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Q&A with Bishop James Golka

By VERONICA AMBUUL
07/09/2021 | Comments

COLORADO SPRINGS. The Colorado Catholic Herald had the opportunity to sit down with Bishop James Golka for an interview on June 24, just a few days before his episcopal ordination. Following is the complete transcript of the interview.

 

CCH: You have said that your parents deserve the credit for you and all your siblings remaining practicing Catholics. Are there any specific prayers or devotions that you all did together as a family growing up that you think were really impactful?

 

BJG: We did not do many devotions at all growing up, but my parents did show us how to talk to Jesus. I remember, at night, they would come around and tuck us in — each of the 10 kids. And my mom would sit on the bed while I was laying there. And she would just talk to Jesus and asked him to bless me and be with me that night. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s how you pray.’ So she taught me how to just talk to Jesus, and she really had a sense that he was sitting right there with us. So we learned how to talk to our friend and Savior and take him any problem we had, but even more so to share with him our hopes and dreams and joys. That sticks with me the strongest — watching my mom pray. Whenever there was a danger in the family or an accident or someone was sick, the first thing mom did was load us in the station wagon, drive us to the church, and we’d kneel for a period of time. And so I just learned that when you have trouble, you go to church.

I also remember one night when I had a field day at a grade school the next day, and I loved to run. I was sick the day before, and I was so sad because I thought I would miss it. And so mom said, ‘Well tell Jesus about it; write him a note.’ And so I wrote him a note and a prayer. And then I looked down the hallway and the family crucifix was there. And I pulled the chair up, and I stuck it behind Jesus’ head and I said, ‘Make sure your Dad gets this.’ I don’t know if God healed me that night or not. But I knew that, if there was something I was interested in, then Jesus was also interested in it.

Also, Sunday Mass was key — we would schedule our weekend around Sunday Mass. Mom and dad would say, ‘Which Mass are you going to? We have baseball games, we have a concert, etc., so which one are you going to go to?’ We had one shower for 12 people, so in the mornings, there was a schedule about who got in when and for how long you could be there.

 

How many grandchildren do your parents have now?

There are 21 grandchildren, and then there’s some great-grandchildren also.

 

At what age did you begin to seriously consider the priesthood?

I remember getting ready for my first Communion and they posed that to us. And as a second grader, I thought that would be so great to be able to give out Communion. So that just stayed in me. When I was in eighth grade, when my brother went to seminary, I went up and visited him for a week and just saw all these young guys who sang and prayed and played basketball. And so I came home thinking I can,  there’s something there for me. I went to our parish priest and I said, as an eighth-grader, ‘I think I want to be a priest. What do I have to do?’ He said, ‘Be a kid, date girls, and make sure you pray.’ That was good advice.

 

Speaking of sports, you were actually recruited to play college football. Can you describe the role that sports has played in your life? Do you have any favorite teams?

My older brothers played all the (high school) sports, and so I just did too — football, basketball, track, baseball. We had some really good football teams when I was there, so it was nice. I know that sports helped me gain self-confidence. I was a shy, timid kid by nature, so that gave me a way to be confident because it was something I could do. And it was just part of our family. As for college, I was recruited to play football just by small schools, and thought about that. But I kind of had a sense that I also wanted to study theology. I visited the Catholic colleges that were recruiting me, and I think one of them won the national championship the next year on their level. And I thought, ‘Dang, I could have been part of that.’ But I went to a college — Creighton University — that did not have a football team, and I felt at home there. That’s where I was supposed to be.

 

Are you and your family all Cornhusker fans?

Yes, we’re big Nebraska Cornhusker fans, so we’ve been hurting the last 15 years. In baseball, I’m a New York Yankee fan. I don’t know how that happened. A couple of my brothers are diehard Yankee fans with me as we keep in touch with that; it’s kind of a fun way over the summer to just have a nice distraction. I have some Yankee memorabilia signed photos and baseballs. So in my previous assignments, my nephews would set up a Yankee room in the rectory. I’m not sure what’s going to happen here yet. But it’s been a nice distraction and a fun thing to do.

 

After graduating from Creighton, when you spent a year working on the Pine Ridge Reservation, how did that affect your discernment?

When I was at college at Creighton University, we did Spring Break service trips, where we would send out 120 students to 20 sites around the country. I helped organize those my sophomore, junior and senior year and always went on one. That was a nice formative piece in college to just get a sense that service goes alongside of study. I had visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for one of those Spring Break trips, and something about that called to me there. And I knew that they had a volunteer program.

When I arrived, I visited the Jesuits in the community. And there was one in particular who seemed a kindred spirit. So I asked him to do spiritual direction with me. He really helped me to discern ‘Where is God in all of this?’ By Thanksgiving, I felt a strong call to diocesan priesthood, so it didn’t take very long. I had a girlfriend at the time, so I had to come home at Thanksgiving and let her know that I felt called to the seminary. And that wasn’t a very fun conversation. There was some pain on both of our parts. But I just had a sense that this is what my calling is to. I also had a sense that God gave me freedom to choose either one — marriage or the priesthood. And I had a sense that God would be equally proud of me. But the question I had is ‘What’s going to challenge me most to be the person that God has made me to be?’ And priesthood was a clear answer to that.

 

How did you come to be such a fluent Spanish speaker?

When I was a seminarian, I asked the diocese for permission to study Spanish in Central America. And they were supporting that because we need Spanish speakers. So my first summer after my first year of theology, I had some friends from college who were Jesuit novices.  And they were studying at a school in Guatemala, so it seemed natural just to go with them. We lived with families, so it was full immersion. We’d be in school all day, and my head hurt every night. And I remember when I started dreaming in Spanish, that felt like my head was tired, but it felt like a success of some kind. I was there for about six weeks. And then after that, we traveled to El Salvador and Mexico to visit various sites, like where Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered, and also the Jesuit university where the Jesuit martyrs were killed. And that had happened just a decade before we were there, so that was influential, too.

Then as a priest, we started going to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where there’s a school that especially helped Catholic priests. The wife of the owner of the school is from the Grand Island diocese and had settled in Mexico. So she was a great mother, if you will, to kind of watch over the priests. I would help in the parish by celebrating Mass there and hearing 100 confessions a day, it seemed like, and it was just a great way to get a pastoral sense of Spanish.

 

Along that same vein, you were a pastor at a predominantly Hispanic parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Scottsbluff, from 2001 to 2006. How has the faith remained so strong in that community, and what can they teach the rest of us?

At my last assignment as rector of our cathedral, the parish is half Hispanic, and almost all of those are new immigrants. I would see the importance of family, the importance of prayer, family prayer. Almost every evening, the whole family would come together for half an hour to an hour of prayer. There would be some litanies and rosaries that they would all pray and then everyone would, at the end, just start talking at the same time to God, their kind of final prayer. And I was invited to join them for some of those. So I know that they are a devotional people.

And then also just the respect — respect for their elders, respect for their parents, respect for their grandparents. We ran a daycare at our cathedral, and hardly any Hispanic families used it because a family member took care of the kids at home. That was their culture. You would have multiple generations in one house. And that kept, I think, a sense of respect and family.

You have that negative image of a Mexican man sitting under a tree with a sombrero over his head, and some people see that as a lazy person; I see that as a person at peace with the world. And I doubt that that person has high blood pressure like most of us do. So I think they can teach us how to take life not so seriously. Also, the immigrant families work hard, and many of them are working for families still back in Guatemala, or Mexico or El Salvador. They have a sense of duty, and love, and they sacrifice a ton for their family. I would see a lot of first-generation immigrant parents who had sacrificed everything. And then their kids not only learned English, graduated high school, but went on to college, and some have gone on to medical and law school. So those parents’ sacrifices have changed the life of their families for generations to come. I hear their stories of what they experienced, especially in El Salvador, Mexico, and Honduras — there’s so much violence and danger due to the drug cartels. I think we should ask the question, ‘Why are they leaving their countries and coming to us?’ And that helps us better understand and have some empathy for them. They’ve suffered greatly, and so the suffering Christ is a powerful image for them. They grab the cross because they know it.

 

How much time did you spend in Colorado prior to being named Bishop of Colorado Springs?

I remember traveling through Colorado as a family in a station wagon and going over the mountains. I was probably eight years old. We were going out to Oregon to visit relatives, and I was just struck by the mountains because I had never seen that before. After I was ordained a priest, I had friends and parishioners who had cabins around Frisco, Estes Park and Vail. So I spent a lot of time in that area, just enjoying being with seminary buddies or family members and going hiking, golfing, and bike riding until I had my accident on Vail Pass.

Speaking of your biking accident, it seems almost miraculous that you survived that. What do you think God was saying to you through that experience?

Actually, I had an accident before that when I was on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as a volunteer. I was a football coach and a shot put landed on my neck. That was the first time a doctor looked at me and said, ‘You should be paralyzed or dead. I don’t know how you’re okay.’ That’s the first time that I really realized my life from here on is total gift. It’s a bonus. And if it’s a bonus, it’s got to all belong to God. And if my life belongs to God, then it has to be about God. Because before that, I thought it was about me — I had my plan, my dream, my success, I had succeeded at different things. And then suddenly it changed, and I asked myself, ‘What’s God’s dream for me?’ To start listening attentively to that changed things for me.

So then when I had the bike accident 20 years or so later, it was the same reminder, because the doctor looked at me and he said, ‘You could easily be paralyzed or dead. I don’t know how you’re still here.’ And I said, ‘It’s okay, doctor, I’ve been here before, it’s not a big deal. I need to remember, my life belongs to God, and my life is about God.’ I remember a year after the accident, I drove back to Frisco and went back to Vail Pass, and I hiked down to the spot where I crashed. And I remember just being angry — ‘God, why did you do this to me, I could have so much more energy to do more work for you if you would not let this happen?’ And I looked up and there’s a rainbow. And I just heard God smile and say, ‘You are who I want you to be and it’s going to be okay, you can trust me.’ So I always think that if I’m asking for something that makes me trust God less, I’m in trouble. But to trust God more is rarely comfortable. So to have an accident where I’m in pain is a good reminder physically that I trust God totally. And then I learned how to offer that pain up. On the way here today, I offered up my pain for Bishop Sheridan and his retirement.

 

Have any of Pope Francis’ writings been particularly influential for you?

I have been influenced by three popes. Pope John Paul II — he’s the first one that I really remember. He was Polish, and my dad is fully Polish, so I always felt connected to him somehow. And he was an athlete, and he was just a strong father. Then Pope Benedict — I loved reading his writings, because he was so rich. And so when Pope Francis came, it was another sense of joy and trusting God.

When I did a canonical retreat a couple of weeks ago, which you have to do before you get ordained, on the last day my director spoke about the letters I received from bishops around the country. I received a couple hundred letters, which is very kind, and about 10 of them handwrote on their letter, “This is a difficult time to be a bishop, be assured of my prayers.” My director said, “What would Jesus say to you about that? And what would Pope Francis say to you?” I went to pray about it first with Pope Francis. And (in my prayer) he just smiled and hugged me, and he said, ‘This is a great time to be a bishop.’ And that gave me a lot of confidence and I thought, “I don’t see how that’s the case, but I trust you.” So (I see Pope Francis) being a pastor, and a grandfather and companion who will walk with us, and then especially, to remember the poor. Those are things that always in the back of my mind, especially now as I’m moving into a house, I think, ‘What would Pope Francis say, if he walked in here?’

 

It seems like the Grand Island area was pretty hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because many of the residents work in meatpacking plants where there were some outbreaks. When the churches were closed, you started leading daily Eucharistic processions.

Our pastoral team at the cathedral is great. I had three religious sisters from the Dominican Republic serving with us, and processions are part of their culture. And my associate is from India and had spent time in El Salvador, and processions are a big part of both of those cultures. So I remembered us just talking about that. I saw a priest in the Diocese of Lincoln, whom I know, just walking around a block with the Blessed Sacrament with a group of servers and whatnot. And the Lieutenant Governor of our state, who is a good Catholic, commented on how kind of fulfilling and calming that was for him. And so the whole team together just said, ‘This is what we need to do.’ We covered about three-fourths of Grand Island; we kept track on a map and highlighted every page and we would announce on Facebook each morning where we were going. And I had no idea what effect that would have — I was so touched by people who would see us a block away and fall to their knees. They would just look at Jesus, they would receive his blessing. The Hispanics told me as I was departing the cathedral, ‘That’s what cemented us to you, that’s what made you one of us — you brought us Jesus during that time.’

 

Are there any spiritual authors or books that have been especially influential for you? Any favorite authors that you have?

I’ve enjoyed Pope Benedict’s writings greatly. I also enjoy the books by Father Ronald Rolheiser and Thomas Merton, especially when I was in college. I also enjoy Father William Gallagher, who writes about Ignatian spirituality, and Deacon James Keating, who has served as the director of the diaconate program in Omaha and has written a lot about the diaconate. I was a formator for deacons in Grand Island for a while, so I really appreciated his take on service. It helped me remember that I’m ordained a deacon too; we’re ordained a deacon first and then a priest second, and now bishop. What wisdom of the Church to make you a deacon first. You’d better understand service if you’re going to think about being a priest who now serves as Christ the head. So there’s Christ the servant, and then Christ the head or Christ presider Christ the priest. So it’s a good way to remember the parts of him.

What are some of your early impressions of the Diocese of Colorado Springs?

I’m impressed by the graciousness of Bishop Sheridan and the joy of Bishop Hanifen — I hope I’m half as joyful and attentive at age 90 as he is. My first impression is that the chancery staff is incredibly dedicated, joyful, gifted. It seems like you all know your job, and you all do it well and love it. And I was speaking with Archbishop Aquila, yesterday, and he said the same thing about the staff of our diocese. And he just encouraged me to trust and to let the staff here form and shape me as I grow into being a bishop. So I that’s been great.

The house that I moved into was not the bishop’s house before, and so as we were moving in, all the neighbors came to check it out. A woman walked up and she said, ‘You’re the new bishop. I went to Creighton University like you did with your brother Ron.’ And I said, ‘My brother Ron is my oldest brother, and he’s standing right behind you.’ And people have been reaching out to me through Facebook or through emails just to welcome me, asking me what I need. Hospitality is such an important piece of church and society. My experience is that this is a hospitable diocese, also prayerful, very prayerful, and the priests are dedicated and knowledgeable and full of reverence, and I am excited for them.


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