Catholic Herald Staff
Writer’s Note: The following was conducted as a question- and-answer phone interview with Fr. Rich Rhinehart, newest priest for the Diocese of Superior, ordained in June 2018. Fr. Rhinehart serves as associate Pastor for St. Bridget’s in River Falls and St. Mary’s in Hammond, as well as working with students at UW-River Falls.
What were the most influential elements in your process of discernment?
It’s easier to put a finger on it now than previously. I had a Catholic upbringing (in the Chicago area) – grade school, high school, college, graduate school even. And was a campus ministry assistant for over three years (at university). This all laid the foundation … but I thought I’d follow in my parents’ footsteps (career, marriage, family).
The only time I really thought about it was when the (seminary) high schools came and visited in grade school. Unfortunately, I think we, laity and priests, need to do a better job of talking about it and bringing the whole idea of vocations to the forefront.
I never really pursued it and started working in management after college in big companies, which finally led me to wake up one morning and called my mom and told her I wanted to be a priest.
She said, “I know,” that she always knew it would happen. I’m confident all mothers have a sixth sense, for sure.
From that point on, I never really looked back. I knew what the end game was – that was just coming out of my work experience and finally listening to the voice that probably prompted me a long time ago but I wasn’t listening. It was kind of a lightning bolt moment for me; a lot of people don’t get that … but I knew then my goal was to become a priest.
How has your work experience prior to entering seminary helped with your priestly ministry?
Being in management and human resources for so long – I’m already using those skills that I’ve had to wipe the cobwebs off of. Being in seminary for over six years, you put the management side aside because you’re studying philosophy and theology. It’s so interesting how some of those skills come back so quickly and it’s only been a few months.
Having started seminary with the Archdiocese of Chicago, what drew you to want to serve the Diocese of Superior?
Interesting question. When I talked to my mom that morning, I had no idea of what to do … I had no idea of the process or anything, so I went on the internet and looked up how to even begin. I called my former pastor and asked to talk to him. He said to pray a lot and get into a discernment group.
I started in discernment group and it took about a year-and-a-half to get accepted for Chicago and in to Mundelein Seminary. Part of it was to see if I (36 years old at the time) was serious or not.
We have a summer cabin in Eagle River, and we’ve been coming up my whole life – every single summer, pretty much my entire life, I’ve come up to the Northwoods – worked during high school and college up there, took vacation while I was working, and it was always to Eagle River. My dad was a Catholic grade school teacher, so he was off summers – the Northwoods was always there.
I got into seminary and met these other two guys from Superior (Fr. Patrick McConnell and Fr. David Neuschwander in second and fourth theology) and was like, wow. My second month into seminary, I went to spiritual direction … and said you know, I’m really kind of interested in going to another diocese. He asked why and I talked about Eagle River. I didn’t know how it worked and he said not to worry about, to get ordained and work for a few years and then transfer. (I) realized in seminary that’s not how it works, so I basically put it out of my mind.
But then I got through third theology, about six months from being a deacon, and talking to my newer spiritual director and my folks and praying about it – I knew I wasn’t in the right place. It wasn’t sitting right in my heart. I needed a change.
The hardest thing was not leaving Mundelein but leaving these guys that I’d been on a journey with for four or five years, all different ages, from all different walks of life. That was the tough part.
I ended up leaving seminary, but unlike a lot of guys that leave … I knew that the vocation was strong. I wasn’t leaving because I was questioning priesthood; it was more questioning if I was in the right place.
So then I called Fr. Patrick (McConnell), who had just gotten moved from Hudson to Eagle River. I said, I gotta come and talk to you, and he said, “Who the heck are you?” I said we’d met at Mundelein, and I went and visited him, and that started a conversation.
After that, it went really quick. I had gotten a job at Essentia Health in Duluth and was living right across from the Cathedral in Superior. I met Bishop for the first time at Fr. Samuel’s deacon ordination and that’s when he told Fr. Thompson to get me an application. They wanted to talk some more – and then I had another meeting, and they said I’d been accepted, and they wanted me in Milwaukee five days later.
And then it went fast. The last two years I was in Milwaukee at St. Francis de Sales Seminary.
I realized quickly at the seminary in Milwaukee that it didn’t matter where you came from because all five dioceses for Wisconsin were represented. The mentality, the work ethic, the give-your-shirt-off-your-back mindset, you don’t find that a lot … I didn’t find that a lot in the Chicago area.
I got up here and everybody was so welcoming – just the warmth and the excitement shared about the priesthood.
We can hear about the dire circumstances of our diocese – aging population and young people leaving the area for college and work, people worried about churches closing and so few vocations… What do you see as unique opportunities for evangelization in Superior’s rural mission diocese and where do you see the life of the Church thriving in this setting?
I’m right outside of Minneapolis now (in River Falls), and it’s booming with young families. I think where we need to go, my personal opinion, is really hit home the different programs for families – Extreme Faith Camp, Vacation Bible School and Totus Tuus, getting parents into the church, small groups. Just back to catechesis … and I think we’re doing that.
With some of the priests ordained in the last several years … we’re really pushing for vocations now. I think we’re starting to see the fruit of that, and we just need to keep on doing it. I think we existing and retired priests, and the parishes, we really need to talk about it, do the vocation prayer every Mass.
My experience (with the youth camps and programs) is that there are vocations. They’re here, but it’s getting people to say yes and take the leap of faith. With all the options that young people have these days, they’re afraid to make a mistake or to make a step. We need to push that it’s not a bad thing to try – it’s only going to enhance your life.
We really need to push it harder. I think we have the programs, but we need to just keep talking about them, keep communicating them and building relationships.
Can you share your experience of administering the sacraments these first few months of priesthood?
I love and am very blessed and honored to have Mass and consecrate the host … It’s funny, because you can practice it a million times at the seminary and it doesn’t matter, because once you do it for real, it just changes – you really grow to appreciate and respect it even more than you did before…
A bonus is having a baptism during Mass; you’re gonna have to wipe the smile off my face when that happens.
Reconciliation was challenging at first because, you have no idea what to expect. You have no idea what a person is going to say. Then trying to just hear what they’re saying and knowing that the mercy and forgiveness of our Lord is there. Just to show them it took a big step to come in there, and know that the sacrament is beautiful and it’s always here for you. I always try to talk about that – because I know for myself, it’s not an easy sacrament to go to when you have to put your heart out for someone else to see. Even though it’s is in confidence, it’s not an easy thing. The more we’re merciful and forgiving in the confessional, the more someone will want to come back and we can help them spiritually with more time.
It’s only been four months, but because I’ve done all the sacraments, I feel like I’ve been doing it for so much longer. That’s been a blessing in itself. I’m very comfortable saying Mass.
It’s been great. It’s wonderful. I love the priesthood. It just took me a little longer to get to this point, what the Boss was really asking; putting my will aside and putting it into His hands and letting the Spirit guide me.