Bishop Raphael Michael Fliss’ 28 years serving the Diocese of Superior were characterized by change.
As Vatican II reforms and, later, the clergy sex abuse crisis swept through the broader Catholic Church, demographic shifts and a graying population altered the face of northern Wisconsin and the Diocese of Superior.
Weeks after Bishop Fliss’ 1979 ordination as the diocese’s first-ever coadjutor bishop, he was called to chair a permanent diaconate committee, one of the diocese’s many responses to changes in the church recommended by the Second Vatican Council.
The start of the permanent diaconate program was announced in 1980, and developing and fostering the diaconate remained an ongoing project for Bishop Fliss throughout his tenure.
He characterized the diaconate as “a tremendous blessing for the diocese,” and a concurrent benefit was the appointment of laity to serve in formerly clerical roles, both in parishes and in the diocese, in response to a stark reduction in priestly vocations.
Throughout the bishop’s time here, he would ordain fewer than a third of the priests ordained by his predecessor, Bishop George Hammes. A negative side effect of changes ushered in with the Second Vatican Council, the reduction in vocations to the priesthood and religious life further complicated the problem of finding enough priests and women religious to serve the rural mission diocese.
In the early 1980s, a planning committee projected there would be 45 priests serving in the diocese by the year 2000, and Bishop Fliss continued implementing lay ministry programs and expanding the roles of women while studying the demographic health of each parish.
In the early 1990s, Bishop Fliss announced the closing of 16 parishes; in all, he would close nearly 40 parishes, while establishing several consolidated ones, through the turn of the century. The clustering of smaller parishes also became the norm.
In 2001, Bishop Fliss published his first and only pastoral letter, “A New Springtime,” which outlined six guiding principles for renewing the Catholic Church in northern Wisconsin. The diocese was speeding toward its centennial celebration in 2005, and renovation and rededication of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Superior, a $5 million project, was also slated for completion in 2005.
Pat Wildenberg, the bishop’s secretary since 1998, said the clergy abuse scandals began to surface in the church in the early 2000s, and bishops around the country were called on to reconcile past abuses in their dioceses, implement programs to protect children and train anyone who worked with them. The Diocese of Superior immediately enacted the Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
Bishop Fliss’ nearly 30 years of service to the diocese ended in 2007 with the ordination of Bishop Peter Christensen.