Bishop Sample, previously bishop of Marquette, Michigan, USA, was born in Kalispell, Montana, USA, in 1960, was ordained to the priesthood in 1990, and received episcopal ordination in 2006. In the national bishops’ conference he currently serves on the Subcommittees on Native American Catholics and on the Catechism. He is also vice-postulator for the cause for canonisation of Venerable Frederic Baraga, first bishop of the Diocese of Marquette.
At the time of his episcopal ordination, Bishop Sample was the youngest Catholic bishop in the US, and the first to be born in the 1960s. He also made headlines in 2009 when he asked retired Detroit auxiliary bishop Thomas Gumbleton to not speak within the Diocese of Marquette because of Gumbleton’s dissenting views on homosexuality and women’s ordination.
A few years back, Bishop Sample gave a wide-ranging interview to CWR, touching on how he discerned his priestly vocation, the troubled state of catechesis in the United States today, and the larger challenges facing the American Church. Here are a few excerpts:
You’ve said that, to your pleasant surprise, scandalous behavior by a few members of the clergy, rather than being the end of the priesthood, has led to a time of transformation and renewal. Can you explain?
Bishop Sample: I’ve been involved in priest personnel work for many years. For nearly a decade, I was Marquette’s chancellor and director of ministry personnel services. I was the point-man when it came to dealing with issues of clerical sexual abuse. In 2002, when the priestly scandals were erupting, we were already struggling with vocations. I thought—this is going to be the death blow for vocations. What young man in this climate is going to give his life to the priesthood?
I was completely surprised. Many young men—wholesome, faith-filled, zealous men—stepped forward to become a part of the solution, to rebuild the Church. They wanted to be a part of the renewal of the priesthood. That’s remarkable. It’s a work of the Holy Spirit.
I think we’re on the verge of a new Pentecost, which has to start with the priesthood. In the parish, it is the pastor that sets the tone. I tell my priests—as goes the head, so goes the body. The priest ministers to the Church in persona Christi capitis, in the person of Christ, the head.
Jesus is the head of his body, the Church. The priest ministers in the person of Christ, the head. And if the head is holy, strong, zealous, and fervent, strong in faith, hope, and love, then that will help lead and guide the rest of the body, the Church.
I’m excited. I recently ordained two fine young men to the priesthood. They’re excited. They’re ready to go. They want to be priests and serve Christ and his people. All the men we have in the seminary are an inspiration to me for the future of the Church.
You’ve described yourself as a member of “the first lost generation of poor catechesis,” which “raised up another generation that is equally uncatechized.”What’s wrong with catechesis and what have you done to help solve the problem?
Bishop Sample: My generation was the first in the wake of Vatican II. While I certainly don’t blame the Council, much upheaval occurred in the Church in its aftermath. Culturally, society was experiencing the sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement, and the anti-war movement, among others. There was an anti-authoritarian spirit.
In this time of great confusion, catechesis suffered. We booted the Baltimore Catechism out the door, but there wasn’t anything to replace it. I was taught the faith in Catholic schools using materials that were weak and insubstantial. I wasn’t being taught my faith. The liturgy suffered from experimentation as well.
When I speak about this publicly, invariably people of my generation come up to me to agree with what I’m saying. This includes many bishops.
My generation raised up the next generation. Since we weren’t taught the faith, we raised children who weren’t either.
We need a renewal in catechesis. I feel passionately about this. In my Diocese of Marquette, I directed the development of a diocesan curriculum for faith formation for grades K-8. It is a solid, substantive, systematic, and sequential curriculum, which builds from one year to the next. It is topical, based on the pillars of the catechism. Every parish is expected to follow this curriculum.
Now I’m turning my attention toward adult faith formation. If we can get catechesis and the liturgy right, we’ll be well on our way to the renewal and growth of the Church for which we hope.
What concerns do you have regarding the Church and the public square?
Bishop Sample: I have two grave moral concerns, in the areas of the protection of innocent human life and the defense of traditional marriage. As a society, we must take steps to protect the unborn, and also the elderly and handicapped. And, since marriage and family are the basic unit of society, the health of society rests on the health of marriage and family life. Anything which threatens either of these is seriously destructive.