Reflecting on history of diocese and looking forward in prayer and with confidence
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Looking forward to our diocese’s Eucharistic Congress on Oct. 28 at the Bank of Springfield Center, we will be hosting this event as a way for us to participate in the National Eucharistic Revival, which will culminate in the National Eucharistic Congress next July 17-21 in Indianapolis. The timing of our local Eucharistic Congress on Oct. 28 is also intended to celebrate the centennial of the transfer of our diocese’s See city from Alton to Springfield.
As you may know, our diocese was first founded in Quincy in 1853, moved to Alton in 1857, and then relocated to Springfield in 1923. Since the capital of Illinois was moved from Vandalia to Springfield in 1839, well before our diocese was created, one may wonder why our diocese was not founded in Springfield in the first place. There may not be documentation exactly explaining why Quincy and Alton were initially chosen over Springfield, but I suspect it had to do with the fact that there were more Catholics in the Quincy and Alton areas than there were in Springfield. The fact that Springfield was the state capital would not have been the primary factor in determining where to locate the See city or headquarters of the diocese, but where the Catholic population was centered. Perhaps by 1923 the Catholic population of Springfield had grown sufficiently to warrant its designation as the See city of the diocese.
Another factor may have been the fact that the Diocese of Belleville was established in 1887. That meant the Diocese of Alton, the Diocese of Belleville, and the Archdiocese of St. Louis were all located in close proximity to each other. Moving the Diocese of Alton to Springfield was a way to give the Catholic Church a more significant presence in another part of our region.
I personally am glad that our Cathedral and my residence are more centrally located in Springfield. Since our diocese covers over 15,000 square miles in 28 counties from the Mississippi River to the Indiana border, getting from Alton to the eastern border of our diocese would have been quite a challenge to do on a regular basis. Last year I needed to drive from Robinson, near the Indiana border, after a Mass there on a Wednesday night, to get to Quincy, on our western border, to teach at Quincy University on Thursday evening. The drive took almost five hours. I left Robinson in the morning, stopped at the Cathedral rectory in Springfield for lunch, and then continued on to Quincy. That experience reinforced for me that I was grateful not to have to make that trip across the state on a regular basis, but instead could make it to almost any point in our diocese from Springfield in less than three hours.
Another reason why I appreciate being in Springfield is that I am a big fan of Abraham Lincoln. Once when I was chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago and was flying to Rome with the archbishop, the late Cardinal Francis George, I was reading a book. Being intellectually curious and a book lover himself, Cardinal George leaned over and asked me what I was reading. I said I was reading a book about Abraham Lincoln. He said, “So you like Abraham Lincoln?” I said yes. Perhaps he remembered that and put in my name to become the Bishop of Springfield in Illinois! If so, I am grateful to be living in close proximity to the Lincoln historic sites.
The fact that my major field of studies was political science when I was in college at Loyola University in Chicago provided me with helpful preparation to be the diocesan bishop of our state capital where the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our state government are located. The Catholic Church faces many challenges these days from an often adversarial if not outright hostile state government, so some knowledge of the political system is useful.
I first visited Springfield on my eighth-grade field trip and again as a high school senior. Although I was already interested in becoming a priest at the time, little did I know then that I would some day return here as diocesan bishop!
Since my installation as the ninth Bishop of Springfield in Illinois on June 22, 2010, the Memorial of my patron saints, Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, my greatest joy has been ordaining 33 priests for our diocese, with another five scheduled for ordination next May. Conscious of my responsibility to provide for the pastoral care of over 125,000 Catholics in Central Illinois, I am grateful to all the priests who are collaborators with me in carrying out the mission given by Jesus to the Apostles and their successors.
Recently I was talking with Bishop Carl Kemme, formerly a priest of our diocese who is now Bishop of Wichita. He told me that they have over 40 seminarians studying for their diocese. I asked him how many Catholics there are in his diocese. He said about 120,000. Given that the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois and the Diocese of Wichita are similar in size, I see no good reason why we should not also have over 40 seminarians, which is the goal I set for our diocese in 2015 when I wrote my second pastoral letter, Ars crescendi in Dei gratia, “On Building a Culture of Growth in the Church.” To do so will require a concerted and conscious effort on our part, along with fervent prayer and confident trust in God’s providence. I know that we can do this if we set our minds and hearts on achieving this noble aspiration.
May God give us this grace. Amen.