Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades can still vividly recall his own literal and figurative mountaintop experience as a student at Mount Saint Mary’s College, when the Holy Spirit and our Blessed Mother helped pave his path to the priesthood.
“The normal college life was not very fulfilling for me, and by my sophomore year, I was thinking, ‘I want something more here; I want to enter into a deeper relationship with Christ,’” remembered Bishop Rhoades. “But I wasn’t sure about the priestly vocation. I was struggling a lot about marriage and celibacy. I remember thinking about it at night, not being able to fall asleep, tossing and turning because I was just so torn between the two vocations. But it was one October day, when I went up and prayed on the mountain, which was Mount Saint Mary’s – it was at the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes – and I remember just handing it over to the Lord through Mary, asking, ‘Please help me; I’m not really happy at what I’m doing right now, and I’m confused about what I should do.’ And I continued to pray, and the thought of priesthood – there was just kind of this invasion of grace. It was the joy and the peace, which are fruits of the Holy Spirit.”
This joy and peace that a young Kevin Rhoades encountered on the mountaintop led him to pursue a priestly vocation – one that has blessed countless faithful in multiple dioceses over the past four decades. On Sunday, July 9, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades celebrated the 40th anniversary of his priestly ordination. His excellency has spent 19 of those years as a bishop and 13 in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, where he has shepherded his flock by teaching the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments, and continually engaging with priests, laity, and religious alike. It’s been quite the adventure for a self-proclaimed introvert who once had a fear of public speaking.
“It’s not easy being an introvert and being a bishop, but I think part of it is the grace I received when I was ordained 40 years ago,” admitted Bishop Rhoades. “But I love what I’m doing; I love serving the Lord and the Church, so I think that’s what gives me the energy. It’s something that I feel called to but also truly do enjoy, even though sometimes it’s exhausting.”
The journey for Bishop Rhoades began in a small town in the Coal Region of Pennsylvania. The son of Charles and Mary Rhoades, Kevin Carl Rhoades was born on November 26, 1957, in Mahanoy City and grew up in nearby Lebanon. The Catholic faith was not only integral in his household, but it was also “the center of life” throughout the region, producing many religious vocations.
“My mother was a devout Catholic; my father wasn’t Catholic,” said Bishop Rhoades. “My grandmother – my mother’s mother – lived with us when I was a kid, and she was a very holy woman. She had arthritis, difficulty getting around, but she prayed the rosary, and she was just a beautiful person with a beautiful faith. So, I was raised in a very positive experience of the Catholic faith, in the home and then in school.”
Bishop Rhoades loved his Catholic schooling, graduating from Lebanon Catholic High School in 1975. He was very active in school, serving as an altar boy among many other activities. “I think the seed was planted for a religious vocation, although I didn’t really discern it until college,” Bishop Rhoades said, when the aforementioned invasion of grace opened his eyes to the priesthood. After completing his second year at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and realizing that this desire was more than a passing whim, he entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pennsylvania. Two years later, he left for Rome, where he studied theology at the North American College and the Pontifical Gregorian University from 1979 to 1983.
In 1982, Bishop Rhoades was ordained to the diaconate at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City by Cardinal Terence Cooke. He was part of the first class of the North American College to be ordained in the basilica – a request his class had made to the administration that has ever since become the norm for diaconate ordinations at the college. “I have very fond memories of that,” recalled Bishop Rhoades. “I remember some of my family was able to come over; it was just so joyful to show them Rome and to have them there. It was an overwhelming experience for them, and the joy that I had was the joy in seeing how joyful they were.”
Bishop’s time studying in Rome also helped him discern between becoming a diocesan priest or a religious order priest. His desire to travel and see the world made him uneasy about staying in one diocese for the rest of his life, but since it was all he had ever known, he ultimately decided to pursue the diocesan priesthood. However, his time studying in other countries, experiencing different cultures, and learning new languages “got that out of my system” and helped him feel “ready to settle down.”
Kevin C. Rhoades was ordained a priest of the Harrisburg Diocese on July 9, 1983. He was assigned to St. Patrick Parish in York, Pennsylvania, where he would serve as Parochial Vicar for two years while also ministering part-time to a local Hispanic parish, Cristo Salvador. Six months later, his bishop asked him to also take care of the local migrants working in the orchard fields. It was during this time serving the Hispanic population that Bishop Rhoades “fell in love with the culture” that he still strives to celebrate through Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
“So here I was, regular assignment, one day a week at this Spanish parish, plus I was spending two days a week in Adams County serving the migrants,” said Bishop Rhoades. “It’s providential that I ended up being ordained a bishop on December 9, 2004, on the feast of St. Juan Diego. When I was Bishop of Harrisburg, I started a new mission for Mexican migrants in the diocese, and I called it St. Juan Diego Mission. When I was transferred to Fort Wayne, of course they were in tears, but they gave me as a parting gift this beautiful painting of Juan Diego, and it’s in my chapel in my house here in Fort Wayne. This has been a thread throughout my priestly and episcopal life.”
Another three years in Rome studying dogmatic theology and canon law were followed by a brief assignment as Assistant Chancellor in the Harrisburg diocesan office before he was appointed Pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in 1990. He served there for five years until accepting a teaching position at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary. He was named Rector of the seminary in 1997, a position he held until Pope John Paul II appointed Kevin C. Rhoades as Bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg at the age of 46.
“When I received the call in October of 2004, I was really dumbfounded; I was kind of speechless,” Bishop Rhoades said of his appointment. Other than the leadership required in his rector role and his limited work in the diocesan office, Bishop Rhoades said he had no real training to be a bishop and was instead expecting to return to parish life. Despite the inevitable learning curve, he couldn’t say no to his hero.
“I was one of the last bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II before he died, and he was kind of my hero, the one who I would listen to,” Bishop Rhoades said, referencing his time in Rome. “I would go over to St. Peter’s, go over to audiences and his Angelus talks. He really helped to form me to be a priest, because I learned so much from listening to his talks and reading his writings, that it was kind of unbelievable for me that he was the one who appointed me to be a bishop. And I was very emotional about that. When I was back in Rome the first time after being a bishop, walking down the aisle past his tomb, there were tears, because I was like, ‘I served Mass for him as a seminarian, and now I’m a bishop.’ I would have never imagined that. So, he was a great influence on my theological and philosophical thinking.”
Other priestly models for Bishop Rhoades included Father Tony Manochio, his college priest who he asked to be his spiritual director; Monsignor Thomas Brenner, Pastor of his first priestly assignment at St. Patrick; and Father Bernie Pistone, Pastor of Cristo Salvador in York. Bishop Rhoades asked the latter two to be chaplains at his ordination, and they were at his side when Cardinal Justin Rigali ordained him a bishop in 2004.
While being a bishop in one’s home diocese is not common, Bishop Rhoades found that all his previously-established connections made it easier, although the transition took some getting used to. “Some of the priests, like my high school principal or priests who I had served Mass for when I was in grade school, I’m now their bishop and their superior – that was very weird,” Bishop Rhoades said. He admitted that he thought he’d be in Harrisburg for the rest of his life, but once again, change greeted him unexpectedly when Pope Benedict XVI transferred Bishop Rhoades to the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend five years later.
“I knew nothing about the diocese – I knew no one here,” said Bishop Rhoades. “It was difficult leaving family, it was difficult leaving my close friends, but I felt so welcomed from day one. I got to know the priests pretty quickly, and I’ve been very happy here.”
Since his installation on January 13, 2010, Bishop Rhoades has indeed made himself at home in the diocese and accessible to its people. Many hear his voice on Redeemer Radio via his weekly show, Truth in Charity. Others hear him answering questions at conferences or preaching at Mass. “I think that that’s part of evangelization, helping people to grow in the knowledge of the faith, and hopefully that knowledge leads to love of God and a love for the Church,” Bishop Rhoades said. “I kind of find that life-giving. Even now, when I visit the high schools and teach or give a lecture at Notre Dame, I love doing that. That’s part of my personality, but also, I’m learning when I’m preparing.”
Bishop Rhoades continues learning and sharing knowledge on a plethora of committees and advisory boards across the country. Most notably, he currently serves as Chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine, where he has helped lead the charge on the National Eucharistic Revival, an effort he refers to as “the center of my intention in shepherding the diocese at this time.” In fact, the themes of the Eucharist and Mary – both of which appear prominently on one side of Bishop’s coat of arms – are the two themes that he said have defined his priesthood.
“Those are the images of my priestly life, but also my life as bishop,” said Bishop Rhoades. “The highlight of my time as Bishop of Harrisburg was a diocesan Marian year that I had, and I think that was the most significant thing that happened in those five years. When I was ordained a bishop, it was during the year of the Eucharist. John Paul had just issued his encyclical on the Eucharist, so my first homilies throughout the diocese were all on the theme of the Eucharist. So here we are again, almost 20 years later, and we’re in a national Eucharistic Revival.”
As Bishop Rhoades reflected on the past four decades, he recalled particular events that stood out. In addition to priesthood ordinations, parish and school visits, and World Youth Day pilgrimages – of which he is days away from embarking on his fourth as shepherd of our diocese – he referenced the renewal of Fort Wayne-South Bend’s Marian consecration in 2014, when he was “blown away” by the level of participation, and last year’s Corpus Christi procession in Warsaw to kick off the Eucharistic Revival, which “really was very moving.” It’s the faithful of the diocese who Bishop Rhoades said have not only left a mark, but who have also sustained him through the valleys after the mountaintop experiences fade.
“It’s such a privilege to be a priest and a bishop,” said his excellency. “And hopefully, despite my own personal weaknesses, I hope that my service to the Lord and the Church has borne fruit and will continue to bear fruit. I really rely on the prayers of the faithful, the people. I really think that’s what keeps me going: the graces that come from the prayers of the people, and I am so grateful for all of the support and prayers of the people of our diocese and the Diocese of Harrisburg, because for me, they’re like the salt of the earth, and that’s what encourages me as well – the strong faith that I see in the people who are really living the faith, going to church, serving the poor, and practicing works of mercy. There are a lot of saintly people who I’ve had the privilege to meet here in our diocese.”
The privilege has truly been ours, Bishop Rhoades. Congratulations on 40 years as a priest and bishop, and may God bless you on your jubilee!
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