A few years ago, I wrote a series of articles for a newspaper called The Catholic Servant. Based in Minneapolis, this publication is printed monthly and focuses on topics related to catechesis and evangelization. The publisher, John Sondag, was kind enough to give me permission to reprint one of these articles on my blog. It’s about Bishop Aquila, a native of California who is now serving in the prairies of Fargo, North Dakota.
I was especially interested in his involvement in establishing the new seminary in Denver. It sounds like a great program of priestly formation. Maybe one day Pope Benedict XVI will ask him to return to his native land to serve as a bishop in the Los Angeles area. The harvest is ready, but the laborers are few.
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Bishop Samuel Joseph Aquila, a native of Burbank, California, was ordained coadjutor bishop of Fargo, North Dakota, on August 24, 2001, and became the ordinary in March of 2002. Previously, he had served the Archdiocese of Denver as pastor, director of the Office of Liturgy, director of Continuing Education for Priests, secretary of Catholic education, and, most recently, rector of the new Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary. The Catholic Servant interviewed him about his vocation and ministry.
Describe your discernment of a priestly vocation.
Although I had considered a vocation to priesthood as early as the eighth grade, I felt drawn to a career in medicine during my teenage years. After I had done some work in hospitals during my senior year of high school, I decided I wanted to study pre-med. Skiing was also a priority, so I chose the University of Colorado at Boulder.
During my college years, I stopped practicing my faith for a while. I studied other religions – some Hinduism and Buddhism – and also a number of Christian denominations. Then I began to reflect on my faith more profoundly through my involvement with the student center on campus; one day, while attending a communion service with Methodists, I asked them what they believed about the Eucharist. They spoke of it as a meal and as fellowship, but what was missing was an understanding of the Real Presence. That is what really brought me back into the Church. A deep love for the Catholic faith had really always been present, at least in seminal form, from my upbringing and Catholic education.
I always had a strong desire to serve people. I felt torn between two choices: the priesthood and a career in medicine. I spent my summers during college working in hospital emergency rooms. I enjoyed it tremendously, but also recognized that in emergency rooms, the tendency was simply to treat symptoms and move on to the next patient. There was no real spiritual guidance, particularly for people experiencing death within their families. The more I reflected and prayed, the more I believed I needed to spend at least six months in the seminary to discern a vocation. By the end of that time, I had a very strong conviction that priesthood was God’s call for me.
One of your responsibilities in the Archdiocese of Denver was to prepare the liturgies for World Youth Day in 1993. What was that like?
I discovered that Denver had been chosen to host World Youth Day shortly after I was named director of the Office of Liturgy. Planning and coordinating all of the liturgies for the Holy Father was an unforgettable experience. Working so closely with the Pope for those four days was very powerful, particularly seeing the rapport he had with young people. He helped them to know the truth of the Gospel and constantly called them into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
You also helped to establish a new diocesan seminary in Denver.
Yes. In the fall of 1994, the Vincentian Fathers notified Archbishop Stafford that they were closing Saint Thomas Seminary. He asked me to begin investigating the possibility of opening a new seminary. The archbishop wanted the seminary to be modeled after the seminary in Paris that Cardinal Lustiger opened in the 1980’s. Lustiger instituted a preliminary spirituality year, designed to help men in their vocational discernment. During this year, the men would read the whole of Sacred Scripture prayerfully, using the lectio divina method. When I went to Paris to visit, many of the men said that prayerful reading of Scripture had led them to a much deeper sense of the person of Jesus Christ and a deeper sense of their vocation. Seeing the enthusiasm of these young men and the depth of their faith, I recognized the validity of the experience. We implemented a similar program in 1998 in Denver. In the fall of 1999, Archbishop Chaput – who had arrived in Denver in 1997 – made the decision to open the Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary, and he named me rector.
What was your reaction when you discovered that the Church was calling you to serve as a bishop?
On May 31, 2001, Archbishop Chaput called me from Las Vegas. He was there for the ordination of Bishop Joseph Pepe. “I need to talk with you,” he said. When we later sat down together, we began by talking about the seminary. When we finished, he looked at me and said, “Now for the real reason I called you over here. The Holy Father has called you to become the coadjutor bishop of Fargo, North Dakota.” I am not usually at a loss for words, but my response was one of total silence. He looked at me and said, “You’re not responding.” And I said, “No.” He said, “I’m serious; I’m not joking.” And I said, “I realize that. That’s why I’m not responding.” The first thing that ran through my mind was that my life has changed forever. The reality of giving my life totally to the Church became even more real. I was going to be taken somewhere I really didn’t know. I sensed a strong call to obedience in a way that I never experienced it before. After prayer, I could see the providence of God in it. In the fall of 2000, I had been the speaker for the clergy days up in Fargo. So at least I had visited North Dakota once prior to being assigned there as bishop! This was God’s way of preparing the way for me.
How would you describe your goals in North Dakota?
My primary goal is getting to know the people of the diocese I am called to serve. I am very impressed with the depth of their faith and their commitment to the dignity of human life and the family. One can sense in them a great love for the Church.
My priorities include evangelization and encouraging participation in the sacraments – especially the Eucharist and Penance. These two sacraments instill within us a deep sense, that no matter what vocation we are living, each of us is called to holiness and to bring the presence of Christ into the world.
Reprinted with permission of The Catholic Servant