Fr. Bala Showry greets Chris Newkirk at a cultural dinner the Indian priest hosted in his last weeks at St. Francis de Sales Church in Spooner. Fr. Bala served the Spooner-Shell Lake-Sarona cluster for four years after starting his ministry in the Diocese of Superior at the Three Lakes-Sugar Camp cluster. Part of Newkirk’s role as is to facilitate transitions for both Indian priests and the parishes they serve. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

As a follow-up to coverage on the numerous changes of parish priests this summer, the Catholic Herald interviewed Chris Newkirk and Dan Blank, both diocesan employees involved in administrative services and facilitation of smooth transitions for both parishes and priests.

As the Diocese of Superior’s director of Ecclesial Ministries and Diocesan Consultation, Chris Newkirk is often physically present in parishes. She frequently interacts with priests and lay people across the expansive diocese.

Echoing Bishop James P. Powers’ plea to welcome all priests serving in the diocese, especially international priests, Newkirk explained how decisions are made regarding movement of priestly personnel and shared some logistical considerations to help ease transitions.

Anticipating needs

As director of Administrative Services, Dan Blank can speak to the lengthy process undertaken by the priest personnel board. The board consists of about 10 priests who start meeting in early winter to identify the anticipated number of vacancies, which depends on retirements, religious order decisions and Indian priest departures.

“Balancing the vacancies, ideally, would be new priests ordained for the diocese,” Blank said. But, he observed, there are “zero this year, one next year – keep praying. Then, two in 2023. Keep praying.”

In addition to the information board members share, Newkirk said, “The bishop also consults with several diocesan staff members that have regular contact with priests being considered for a move and have input helpful in matching the priests’ skill sets with the parish’s needs, as well as the overall good of the diocese.”

Diocesan staff involved in the process includes Newkirk and Blank, as well as Fr. Kevin Gordon, Episcopal Vicar for Clergy, and Peggy Schoenfuss, director of Catholic Formation and superintendent of diocesan schools.

Blank noted “special challenges” this year, with a few unforeseen vacancies and a government shutdown that affected document processing needed for foreign priests’ arrival. The delays created some undeterminable timetables for the transitions this summer and will result in new international priests receiving minimal acclimation.

“The first effort is always to try and get the Indian priests here in a timely manner to give them an opportunity to stay with another Indian priest for a month or so, and to undergo initial training and orientation from diocesan staff prior to the start of their official new assignments.” Newkirk said.

This gives new priests time to get logistical needs in order – meet parish staff with whom they will be working, obtain a social security number and a driver’s license and set up a bank account. Spending time with a fellow Indian priest who has been in the diocese already and can appreciate the cultural differences gives the newly arrived a chance to acclimate.

“This year, because of the unusual circumstances, they’re not getting all that buffer time,” Blank explained. For these reasons, Blank and Newkirk have been working with parish staff, as well as local trustees and council members, to help international priests settle in.

Newkirk also spends time with the new priests, giving an orientation on diocesan policies, safe environment education from the USCCB charter and other training on maintaining healthy professional and pastoral boundaries. Often Newkirk is able to attend some parish council meetings, which is helpful in making the transition for both priest and parish, as well as offering continuing education throughout the year and as needs arise.

Blank and Newkirk are grateful for retired priests who step in and fill gaps – during transitions, when Indian priests have their home visits – and maintain full sacramental availability on a regular basis in many clusters throughout the diocese.

They have, according to Newkirk, “continued to joyfully serve,” most often in parishes close to where they live, but several do travel to fill in as needed.

“Many, many continue to serve because they love the Church, they love their sacramental ministry,” even in “official retirement,” she said, adding that they have played a “critical role,” along with Indian priests, in meeting the sacramental needs of the diocese.

Speaking more practically about ways the faithful can take to heart Bishop Powers’ plea for a welcoming spirit – to both new Indian and American priests – Newkirk iterated, “Be welcoming, be hospitable, be patient and greet them with a spirit of cooperation, support and gratitude.”

Both Blank and Newkirk mentioned aspects of adult life that most would take for granted, but that are significant needs for Indian priests – things like driver’s training to prepare for getting a driver’s license, rides to appointments, and basic information about grocery stores, banks, where to buy winter coats and boots (most have never experienced cold and snowy winters) and which roads to avoid during spring flooding.

As they familiarize themselves with the faithful and their new surroundings, Indian priests really appreciate invitations to people’s homes, Newkirk said. Blessing a home is a typical practice in their culture, one that many parishioners with an Indian priest have embraced.

“Culturally, community life, tradition and celebrating special touchstone moments, is very important for them,” she affirmed. “Any family celebration extends to their village family and community, so they appreciate being invited to actively participate in the parish and wider community events.”

Newkirk added, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. They enjoy being asked questions about their culture. They love explaining the meaning behind their traditions, which are beautiful. Just as we want them to understand us and our culture, they also desire for us to know and understand the context in which they come from so they can serve most effectively while here.”

International priests don’t have “the luxury of driving a few hours to visit family on their day off,” Blank mentioned. He said they make connections and share fellowship with one another, but he and Newkirk noted how important community is; they hope parishioners will reach out and give new priests the opportunity to feel welcomed and included.

Blank and Newkirk added that the need to be welcomed and embraced doesn’t apply only to Indian priests; this type of hospitality should be extended to all priests with new assignments.

Blank has a particular appreciation for the workload of the American priests, often being stationed in larger clusters and some also being given additional responsibilities in the diocese. Some of these include vocational work, supervisory roles and deanery positions.

“Be considerate, and appreciative,” he said. “The workload for many of our priests has increased in the last 10 years or so.”

Newkirk added, “Even though many of the American priests in the diocese have been priests for a number of years and the culture isn’t an issue, (if they are being moved to a new parish) for all practical purposes, they’re brand new, too.

“They are arriving with years of pastoral experience, knowledge and leadership skills from where they’re coming from, but they need time to get to know new people in new parishes and find out what’s sacred to these folks,” she said.

“And those folks need to give them an opportunity to adjust … Again, first and foremost, be patient, be considerate and give yourselves the opportunity to truly get to know each other, so that your future together will be life-giving and successful.”

She pointed out that mutual respect and realistic expectations will go a long way.

“Change is hard (on) everybody. Remember that the priests are human, too, and they – like all of us – have strengths and weaknesses,” Newkirk said. “Focus on their gifts, not just how they are different from the priest they are replacing.”

She spoke about leadership styles. For the most part, because a leader operates differently doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it different.

“The lay faithful, as well as the many dedicated permanent deacons across the diocese, also have an important role in the life of the Church; offer your gifts in order to compliment and complete those of your primary pastoral leader,” Newkirk suggested.

Summarizing, Newkirk said each priest has gifts to offer; the reality that each of these men has given his life to follow a common call to the priesthood, to sacrifice himself for love of God and in service to His Church, is inspiring.