July 24, 2020

Father Bonke marks 50 years of ‘interesting experiences, great people’

Father James Bonke shares a smile after Christ the King Parish’s Mass at Broad Ripple Park, both in Indianapolis, in September 2019. (Submitted photo)

Father James Bonke shares a smile after Christ the King Parish’s Mass at Broad Ripple Park, both in Indianapolis, in September 2019. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

Father James Bonke spent June 6, his 50th anniversary as a priest, simply and quietly in his downtown Indianapolis apartment.

“I was going to have a celebration on May 31, but obviously with the [corona]virus, that has been postponed to August,” he says.

His anniversary might have passed uneventfully, but his priesthood has not.

From the parishes where he served and formed lasting relationships, to serving as defender of the bond for the Metropolitan Tribunal for 24 years, to assisting with two saints’ causes—and even offering the invocation at three Indianapolis 500-mile races—Father Bonke’s 50 years as a priest have been “interesting,” “exciting” and “unforgettable.”

But the journey started like his anniversary: simply and uneventfully on Indianapolis’ near south side.

‘Part of the culture I lived in’

Father Bonke, the oldest and only boy of five children, was raised in the former parishes of

St. Catherine of Siena and St. James the Greater, attending both parish schools.

Being Catholic “was always a significant part” of his upbringing, “part of the culture and environment I lived in,” he says. “Our family always attended Mass every Sunday and holy days—there’s no way we would’ve missed. All my friends were grade school classmates. [Being Catholic] was just part and parcel of being raised and growing up.”

The call to the priesthood came gradually for Father Bonke.

“There were no lightning bolts,” he says. The idea of becoming a priest came to him “probably beginning in seventh grade, by eighth grade for sure.”

He was encouraged by Father James Hodge, St. James’ assistant priest, as the role was then called. The newly formed Latin School, which served as the archdiocese’s high school seminary from 1955-1978, was also “a big help,” says Father Bonke, allowing him to live at home while exploring the priesthood.

Father Bonke graduated in the spring of 1962. He spent his next four years at the former Saint Meinrad College Seminary in St. Meinrad—years that proved to be highly unique and influential on his priesthood.

‘Exciting, interesting years’

Father Bonke started at the college seminary in the fall of 1962, just as the Second Vatican Council was beginning. It ended in December 1965 during his senior year.

“Those were exciting years, interesting years,” he recalls. “I saw the changes happen almost monthly.”

After each of the four Vatican II sessions, an archdiocesan priest in attendance as an expert came to Saint Meinrad Archabbey to share “what was happening and why, and what to expect from all of it,” says Father Bonke. “He was a big assistance in understanding and appreciating the council.”

Father Bonke entered Saint Meinrad Seminary in the fall of 1966, and was ordained by Archbishop George J. Biskup on June 6, 1970.

‘Moved parish forward after 30 years’

His first 20 years as a priest were spent in or close to Indianapolis. He served as an associate pastor at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood until 1973, then became associate pastor of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis until 1978.

Father Bonke’s first role as pastor came that year when he replaced Father Louis Gootee at Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis.

“In some ways, he had a hard road to go, because Father Gootee had been there 30 years and was the [parish’s] founding priest,” says Rosalie Hawthorne, who served on Nativity’s Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) team during Father Bonke’s time at the parish. “And it was his first assignment as pastor. Even at that, he did a great job.”

Father Bonke’s “ability to address some of the results of Vatican II [and] his up-to-date understanding of Vatican II documents and decisions” were a gift not just to the catechumens and candidates, but to parishioners and sponsors as well, she says.

“They always had as many questions [as the RCIA participants], because they’d say, ‘We used to—’ dot dot dot,” she recalls.

Hawthorne says Father Bonke “had it all together administratively,” and was “very easy to work with. … I was glad when he was here and sorry when he left. He was a good administrator in moving us forward after 30 years.”

Father Bonke left Nativity in 1987 for St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis, where he served as pastor until 1990.

That was the year he received his “call within a call.”

‘I had no idea it was coming’

The call came literally when Msgr. Frederick Easton, then head of the archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal, telephoned “out of the blue” one day to invite Father Bonke to lunch.

The Tribunal was looking for a new staff member, and Msgr. Easton thought the 46-year-old priest would be a good fit.

“Father Jim was all about knowing what the liturgical laws were all about,” Msgr. Easton says. “That’s a skill transferable to canon law. That skill and his intelligence were both transferable.”

“I had no idea it was coming,” Father Bonke says of the offer. “But I really would call it a call within a call.”

Father Bonke served a trial year in the office, then spent two years earning his Licentiate of Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where classes were taught in Italian.

When he returned to Indianapolis in 1993, he became the archdiocese’s defender of the bond. In that role, he presented reasonable arguments opposing the granting of an annulment or, from another perspective, “presenting arguments that would support the validity of a marriage,” he says.

“I was happy when a case came in, because that meant the petitioners had a desire to be reconciled with the Church.”

Father Bonke “did well” in his role, says Msgr. Easton. “There were difficult cases, but he would dig in.”

Father Bonke’s focus, though, was not on winning.

“Even though my role was to oppose the nullity of a previous marriage,” he says, “when a case went through and a person was able to be reconciled with the Church and have a second marriage celebrated in the Church that was sacramental and valid, that was always a good thing.”

Father Bonke served as defender of the bond until he retired in 2014. Since then, he has continued to help the Tribunal.

‘Amazing, unforgettable’ experiences

Another role Father Bonke served in the office was as promoter of justice “if there was a point of law we had to make a judgement on,” says Msgr. Easton.

The role led to some interesting and unique opportunities for the priest. One opportunity was helping confirm the miracle that led to the canonization of St. Theodora Guérin in 2006.

“I served on the panel that investigated the witnesses for the miracle [the cure of a man who asked her intercession] that was approved for her canonization,” says Father Bonke, asking questions of people who knew the man before and after the miracle, doctors, experts, “and then the man himself,” he says.

“That was very exciting, and then to [attend] her canonization in Rome in 2006, that was one of the highlights of my career.”

Father Bonke also served as promotor of justice in the 2005 opening of the canonization cause for Bishop Simon Bruté, the first shepherd of the Diocese of Vincennes that later became the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

“That, too, was a marvelous experience,” Father Bonke recalls. “Being at Emmitsburg [Md.] where Elizabeth Seton, the first American saint, and Bishop Bruté, who was Mother Seton’s spiritual director, both ministered was amazing, unforgettable.”

‘We’ve learned so much from him’

Assisting with saints’ causes. Defending marriages for 24 years. Even offering the invocation three times for the Indianapolis 500—an event Father Bonke has long had a passion for—were all special moments in his priesthood.

But it’s in the relationships he developed serving in parishes—including as a part-time associate pastor and sacramental minister while serving at the Tribunal—that he finds most rewarding.

“I find myself reflecting mostly on the personal relationships that I was able to develop [with parishioners], … experiencing their lives at important moments like baptisms, death, marriages and moments like that,” he says.

Relationships like the one he has with Jack and Mary Kay Leicht and their four children.

Mary Kay was Nativity School’s first grade teacher when Father Bonke became pastor there in 1978. The young couple invited him out to dinner and enjoyed his company.

But in 1979, the couple and priest lost touch. Jack’s job took him and his family around the country and abroad for the better part of 25 years.

By 2006, they had returned to Indianapolis and become members of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish—where Father Bonke was providing weekend sacramental assistance.

“We’ve been buddies ever since,” says Mary Kay.

Father Bonke spent time at their house for meals, to watch Indianapolis Colts and Notre Dame football games, for parties.

“He absolutely became one of the family,” says Jack.

“Our kids think so highly of him,” Mary Kay adds, noting that Father Bonke married all four of their children and baptized one of their grandchildren.

“We’ve had friend priests over the years, but not like Father Bonke. We’ve learned so much from his perseverance, his commitment to his faith, his family, his friends. He’s a faithful priest.”

‘God has blessed me!’

Until the shutdown due to the coronavirus began in March, Father Bonke says he spent much of his semi-retirement “working—but on my schedule!”

He continues to help at the Tribunal, and assists with weekend Masses at Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, where he served as part-time associate pastor from 2007 until his retirement in 2014. He occasionally celebrates weddings, baptisms, funerals, and also Mass at other parishes if needed.

“I’ve kept busy, too busy to take up new hobbies,” he admits. “But making my own schedule has afforded me some time to do some reading and a little bit of travel. I think there are those who would say my social life hasn’t suffered!” he adds with a laugh.

Looking back on his 50 years as a priest, Father Bonke says the journey has been “interesting, full of wonderful experiences and great people along the way—people of real faith and love for their priests.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything. God has blessed me!”

(To learn more about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, visit HearGodsCall.com.)

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