I can, except in the first year I plan on not accepting any requests to do confirmations unless there’s some emergency. I think it’s important that he have a chance to get around and help people, and they have a chance to meet him.

“Our folks here are familial. They like to know the guy at the top.”

(To listen to a podcast of the complete interview with Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger, log on to www.catholicradioindy.org and click on “program archives” for Faith in Action at the bottom of the homepage.)

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