ROBERT GOLKA, AN ENGINEER BY TRADE, and his wife, Patricia, built their house in 1963. They had a 1-year-old, Ronald, and a newborn, John.
In Grand Island, Neb., they built a classic rancher: three bedrooms, the kitchen, dining room and living room on the main floor; two bedrooms in the basement — 1,350 square feet total. During the next three-plus decades in this tidy vessel, the Golkas raised 10 children. For a time under that roof there were Mom, Dad, six boys, four girls, and two bathrooms, one of which had a shower.
“Mornings were interesting,” John said.
That the fourth of the 10, James, is the product of this large family is among the first facts he shared about himself in April when he was introduced as bishop-elect of the Diocese of Colorado Springs.
As he assumes the duties of bishop, Most Rev. James Golka is leaving the people of the place he has lived nearly all of his 54 years. Those who have grown up with him, taught him, and shared in his journey through the priesthood say his new Colorado family will discover what they know: Jim Golka makes many friends and holds on to them. He is a shepherd who keeps his flock close to his heart.
“He’s a naturally hospitable person. He’s very oriented for the other, and the others’ needs,” said Rodney Bluml, a friend since seminary. “At the same time, he’s incredibly humble. And I think maybe that’s partly the fruit of growing up in the middle of 10 kids, but also appreciating the humility of being fascinated by Jesus.
“I think that’s what people have responded to him continuously in his priesthood: an introspection, but a circumspection, and him being able to bring real tradition, real solid spirituality to that, and a hospitality — a love that sounds like hospitality.”
IN THE RURAL INTERIOR of western Poland, about 2 miles south of a 14th-Century farming village named Golaszewo, there is a cluster of a half-dozen homes and their associated outbuildings, about 15 structures in all. This, according to the maps, is Golka, the entirety of which does not have enough houses to accommodate the Golka family of Grand Island, Neb.
Golka also is the name given to a cheese made from the milk of cows in Poland’s southern highlands near the Slovakian border.
Robert Golka said his grandparents came to the United States from Poland in the early 1880s; whether they had roots in the rural hamlet, he could only guess. (He didn’t mention the cheese.) His parents homesteaded farmland near Ord, 50 miles northwest of Grand Island, where they raised seven children, including Robert.
He was drafted by the Army during the Korean War, remaining stateside, then enrolled at the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln. That’s where he met Patricia.
Her grandparents were from Germany, and settled near Lawrence, about 45 miles south of Grand Island. She was one of 13 kids, and her father, looking for something to keep them busy, bought the town newspaper. Patricia set the printer type by hand.
Parish life was near the center of life for both Robert and Patricia as they grew up, and it remained there after they earned their degrees. As a teacher at Grand Island Central Catholic, Patricia first taught physical education, then theology. At the family parish, St. Leo, she led religious education. Robert took his civil engineering degree to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and built dams across the Plains. “He’s been a member of the Knights of Columbus as long as I can remember. I think all my brothers are,” said Sheryl Genereux, the fourth daughter and eighth Golka child. “When (her parents) decided to have kids, they just knew that was going to be a focal point of their lives.”
THE GOLKA FAMILY describes life in Grand Island as a constant swirl of people. The 10 siblings under one roof was only the start. “The neighborhood was full of kids,” Patricia said, who were always organizing games among themselves, sometimes in a nearby pasture, and piling into the house for Friday sleepovers, followed by huge Saturday breakfasts.
Holidays in the extended Golka clan required industrial-scale ingenuity. “We would have to hold Thanksgiving in a church hall, in a school gymnasium, whatever, because there’d be, you know, 60 to 100 people or more that might show up,” John said.
“How did we do it all? Who knows? I can’t tell you,” Patricia said. “We just did what had to be done.”
Near the center of this hubbub was Child No. 4, James -- nearly always Jim to his family and friends. His older brother, John, recalls Jim always involved in wiffleball games in the summer, basketball in the winter, football games in the snow. And if he might have thrown the occasional shoe at his younger brother, Greg, to get him to shut up and go to sleep, Jim also was considered easygoing, a helper and peacemaker who thrived in the ocean of relationships around him. “He always had lots of friends, and enjoyed spending time with them,” John said.
By the time he was a junior at Grand Island Central Catholic, Jim was a 5-10, 160-pound split end and defensive back on the varsity football team. “Very fast,” remembered one of his coaches, Father John Kottas. His personal highlight reel includes a memory of Jim, during his junior season, hauling in maybe seven or eight passes during a drive against a larger, class-A school to get the Crusaders within range to kick a game-winning field goal. (It missed).
It was in the classroom where Father Kottas, who also was Jim’s religion teacher for three years, saw beyond Jim’s athletics.
“When he was a freshman in high school, he would write, on tests and stuff, and you could just see something in him. He was just a tremendous student for his age, had tremendous insight into faith,” he said. “It was consistent all through high school; one of those great young men that you knew there was something special.”
DURING THOSE YEARS, middle and high school, Jim had begun to talk about the priesthood. Part of the reason was his big brother, John, who himself had a period of discernment at seminary in Minnesota. Jim went up to visit him while in 8th grade.
“Him wanting to delve into that as an eighth-grader made me realize that Jim thinks about things differently than maybe a lot of other kids his age do,” John said.
Sheryl saw it, too.
“I remember John having this discussion with Jim about how he really learned how to pray,” Sheryl said. “(John) learned many things in a short time up there, and from when I can really remember around that time, I knew that Jim was discerning.”
Father Kottas had seen this before, and had some advice. “I told him to have lots of fun, date a lot of Central Catholic girls, pray and listen to what the Lord’s telling you,” he said. “Go out and experience life.”
He had scholarship offers to play small-college football, but he took an academic scholarship to Creighton University, run by the Jesuits in Omaha, to study philosophy. One of Jim’s hometown friends also at Creighton introduced him to Chris Sweeny. By their sophomore year, the three had become tight and remained roommates through graduation. During the days they went their own ways for classes, then would cook dinner together. A lot of free time was spent in the gym.
“We started calling ourselves the Tri Dorks, from the Tri-Dork house,” Sweeny said. “Our intramural basketball team was Air Dork. And then, we were the university softball champions our senior year, so everyone had to say they got beat by the dorks,” recalled the man who now practices law in Kansas City. “We were really proud of that.”
The Jesuits took notice of Jim’s discernment of his vocation, Sweeny said, and encouraged him to consider priesthood in the order. It definitely was on his mind, but so was the idea of being a diocesan priest, as was the go-slow counsel of Father Kottas. There were dates. As graduation approached, Jim devised a test for himself: he had arranged to spend the year after graduation volunteering in a high school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, nearly all of which is in South Dakota. About 20,000 Ogalala Lakota live on the reservation, which is three-quarters the size of Connecticut, and there are few places in the Western Hemisphere where poverty is as deep.
“He wanted that year of volunteer work that was similar to life as a religious, to confirm that’s the direction he was going,” Sweeny said.
On the day his parents delivered Jim to the wide-open quiet of Pine Ridge, it was a scene far removed from the familiar hubbub of family, friends and parish life in Grand Island.
“I remember looking at him and going, ‘Are you going to be okay?’” said Sheryl, who was in the car on that day. “And he’s like ‘This is all a part of my plan. This is where I’m supposed to be.’ I can remember being in the car and looking at my mom and dad and saying, ‘Are we really leaving him?’ and they said ‘Yeah, this is all a part of the process.’ ”
It was a year of “intentional poverty, living simply, living close to the earth,” said Rodney Bluml, who would come to know Jim the following year.
The year resolved whatever questions remained.
“He just came down here to the bishop and said, ‘I’m ready to join the seminary,’” his mother recalled.
His old Creighton roommate, Chris Sweeny, said there no longer was any question.
“I remember him being very confident in his choice,” he said.
BISHOP GOLKA HAS BEEN A PRIEST for 27 years, and as it was for every priest, the most recent year was unlike any other. No priest in the Diocese of Grand Island presided at more “Covid funerals” than Bishop Golka did, said Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt of the Grand Island diocese. Many of them were for immigrant workers in the meat-packing plants. Bishop Golka, who speaks Spanish, has a deep connection with the Hispanic communities of the diocese, the bishop said, and has drawn upon their spirituality, including a love of eucharistic procession.
That’s why, during the summer of 2020, when the pandemic had forced Catholic churches everywhere to shift Masses outside or online, one of the more striking images was of Bishop Golka, then pastor of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, leading eucharistic processions through the streets of Grand Island. Each procession route would be publicized in advance, and the faithful would be waiting, sinking to their knees in adoration.
“All of this was really on his own,” Bishop Hanefeldt said. “It was coming out of his unique personality. Nobody else in the diocese did it. And he, I think, did it out of the heart of a pastor who knew they appreciated and believed in the power of the Eucharist, and in his own faith, to do something about this dark time.”
Bishop Golka’s desire to be with his people has made an impression even on those who know him best.
“You wonder, when you’re own sibling becomes a priest: What will they be like?” John Golka said. “And you attend different events that that he’s officiating at. And he’s just continually amazed me just how good he is with people, and how good he is with sacraments, and how he can blend those into a story for people when it’s their time to experience those things.”
Said Bishop Hanefeldt: “The first word I would say is caring, that he can enter into your story, whether it’s a story of pain, or suffering. He really meets people where they’re at, and listens and learns.”
At the April announcement of his appointment, Bishop-elect Golka told the story on himself that he did not pick up several phone calls from the papal nuncio in Washington, D.C., because at first he didn’t recognize the number, and later couldn’t verify who was calling until he had matched the sound of the voice in his messages with the voice of the cardinal on a You Tube video.
That’s a sweet story of self-deprecation, but there’s more to it, Sweeny said. The first of those phone calls, he said, came at the Sweeny’s dinner table in Kansas City where he, his wife, and Father Golka had been sharing a meal. When the first call came in, Father Golka glanced at the D.C phone number on his screen, then turned his phone face-down on the table. The Sweenys, who knew how these things worked, joked: Washington? You’d better call back; it could be important. The phone remained face-down on the table.
The moral of the story? “When you’re in his presence, he’s in your presence, right?” Sweeny said. “He’s present with you and not distracted.”
THE OPPORTUNITIES FOR DISTRACTION increase in the office of bishop, where the administrative scale is larger. In Grand Island, the scale is large geographically. Its approximately 50,000 Catholics and 69 parishes and missions are scattered across almost the entire western half of Nebraska. In Colorado Springs, the scale is large demographically: 187,000 Catholics in 39 parishes and missions.
In the 109 years since the Grand Island dioceses was formed, Bishop Golka is the first priest of the diocese to be elevated to ordinary. So, it is a feather in the cap? Or a big loss?
“Both,” Bishop Hanefeldt said. “When the day came, I said Grand Island is both rejoicing and reeling from this. Someone said, ‘Are we going to get five priests back for this one?’ So it’s a great blessing for the Diocese of Grand Island. It’s a great privilege, and a tremendous loss as well.”
Either way, it wasn’t a big surprise. The family has heard “he’s going to be a bishop someday” compliments for a long time, often from priests. And Bishop Golka has been preparing, if not exactly eagerly. For the past three years he served as vicar general in the Diocese of Grand Island, the highest diocesan office other than ordinary.
“From the day I got here, this was talked about,” Bishop Hanefeldt said. He didn’t place Bishop Golka’s name into the formal nomination process for selecting bishops, “because I knew I wouldn’t have to. I knew it would come up without me recommending his consideration.”
And no one who spoke with The Colorado Catholic Herald said they are surprised Father Jim is now Bishop Golka.
“I was just with him two weeks ago. We had an opportunity for lots of heart to heart,” said Bluml, who attended seminary with him.
“I think he, more than any priest getting called into this role, has a sense of the enormity of the role, just because of how close he’s been to the bishops in his diocese, and the number roles he’s taken in leadership, and even at the cathedral and his exposure to all of that.
“I don’t think he’s naive. There’s always going to be stuff you’re not familiar with, but Jim has an incredible network of trusted people, of colleagues, of mentors, and he is not afraid to call on them. And I am confident that he will negotiate this as well as anybody. He has a solid prayer life, and that’s foundational. He’s connected with people who can help him discern and negotiate. That’s what will make him a great shepherd.”
So when the call came from the nuncio, Bluml said, Father Jim was ready.
“He was sharing with me that because he was thinking about that, there was more of a ‘yes’ that was available to him. So he wasn’t paralyzed or frozen, but as he sat with it, he realized he’s been prepared for this.
“I just told him, I said, ‘Look, Jim, I’ve seen this on the horizon for 10 years, and so the fact that it’s coming to fruition, I’m not shocked at all.’ There’s great rejoicing in the Kingdom because this is what he has been formed for, with all of his yesses leading up to this point.”
THE ORDINATION OF BISHIP GOLKA filled every seat at Holy Apostles Church, one of the larger churches in the diocese.
“I’ve got 60-, 70-some first cousins, who are all married with children,” John Golka said. When his brother celebrated his 25th anniversary in the priesthood, John said, “there were probably, I don’t know, 150, 200 that showed up.” About the ordination, “They were saying, ‘You know, your family is invited,’ and I said, ‘Well, we need to tell you about our family.’”
Many of his lifelong friends and mentors, from college, seminary and the priesthood, were there, too. Though the former Tri-Dork now will be busy leading the diocese, perhaps he may have an opportunity, now and then, to revive their Friday tradition of preparing elaborate meals in the kitchen. Maybe they will razz him into pulling out the clerical collar one of them had presented to him as a gift – the one emblazoned with the logo of the New York Yankees, the team he inexplicably adopted in his Nebraska youth.
And at the next Golka family Thanksgiving, if Bishop James Golka is found on the floor as usual, playing games with the nieces and nephews, no one will be surprised, least of all his mother.
“He’ll be the same Jim,” she said.
(Jeff Thomas is a member of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish.)