Bishop McGovern reflects on his first six months as Bishop of Belleville

Bishop Michael McGovern celebrated six months as Bishop of Belleville on Jan. 22. The Messenger recently asked Bishop McGovern to reflect on the challenges and accomplishments during those six months.

You were installed as the ninth bishop of Belleville on July 22, 2020, during a global pandemic. As a new bishop, I suppose leading a diocese in a pandemic is your normal. What do you say when people tell you that the past six months must have been hard for you as a new bishop?

The pandemic has cast a shadow over all of our lives in one way or another. For me as a new bishop, the pandemic has made it difficult to understand the diocese because I am not seeing parish life as it normally operates.

Only when the coronavirus is under control and we can truly reopen our parishes and their programs, will I be able to gauge our strengths as well as the areas of concern for our diocese. Despite the pandemic, I continue doing the work of a bishop which is to teach, govern and sanctify.

You have had some big decisions to make in your first six months. Closing parishes, filling a few key roles. (Vicar general, a new finance director.) Could you tell us about that?

The Belleville Diocese has experienced an enormous amount of change in a short amount of time. With the retirement of Bishop Edward Braxton, Pope Francis appointed me as bishop. With the retirement of Msgr. John McEvilly as Vicar General and our former CFO Mike Gibbons, I had to search for their successors for those two important roles. Thankfully, other people helped in the process of surfacing names of those who would be good candidates. I am very grateful to Fr. John Iffert and Mike Soete for saying yes to their new responsibilities.

You are a Chicago native, from a large archdiocese. How have you adapted to largely rural southern Illinois? Do you find there to be a different culture here? What has surprised you the most? Has anything just made you think, “This is different!”

My last pastorate in the Archdiocese of Chicago was for four years at St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Old Mill Creek, Ill. The parish is located in one of the last semi-rural areas of Lake County. There are many farming families, with quite a few growing corn or soybeans on their farms. Having become used to long stretches of fields around my parish, the move to southern Illinois was not such a steep learning curve. One thing that I’ve noticed that is different for me is that Chicago is a very Catholic area; the metropolitan area also has a large Jewish community. Coming to southern Illinois, I am struck by how many people are Protestant, whether Baptist, Lutheran or other denominations.

With that in mind, I am grateful to Fr. Bob Flannery and his work promoting ecumenism among all the Christian communities.

You said that in your first year you wanted to visit as many parishes as possible. How’s that going with the pandemic? How many parishes have you visited? What were some of the highlights for you?

I am steadily going around the diocese and hope to visit each church for Mass in my first 18 months as bishop. So far I have said a Saturday evening or Sunday morning Mass in 34 of our 106 churches. I have also visited 16 of our 25 Catholic grade schools; I offer Mass for some of the students in church while others participate virtually. I then spend the morning visiting with the children in their classrooms. I will visit the remaining nine schools before the academic year concludes. I have also been to all three of our Catholic high schools.

I know you are out and about because I follow you on Facebook. Tell us about that ministry and why social media is so important.

The Diocese of Belleville stretches across 28 counties. We have areas that are urban and rural, as well as many small towns. Social media is an instrument I am using in order for me to be a presence among the 70,000 Catholics in southern Illinois. It can also be an opportunity for people to help with evangelization. For instance, I posted a two-paragraph note about preparing for Lent titled “Lent and Beyond.” The reflection received about 700 “likes” on Facebook but readers also shared the message with others. That’s an opportunity for people to evangelize family and friends. I’d like to make the most of what social media has to offer for the spread of the Gospel.

Bishop, what do you want people to know about you. You communicate a public face. You’re spiritual and pastoral and you’re here to lead us. But how would you want people to see you and what do you want people to understand about you?

I would like people to see me as an honest man, a disciple of Jesus Christ and a Catholic bishop. I would hope that people see me as a shepherd and that people will grow to trust me. Trust is important in our life together, and I want to do what I can to establish trust. As for how I would like people to understand me, I would appreciate people recognizing that my task is to establish, along with the clergy and lay faithful, a vision for our future in southern Illinois. A key responsibility I have is to foster and preserve unity among us as we move into the future. Just as Pope Francis has the responsibility for helping the Church stay united across the globe, so a local bishop has the responsibility for helping the diocese stay united.

So Bishop do you take a day off? If so, how do you spend your free time?

I try to take Thursdays off. Normally I offer Mass in the morning and then spend some time in prayer and reading. The day off is often a time for errands. Since arriving in Belleville, I have used some days off simply to organize my belongings at the bishop’s house, especially a large collection of books. In the evenings I often call my siblings or friends.

Looking back, you did a lot during these six months. What are your goals for the next six months?
I would like to become more comfortable with conversational Spanish. We have a growing Hispanic population in southern Illinois and it will be very helpful if I can converse more with people. Another goal is to continue promoting religious vocations; we did well in the first six months with promoting vocations to the priesthood. Now I would like to offer more opportunities for women to discern about vocations and also promote the permanent diaconate. The biggest goal will be working with everyone for the re-opening of our parishes as I hope the coronavirus will be under much greater control by the autumn.

Final thoughts?

I have appreciated the welcome I have received in theBishop McGovern reflects on his first six months as Bishop of Belleville diocese. In the summer, when we had the initial regional welcoming liturgies, I was very grateful that several parish choirs sang at the different Masses. This would have been the first time the choirs had sung together since the shutdown in March. It meant a lot to me that the choirs regrouped in July because the “new bishop” was coming.

One adjustment has been the amount of driving I do each week. It is not unusual for me to spend two hours driving from Belleville to a parish for Mass or a school visit. I’ve learned to always keep the gas tank full and be patient on the road.

I am looking forward to ordaining new deacons and priests. This May I will ordain Thomas Lugge as a transitional deacon for our diocese; I will then ordain Thomas a priest in May of 2022. Catholic bishops are considered successors of the apostles; I think that reality will sink in when I ordain Thomas through the imposition of my hands. Francis Cardinal George was once asked “what gives you hope?” The cardinal replied that every time he ordained a new priest he experienced hope, because the sacraments would continue to be celebrated and the faith would be proclaimed. I imagine I will experience that same sense of hope once I begin to ordain deacons and priests.

Being appointed a bishop by Pope Francis has led me to pray for him more often and read more of his writings. Some Sunday mornings, if I am up early, I will listen on my iPhone to Pope Francis praying the Angelus in Rome and offer his reflection on the Sunday gospel. It is one small way that I can be united with the Holy Father in prayer. As I reflect on all the people that turn to the Holy Father for help, prayers and encouragement, I realize more deeply how much Pope Francis needs our prayers.