FARGO, N.D. — Jan George was 5,000 miles from home talking with strangers in Italy when the conversation turned to Fargo, N.D.

More specifically, to Fargo Bishop Samuel Aquila (pictured at right).

George remembers being surprised that the strangers had heard of Bishop Aquila.

“That really struck me,” said George, a parishioner at Fargo’s St. Mary’s Cathedral. Yet she understands why Bishop Aquila’s reputation had preceded him.

Since coming to Fargo in 2002, Bishop Aquila hasn’t shied away from speaking out — to his flock, to priests and even to fellow bishops. Often, politics is the subject. In August, for instance, he penned a letter to the faithful on the health-care debate, saying any reform of the system must be based on principles such as respect for all human life and subsidiarity.

He has also changed the order in which sacraments of initiation are administered in the diocese and banned dances at a middle school.

The Fargo Diocese is one of two dioceses in the state, covering nearly 36,000 square miles of eastern North Dakota and including 133 parishes (87,409 Catholics in a total population of 377,979). There are 147 priests (including those who are retired or serving outside the diocese) and 44 permanent deacons.

North Dakota’s economy and society are dominated by agriculture, which is responsible for almost 25% of the jobs in the state. Nine-tenths of North Dakota’s land area is in farms and ranches. Politically, the state tends conservative. North Dakotans have voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election since 1968 and in 17 of the 18 elections since 1940.

“We’re close to the soil, and what I appreciate about our bishop is he knows us,” said Father Dale Lagodinski, pastor of St. John’s in Wahpeton. “I think he has found through traveling throughout the state that there’s a hardiness to our faith. We still have a good sense of church attendance and identity to family, and the bishop has done a lot of work to strengthen those kinds of faith issues in our area.”


Bully Pulpit

A native of Burbank, Calif., the 59-year-old Bishop Aquila held several posts in the Archdiocese of Denver, including director of the Office of Liturgy and secretary for Catholic education. From 1999 until 2001, he was the rector of St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver and CEO of Our Lady of the New Advent Theological Institute. He is a member of several U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committees.

And he has made headlines more than once. After the 2004 presidential election involving pro-abortion Catholic John Kerry, Bishop Aquila issued a pastoral letter on the moral responsibilities of Catholic voters and public officials. “In all the discussions that took place, what became clear, as I noted in the pastoral letter, is that people are more influenced by the secular culture today in which we live than by the teachings of Christ himself,” Bishop Aquila said.

He followed that by having his priests distribute and preach on the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s section on formation of conscience for two weeks during Lent 2005.

Father Lagodinski, head of one of the diocese’s deaneries, said he did not hear negative feedback from priests: “I think it’s helpful to have a bishop not necessarily legislate, but to lay out the teachings of the Church in a form pastors can easily take hold of and develop in a pastoral setting.”

The letter was well received among the laity, too, said George, who is director of Sacred Heart Productions, a nonprofit Bible study program.

Bishop Aquila again made news in 2007, when the USCCB put together its voters’ guide, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” As reported in USA Today, Bishop Aquila proposed an amendment emphasizing the danger of making “wrong” choices, saying, “If we do not warn our people that choosing intrinsic evils will have an impact on their salvation, then we will truly fail as teachers.”

Not all of his brother bishops agreed with his approach. “Are we ready to give the impression that one vote could endanger a person’s eternal salvation?” asked Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y. Bishop Aquila’s amendment failed 51-48, though a reference was made that political decisions “may affect the individual’s salvation.”

At home, said George, the diocese offered basic principles at forums to help the faithful sort through issues in the 2008 election. “Sometimes at an open forum — I’ve attended a number of them — you’ll hear someone express surprise or dismay when they start to connect the dots,” George said. In Fargo, though, she said that doesn’t come with an attitude of “dissent or belligerence.”

This year, Bishop Aquila twice waded into contentious issues. In addition to the health-care letter, he published a letter to the University of Notre Dame’s president, Father John Jenkins, that criticized the university’s awarding an honorary doctorate to President Obama, saying it “diminishes the reputation of Notre Dame and makes one wonder what its mission truly is.”

He has provided his presence as well as his pen. When Colleen Samson wanted to bring the 40 Days for Life campaign to North Dakota in 2007, one of her first visits was to the bishop.

“I knew it was important to present it to my bishop to receive his blessing on this endeavor,” said Samson, who works with the Pregnancy Help Center in Park River. “Not only did he approve of the campaign, but he strongly endorsed it, committing himself to an hour of prayer outside the abortion facility and asking his priests and the lay faithful to do the same.”

In September Bishop Aquila prayed outside the state’s only abortion business, in Fargo, as part of 40 Days for Life. He later led a Eucharistic procession to the facility on Respect Life Sunday.

“Hundreds of people joined with him this year for the Mass, followed by the procession,” Samson said. “Through his participation and leadership, it helps people see how important prayer is in this effort to end abortion in our state and in our world. He also speaks frequently about pro-life issues through his homilies and his presentations around the nation.

“The lay people of the Fargo Diocese have been tremendously blessed and privileged to work with our wonderful pro-life bishop. We are seeing more people come to pray at the abortion facility because of his leadership and example.”


Sacraments

The bishop has taken bold steps closer to home, too. In 2002 he restored in his diocese the early Church’s order of the sacraments of initiation so that confirmation follows baptism but precedes first Communion. Children in his diocese now receive confirmation and first Communion in third grade. Getting there wasn’t easy. It meant two years of confirmation for all children in the diocese from the third grade on — nearly 7,700 of them in 2004 and 2005.

“If we truly believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that are bestowed in the sacrament of confirmation, is it right to deny those gifts to young people in their formative years when they need those gifts the most?” Bishop Aquila asked. “Especially in today’s world. The children are much more filled with enthusiasm for receiving the sacrament of confirmation and recognize the seven gifts. They have a deep desire to receive the Holy Spirit and … at that age they’re like sponges who are absorbing all of this.”

Some might have been surprised in 2003 when Bishop Aquila banned dances at Fargo’s Sullivan Middle School, one of the diocese’s 13 schools. An Associated Press article on the ban cited two parishioners who supported the move and one who opposed it.

According to the New Earth, the diocesan newspaper, Bishop Aquila announced the change in policy during a talk at Sullivan. “We are pushing them to grow up too quickly,” he said.

He also noted that “pajama day” would no longer be held at the school.

“I am primarily concerned with — if a child is not dressed properly — what it can say; the pressure the kids can feel. If we do not have boundaries for our kids, their lives will be much more complicated.”

Bishop Aquila has had changes for adults in his diocese, too. In 2005 Fargo became the second U.S. diocese to require all engaged couples to receive instruction in natural family planning. They also receive instruction in Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.


Catechism and Conscience

Always, it seems, he is teaching, forming consciences.

“He sees clearly the ongoing need for better formation of conscience among Catholics, among Christians, among the whole Church, in our nation, for heaven’s sake,” George said.

What the Catechism refers to as a “mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience” is nothing new, Bishop Aquila said.

“You find it mentioned periodically throughout history and throughout the history of the Church, the concern around the formation of the human heart and of one’s conscience,” Bishop Aquila said. “Today it seems to be heightened because of modernity, because of the secularization of humanity and secularization of society.” He noted that Pope Pius XII said, “The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.”

Poor catechesis is partly to blame, the bishop said: “The majority of the bishops today recognize that the catechesis over the last 30 years has really failed.”

In the pews, in politics and elsewhere, Bishop Aquila is working to reverse that trend. “He has a tremendous amount of energy. He has clear vision. He is courageous in his defense of the truth, in his teaching,” George said.

Even 5,000 miles from home.

Anthony Flott writes

from Papillion, Nebraska.