Friday, January 18, 2008

Big Sky Gets its Bishop

Before Sambi, Mahony, 20 bishops, 70 priests and 1,000 of the hometown crowd, the year's first event on the national circuit saw Bishop Michael Warfel take the reins of the diocese of Great Falls-Billings.

The Montana see of 55,000 -- a fold spread across a staggering 95,000 square miles of Big Sky country -- had been waiting 18 months for a new shepherd.
Warfel came to Montana from Alaska, where he served in ministry for more than 30 years, first as parish priest and then for the past 11 years as bishop of the Diocese of Juneau.

At the start of the ceremony, clergy entered the airy sanctuary two by two as members of Montana's American Indian tribes beat on drums and sang. Tribal members also performed a smudging and purification ceremony, and the fragrant smoke from the sweet grass mingled with the incense from the Catholic censer....

The installing prelate, Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Ore., in opening remarks, said the bishops of several Western states, including Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Montana and Alaska, often gather. Knowing Warfel through that connection, Vlazny told the people in the crowded pews, "You indeed have been blessed."

Then Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio from Washington, D.C., who represents Rome, stepped forward to address the crowd.

"I am truly happy to be with you this afternoon as Bishop Warfel is solemnly installed as the seventh bishop of Great Falls-Billings," he said in a heavy Italian accent.

Sambi went on to say that there are three essential aspects to serving as a bishop. The first is the ability to model how to live a Christian life, to provide an example of holiness, charity and humility.

"Like the Lord Jesus rising early and going off on his own to pray, the bishop should be a man of prayer for himself and for his apostolic mission," Sambi said.

Second, he said, a bishop must be an authentic evangelizer, and, third, he must be a unifier of people.
Reflect on those last three grafs for a minute....



Keep reflecting...



OK, continue:
Warfel acknowledged that he was accepting the position of his own volition.

"I am here with great excitement and joy to serve the people here," Warfel said. "It is my desire to do nothing more than serve with the love of God manifested by Christ on the cross."

He then sat down in an ornate wooden chair and was handed a golden staff, signifying his installation as bishop of the Montana diocese. The room erupted in applause.
Tribal members then beat drums and sang a song of honor, and one of the singers handed a feather to Warfel.

As the Mass proceeded, Warfel injected humor when he stood to deliver the homily. Eleven years and few weeks before, he said, when he was a happy and content priest in Anchorage, Alaska, he got an early-morning phone call - "5:40 to be precise" - and was told the papal nuncio wanted to speak with him.

"What's a nuncio?" Warfel asked on the phone, garnering laughter from his audience. "Well, it was early and I'd only been awake a minute."

That's when he learned from the papal nuncio that he had been appointed the bishop of the Juneau Diocese.

"He said the Holy Father appointed you bishop of Juneau and, of course, you accept, don't you?" Warfel said, smiling. Four weeks later, Warfel was the bishop of Juneau.

Then, 11 weeks ago and a few days, he said, he was a happy and contented bishop living in Juneau when he got another call, this time inviting him to become bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings.

"Not only did I know what a nuncio was," he said, "but I recognized his voice almost immediately."

It also helped that the phone call came a little later, at 7 a.m.

"I said without much of a pause, 'Of course I accept,'" Warfel said, adding that he's learned the importance of accepting a call whenever it comes.
At a retreat 11 days ago, Warfel said,he asked for grace in his new post to be a strong, loving leader.
"I want to be your shepherd," he told his audience, "to be with you in times of celebration and in time of hardship, struggle and suffering."

His focus in the coming months will be to travel and meet as many people as he can in the diocese.

"At the same time, I will continue what I've always done as a pastor and a bishop, to do the mission of the church," Warfel said.

That mission, he said, includes providing encouragement and support to help people grow in their faith; to reach out to Catholics disenfranchised from their faith; to reach out to people without a faith; and to reach out to other faiths.
In an interview, Warfel spoke of the importance of being relational:
His total time in Alaska was 33 years, and he admits it was tough to leave the state and the people he loved.

"I remember walking out of my home for the last time, my core relationships with people, and just the beauty, the lifestyle of Alaska," Warfel said. "You grow very close to people."

Part of that has to do with the size of the Juneau diocese, just 6,000 people, a number dwarfed by the 51,000 Catholics in the Great Falls-Billings Diocese. But he said he already thinks Montanans have the same values and character as the people of Alaska.

Warfel said his priority as the new head of the diocese will be to listen and observe. "I don't have any goals yet because I don't know a lot about the diocese, the concerns, the issues," he said a couple of hours before he was installed as bishop.

Over the next few months, Warfel plans to hit the road and visit as many of them as possible.

"This is my year to get out and listen, meet people and develop relationships," Warfel said. "The relationships are key."
There isn't a shortcut to connecting with people, he said, joking that he sees himself as a slow cooker, not a quick-cooking microwave oven.

"If you want all of the flavors to blend together, it takes time and there's no rushing it," he said. "Relationships, they don't just happen."

One relationship he intends to maintain is with the Rev. Jay Peterson. In the 18 months after Bishop Anthony Milone resigned, Peterson served as acting administrator of the diocese.

Warfel said Peterson will resume his previous post as vicar general of the diocese.

"One of the first things I told Father Jay is, 'Don't pack your bags,' " he said. "He's the historical memory for me."

While bishop of the Diocese of Juneau, Warfel on two occasions had to deal with sexual-abuse cases involving priests. He said the issue is one that happens all throughout society, not just among priests.

But Warfel said should it surface in his new diocese, he won't hesitate to deal with it. Every child must be provided a safe environment, he said, an environment in which no harm can befall him or her.

"Number one, I make sure it doesn't happen," he said. "But number two, if it does happen, I handle it quickly and transparently and very honestly."

To shove it under the rug is inconceivable, he said. "To ignore it, to cast it aside - the only way to describe that is sinful," he said.
To mark his first weekend in the diocese, the new arrival will celebrate all four Sunday Masses at the co-cathedral in Billings, with receptions following each.

PHOTOS: Casey Riffe/Billings Gazette