Vocations top priority for Pueblo’s Bishop Berg

By Veronica Ambuul and Anna Marie Basquez, Colorado Catholic Herald

PUEBLO, Colo.—Bishop Stephen Jay Berg, former administrator of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, was ordained the fifth bishop of Pueblo by Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila at a packed Memorial Hall in downtown Pueblo the afternoon of Feb. 27.

It was the first episcopal ordination in which Archbishop Aquila was principal consecrator.

Concelebrating the ordination Mass were Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, who had been acting as apostolic administrator of the Pueblo diocese following the resignation of Bishop Fernando Isern in June 2013, and Bishop Emeritus Joseph Charron of the Des Moines Diocese, who is Bishop Berg’s maternal uncle and who ordained him to the priesthood.

Chris McLean/The Pueblo Chieftain

In acknowledgement of the diocese’s large Hispanic population, the readings were proclaimed in both English and Spanish, and Archbishop Aquila began his homily in Spanish.

In his homily, Archbishop Aquila encouraged Bishop Berg to get to know all the priests in the far-flung diocese.

“It is important that you come to know them and love them as Christ loved the apostles,” he said. “They will be your closest collaborators.”

Archbishop Aquila also echoed Pope Francis’ words that bishops and priests are above all shepherds who “should take on the smell of the sheep.”

“As you look upon the faithful and serve them, always remember that they are entrusted to you, but they belong to Christ,” he said.

“We must help the faithful, in their encounter with Christ, receive the teachings of Christ and his Church. In this day and age, it is no easy task,” Archbishop Aquila said.  “We live in times in which people are rapidly rejecting God. You will experience the same rejection that Jesus himself experienced.”

He told Bishop Berg to rely on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to carry out the duties of his office.

“At times, we can become distressed and disturbed and think, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ We must always remember that those kinds of movements are from the devil,” he said. “It is only when we approach in confidence the Spirit that we are able to proclaim the truth of Christ in season and out of season.

Prior to the rite of ordination, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States, read the letter by Pope Francis on Jan. 15 telling Bishop Berg of his appointment.

“As you go forth from Fort Worth to the Colorado desert-lands, allow yourself  . . .  to imitate the model of Christ, who cried out in the wilderness in order that those who are at a distance may hear and understand, from the loudness of the sound of your voice, the vastness of the thing spoken of,” Pope Francis wrote.

New Bishop of Pueblo elect Stephen Berg hugs his mother Jeanne Berg during his ordination ceremony at Memorial Hall on Feb. 27, 2014 in Pueblo, Colo. (Chris McLean, The Pueblo Chieftain)

Archbishop Vigano also thanked Bishop Sheridan for his “valuable assistance” while acting as apostolic administrator.

After the rite of ordination, Memorial Hall erupted in thunderous applause as Bishop Berg sat in the episcopal chair—known as a cathedra—for the first time. Representatives from around the diocese, including some dressed in native Mexican garb, then lined up to kiss his newly-received bishop’s ring.

In addressing the congregation at the close of Mass, Bishop Berg noted that he had accidentally left his prepared remarks at home and had to speak off the cuff.

He thanked his mother, Jeanne, and his nine siblings, all of which were in attendance along with 15 of his 31 nieces and nephews.

He also acknowledged the burden carried by the priests in Pueblo, some of whom have to travel long distances to tend to several parishes.

“I thought I was a busy pastor when I had four rural parishes,” he said. “Yet I see that some of you have six, seven or eight parishes and missions, and I just want you to know that I will get to know you. I will listen to you and we are going to work together.”

He said that vocations to the priesthood would be a top priority.

“We are moving into the future,” Bishop Berg said.

Paul Harris, who worked with Bishop Berg in the Christmas tree business prior to his ordination to the priesthood, traveled from his home in Austin, Texas, to Pueblo for the ordination along with his wife Marylee.

“They got lucky when he was assigned here,” Harris said of his old friend. “They’re going to enjoy his stewardship. He cares; he listens; he is a very open person.”

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart parishioner Linda Maldonado said that she and her husband and their six children missed work and school to attend the ordination.

“One of my daughters is missing a science fair. We just had to let (Bishop Berg) know that we’re here to serve him in any capacity we can,” Maldonado said. “We’re really grateful to God he sent us a shepherd so quickly.”

Among the prelates attending the ordination were Bishop Paul Etienne of Cheyenne, Wyo., Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., Pueblo Bishop Emeritus Arthur Tafoya, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., and Bishop Michael Olson, who just a few weeks ago was installed as the bishop of Fort Worth.

Bishop Berg was born March 3, 1951, to Conrad and Jeanne Berg in Miles City, Mont. He is the oldest of 10 children and graduated from Sacred Heart School in Miles City. He attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., on a music scholarship and later transferred to the University of Colorado in Boulder. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music for piano performance in 1973 and a master of music degree in piano performance from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, N.M., in 1975.

Shortly after earning his music degree, he began working for Wolfe Nursery in Fort Worth and rose to the rank of vice president and general manager of Nurseryland Garden Centers in southern California.

However, Bishop Berg felt pulled to the priesthood, and he entered formation for the Diocese of Forth Worth in 1993, attending Assumption Seminary in San Antonio. He graduated with a master of divinity degree from the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio in 1999 and was ordained to the priesthood on May 15 of that year.

Bishop Berg chose “Thy will be done” from the Our Father as his apostolic motto. His coat of arms includes the bluebonnet, which is the Texas state flower, and angel wings on a cross, which is a symbol of St. Cecelia, the patroness of musicians.

The Diocese of Pueblo encompasses more than 48,000 square miles with a population of just under 700,000 people, roughly 10 percent of whom are Catholic.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.