January 21, 2022

Father Robert Sims has enjoyed journeying in faith with others for 50 years

Father Robert Sims, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis, prays the eucharistic prayer during a school Mass on Dec. 17, 2021, in his parish’s church. The day was the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Father Robert Sims, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis, prays the eucharistic prayer during a school Mass on Dec. 17, 2021, in his parish’s church. The day was the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Father Robert Sims has journeyed through life and ministry as a priest for 50 years in parishes and archdiocesan ministries across central and southern Indiana.

But he hasn’t taken that journey alone. Since being ordained a priest on Dec. 17, 1971, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Father Sims has followed a winding path toward the fullness of God’s kingdom with many archdiocesan Catholics—laity, brother priests and men discerning a possible call to ordained ministry.

He has taken as a guiding principle during his five decades of ministry a saying by the French poet Charles Péguy, who died in battle at the start of World War I, “We cannot go to God alone; else he would ask ‘Where are the others?’ ”

“It’s a really good reminder that, while certainly being a prayerful person is an essential dimension of the priesthood,” said Father Sims, “it has to be—especially for a diocesan priest—in the context of journeying with people and ministering to people.”

Born in 1946 in Terre Haute, Father Sims grew up in St. Patrick Parish in the western Indiana city. As a teenager in the early 1960s, he was impressed by the noble call to service of President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

It was the lofty principles of those times that led Father Sims to discern a call to the priesthood.

“I grew up in an era of a lot of idealism in the country and the Church,” he said. “It was a time of real optimism and hope. And I thought there was a vision that came through faith that made a significant difference as well. I think that was a critical factor.”

Father Sims received priestly formation at the former St. Mary College Seminary in St. Mary, Ky., and at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, the latter happening in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council.

“It was a time where we asked, ‘What’s this all going to mean?,’ ” Father Sims recalled. “Nobody was really certain. But it was an exciting time to be in Rome.”

Although the first years of the implementation of the reforms of Vatican II were turbulent at times, Father Sims said being a seminarian in Rome helped him stay grounded in his faith.

“One of the benefits of studying in Rome is that you see the continuity of Catholic tradition,” he said. “You recognize, frankly, that the Church has not only survived, but has grown through a great deal. An advantage of that is that you see that the Church is enriched by diversity.”

Since returning to the archdiocese for ministry in 1972, Father Sims has ministered in parishes in Indianapolis and Bloomington, as an instructor at Bishop Bruté Latin School, the archdiocese’s former high school seminary in Indianapolis, as archdiocesan vocations director and as director of the archdiocese’s office of ministry to priests.

Since 1999, Father Sims has served as pastor in two Indianapolis faith communities: St. Simon the Apostle Parish and, since 2007, Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish. In these and other parishes where he has served, he’s known lovingly as “Father Bob.”

Sheila McNelis has appreciated his ministry at Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“He’s a great person to talk with about the good things in your life that are happening, the hard things in your life that are happening, the small things, the big things,” she said. “He’s been a good support to our family as we’ve lost several of our older family members.”

When Father Sims arrived at Immaculate Heart of Mary, four of McNelis’ five children were students in the parish’s school.

Through the years, she saw the positive influence her pastor had on her children’s faith into what is now their young adult years.

“They love to go to church when they are home at Immaculate Heart, because of him, his homilies, his stories, just how friendly and welcoming he is,” McNelis said. “It always feels like he’s right on that journey with you. During his homilies, he always will say, ‘This is what we all need to do, including me.’ ”

Father Sims noted that he most feels like a priest when he celebrates Mass with a congregation.

His appreciation of this worship at the heart of the life of the Church grew during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when public celebration of the liturgy was suspended.

“There were a number of times when I celebrated Mass by myself,” Father Sims said. “Quite honestly, I found that to be a unique experience and, in some ways, a prayerful experience. It reminded me that, even though there was not a community there, I was connected to the broader community of the Church and the broader world.”

So, in the late spring and summer of 2020 when churches began to re-open, Father Sims was glad to welcome his parishioners back to Mass.

“When we returned and people could take their masks off and I could see them, it made a significant difference,” he said. “The first time

that I looked out and saw people not wearing masks, I thought, ‘This is wonderful. I can see people’s faces.’ ”

During the past 50 years, Father Sims has seen many challenging times in the Church, but he has never lost his hope in its future.

“I don’t get pessimistic,” he said. “I’m optimistic about the future of the Church. We’ve grappled with a lot. And we’ve grown a lot.”

Likewise, Father Sims has a great love for the priestly ministry that he embraced 50 years ago.

“Frankly, I can say very honestly that I’ve been happy as a priest,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed doing what I do.”

This is a message he wants men of today discerning a possible call to the priesthood to remember.

“It’s enjoyable and fun,” said Father Sims of the priesthood. “The Church isn’t supposed to make people miserable. It ultimately offers good news.”

(For more information on a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, visit HearGodsCall.com.)

About Father Robert Sims

Born: Nov. 29, 1946, in Terre Haute.

Parents: George and Roberta Sims.

Education and priestly formation: the former Archbishop Schulte High School in Terre Haute; the former St. Mary College Seminary in St. Mary, Ky.; Pontifical North American College in Rome; St. Mary University in Winona, Minn., where he earned a master’s degree in counseling.

Ordination: Ordained a priest on Dec. 17, 1971, by Bishop James A. Hickey in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

Favorite Scripture verse: Jn 21:15-19 in which the risen Lord asks St. Peter three times if he loves him and then tells him of how he will suffer for the Gospel later. “It reminds us that Jesus invites us to stretch ourselves in acts of love that aren’t particularly easy.”

Favorite saint: St. Thomas Aquinas, who represents for Father Sims “a nice blending of being committed to growing intellectually but recognizing that faith is the determiner of how we view things intellectually.”

Favorite prayer or devotion: Praying with Psalm 23.

Hobbies: Running, bicycling, reading, traveling.

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