Monday, February 06, 2017

Gratitude for Bishop Swain

We have a wonderful bishop, and I just learned more about his life story.

This bishop with a Bronze Star is unusual for other reasons, too, including his late start in the church.

BIshop Paul Swain of the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls celebrated Mass for the students of St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Pierre on Thursday.

It was part of Catholic Schools Week. He had been in Aberdeen on Wednesday and would stop in Mitchell later Thursday.

During Mass, instead of a regular homily, Swain walked around the pews, taking questions from the elementary school students. Several, including Ella Oxford, were curious about the bishop and his job.

“How did you become bishop?” asked third-grader Oxford.

“I wish I knew,” Swain said, his quiet voice and droll take bringing surprised laughter from the students and adults.

In his low-key way, he made it sound pretty ordinary.

He was on a trip, as vicar-general of the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, to Utah to find ideas to replace a cathedral destroyed by arson in 2005.

Out of the blue, he got a phone call from a church official in Washington: “Pope Benedict XVI has appointed you bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Will you accept?”

It was that sudden and that brief, Swain says. He wasn’t seeking the office, didn’t necessarily want it.

“I had never been to South Dakota,” he told the students.

“But it’s hard to say no to the pope.”

How old was he when be became bishop, another student asked.

“How old do you think I was?” he returned, putting some pressure on the students.

The first answer was pretty close and the third guess, 63, was on the mark. Swain now is 73 and marked his 10th anniversary as bishop last fall.

Swain is unusual not only for being older than most bishops when they are appointed. But he didn’t even become a Catholic until he had a couple, three careers under his belt and was only a few months from being 40.

He grew up in upstate New York, at Newark, in a big family of Methodists, went to college in Ohio, then earned a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1965.

Swain was an officer in the Air Force from 1966-1972, including a tour in Vietnam as an intelligence officer in 1968-1969.

“I arrived a month after the Tet Offensive,” he said of the infamous move by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong to ramp up the war to a new level.

With a pilot of a small, single-wing Cessna, Swain would fly over the jungles of the Mekong Delta in the southern end of Vietnam, south of Saigon.

“We would take pictures of the terrain day after day, looking at them over time to see where movements of troops were,” by subtle changes in trees, or whatever showed up.

They were flying low and fairly slow.

“We were shot at, but nothing ever got very close,” he told the Capital Journal this week.

Asked about the Bronze Star he received, Swain was low-key, unassuming.

“That is just for meritorious service, not that uncommon. It meant that as you completed your tour of duty, you did OK. . . It’s nice. But I’m a little uncomfortable (talking about it), because those who get the Bronze Star with a V for valor, were fighting on the ground and putting their lives at risk in ways that I didn’t.”

He also did military intelligence work out of Washington and in the Middle East - “that was very active” - before mustering out and going back to Madison and law school and working as a lawyer.

He got into politics as legal counsel and policy director for Wisconsin Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus from 1979-1983. Dreyfus was a former college president and a maverick Republican who didn’t go along with party politics much.

When Dreyfus told him he wouldn’t be running for re-election, Swain knew he had to find a new job as he approached 40.

His childhood Methodist faith had never been deep and he didn’t go to church much, Swain said.

“I was fairly successful in my law career but there was something missing,” Swain said this week. He began thinking about the rest of his life. Someone asked him what he would like to do.

“The thought of a priest came to me,” he says. “I wasn’t a Catholic. It seemed really strange. God was telling me I needed to get my spiritual life in order.”

He began reading and searching. He was impressed by the public life of Pope John Paul II and his big influence on world events at the time and the pope’s obvious spiritual depth.

“I was searching. There was something missing in my life and that was a spiritual base, and Jesus Christ, ultimately. It was God kind of zapping me.”

“Eventually I was received into the church in Madison while I was still practicing law.”

That was in 1983, the same year he turned 40.

“I still couldn’t quite shake this priest idea I had . . . It took me several years to follow up on that.”

He started seminary and even the first two years, he still didn’t think he would be a priest.

“I thought just joining the church would be sufficient. But eventually I just kind of surrendered.”

He was ordained a priest in 1988 in Madison and served parishes for five years.

“Then my law degree caught up with me,” he said. The bishop in Madison tapped him to work in his office and he became vicar general, sort of the right-hand man for the bishop, helping run the diocese.

Then out of the blue, as he was in Salt Lake City seeking advice on how to fix the burned-out cathedral in Madison in 2005, he got the call.

That’s the way it usually works, he was told; no one knows they are on a list of possible new bishops until they are appointed.

“They don’t really explain,” he said, seeming almost rueful. But, perhaps, he had the ancient chief qualification for becoming a bishop: “I do not wish to be a bishop.”

Few Catholic bishops come from other faiths, especially at such a late time in life, and the Bronze Star probably is unique among the nation’s 300-plus Catholic bishops, said the Rev. Charles Cimpl, longtime priest in Sioux Falls.

But Swain’s background in the military and as a lawyer shows up in his shepherding of his flock of 125,000 in East River, South Dakota, Cimpl said.

“Every bishop has their own personality,” Cimpl said. “Bishop Swain, because of his background in the law, is very precise in his writing and in his speaking. He is very cognizant of what he wants to say and makes sure it is done properly. He’s not a stump speaker or off-the-cuff sort of person. He wants to be sure whatever he says is being taken right, in print and in his speech. And his experience as an intelligence officer in Vietnam gave him that background of making sure everything was in proper order.”

Swain has used those skills in one key area: finding men to be priests, Cimpl said.

Swain is set to ordain six men as priests in June in the cathedral in Sioux Falls.

“That’s the biggest number we have had in quite a few years,” Cimpl said. “There was one ordained last year.”

There are 31 men in seminary, preparing to be priests in the diocese.

“That is amazing,” Cimpl said.

Not all of them likely will end up in the priesthood, Swain said in his unassuming way. “But God has blessed us here.”

The bishop’s organized style has helped make each parish and each priest a good place for recruiting for the priesthood, Cimpl said.

Swain is on the board of St. Paul Seminary on the campus of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where Cimpl attended seminary four decades ago.

Now across his diocese of 129 parishes, with 85 active priests and 30 retired ones, Swain is seeing growth in the Sioux Falls area, while small towns continue to get smaller.

“We’re planning another new parish in Sioux Falls, in the southern part, because of the growth in population,” he said.

So visiting Catholic schools, like in Pierre, is important, Swain said.

“To thank all those who make Catholic schools possible, including the teachers, who make substantially less than other (public school) teachers. They are committed and all the volunteers and parents make that possible. To remind the kids they have a special opportunity in that faith is integrated into all of their courses, to grow as a whole person, in ways that can’t be done in (public schools).”

Swain also points out, though, “that we have more Catholic students in public schools than in our Catholic schools. So we reach out to them in a different way.”

The Rev. Joseph Holzhauser, parish priest at Saints. Peter and Paul across the parking lot from St. Joseph’s, said the bishop’s visit is a big deal to students and parish alike, something that happens only every few years.

Principal Darlene Braun, in her 35th year at St. Joe’s, said the 174 students in grades K-5, were well-briefed for the bishop’s visit. Still, there were some candid comments and questions. The bishop visited classrooms after Mass before visiting a school in Mitchell.

The bishop showed he is a good teacher himself, giving a homily that didn’t seem like one.

After exchanging questions and answers for 10 minutes or more with students, he asked them to do three things.

Repeating the three as he spelled them out, he found the students remembered them and could repeat them back - a minute later and a few minutes later when he checked again: Study harder, listen to your teachers, and pray.

“Do these three things and you are going to have a great time in school.”

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