Several weeks before his episcopal ordination and installation as the 10th bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington, Bishop William E. Koenig took part in an interview with Joseph P. Owens, editor of The Dialog.
Q. Bishop Koenig, welcome to the land of blue crabs and cheese-steaks, the turf of Phillies and Eagles, and Orioles and Ravens. Do you have an affinity for any of that?
I’m going to learn (laughing). I like crabs. I must say that. And I’ll learn the rest.
Q. Many priests will tell you they hoped always to be a parish priest. Some will say they hoped always to become a pastor. Modesty often prevents someone from admitting they longed to be a bishop. When you became a priest and you thought about your ministry in years to come, where did you hope that would lead you?
Well, certainly I wanted to be a priest. I think there were times when I was in high school that I would love to be a teacher in one of the Catholic schools. But once I got into my first parish, it’s really what I desired to do. I recall when I was six years ordained they asked me to be a vocations director and that was a real surprise to me. In doing it, I kind of realized that this is something of great service to the church, but also felt that this was something I could bring, once I went back to being at a parish, I could bring some of those experiences and be a little bit more experienced in meeting the needs of parishioners. So it’s always been a parish experience. It’s always been to be a parish priest.
Q. Who were the people who most helped shape your faith and point you in the direction of the Lord?
Certainly, my family. My parents. When I was in eighth grade, I went to Catholic school and Sister said ‘OK, we’re going to have a talk in the library from some of the students from St. Pius X. They’re going to tell you about St. Pius.’ I had never heard about St. Pius. As we went there, there probably were about 60 kids in the library and one of the guys said, ‘You know, St. Pius X is a school for those who may think about being a priest.’ Vocation is something in which one is being called to be a priest. And a vocation might be something as simple as having an admiration for a priest in the parish. And as I sat there and I listened, I thought, ‘You know, I thought about the possibility of being a priest, and I admire some of the work some of the priests in the parish are doing. Maybe I have a vocation.’ And so I went home that evening and said I think I’d like to apply as one of the schools I’d like to go to at St. Pius. But I also realize that I’ve got to tell my parents this, and there’s a real hesitation because I wasn’t sure exactly what their reaction would be. I told them and I remember my father saying ‘Oh, well, that’s if you want to be a priest.’ I said ‘Well, I’m thinking about it.’ And their reaction to this day I remember, they said ‘Well, that’s great, and if you change your mind, that’s fine too. You have our blessing if that’s where you want to go.’
And so that really began formalizing taking specific steps of thinking about priesthood and discerning priesthood and listening to God’s call as far as vocations go. My parents were very important for me. The local parish was very important to me. It was a place that was a lot of activity, there were sports leagues, baseball teams and the Catholic school there. It was a place where I would go in the summertime to watch games and play games. So that was also important, the local parish that I was part of. It’s also the people that I’ve met along the way, especially the priests that I’ve met that have been part of the formation in the seminary as well as the seminarians that I would have been classmates with who I’ve grown to know and pray with.
Q. We are — all across the globe — hopefully, coming off of an unprecedented time when churches were closed, restrictions were many and illness and death fell upon a large number of people. It seems that continuing to keep people safe while attracting them back to church is “Job One” for all of us. Is it fair to say that is a top priority in the Diocese of Wilmington? And what are the best methods to help people make the decision to return to Mass each Sunday?
I think certainly there’s a hunger that people have. The pandemic in many ways forced people to step back and reassess things. There wasn’t as much frenetic activity that we — myself included — can sometimes get involved with. By stepping back we say ‘OK, what’s important? what are the priorities in my life?’
So I think to get people back, that’s one of the steps. Just to say, ‘OK, this is one of the ways we can meet that hunger for God.’ St. Augustine would say ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.’ Sometimes we think we can fill those hungers with fleeting things, but really it’s God. To try to help people realize this is where that hunger can be fed.
The second thing is just to help people be connected. I think that’s the other thing that the pandemic did. People were disconnected from one another. In coming together as a community of faith, we’re also a community. It’s not just vertical with God feeding that hunger, but it’s also horizontal where we are with one another. Certainly, praying is the highest way we come together as a community, but to continue to explore ways, whether it’s prayer groups, support groups, working as a team for religious education … those ways help us come together, too.
Q. You’ve had a little more than two months since your appointment was announced. I’m sure you had business to tend to in Rockville Centre (as vicar of clergy) and then there is the practical task of moving to your new home. Have you had a chance to learn more about the Diocese of Wilmington and what may be some of the issues you need to address first?
I have to be honest; I’ve been so involved with the personnel things here (at Rockville Centre), you were very gracious in giving me a book about the history of the parishes that I haven’t quite delved into yet. I have heard that it’s a beautiful, beautiful area. That the city itself is wonderful. The coast is a real great gift. That people are joyous. I’ve heard things from others, who have visited or have relatives or have moved there.
Q. You have for almost five years worked with Bishop Barres, the bishop of Rockville Centre and former priest of the Wilmington diocese. I know Bishop Barres has many friends among clergy and laity still in the Wilmington diocese. What has Bishop Barres told you about your new home diocese and has he given you any advice?
He certainly has told me that it’s a great presbyterate. He’ll even at times say this name or that name of this person or that person. He certainly has said to me that the parishes themselves … there’s a diversity of parishes and experiences. I think his advice really is to – I just watch his example, too – is going out, meeting people, going to parishes and getting to know the priests. That would be his verbal advice, but certainly the example that he sets.
Q. The diocese and its office of safe environments have made it a high priority to deal directly with instances of sexual abuse and has not had a recent case or accusation made against it in many years. Are you confident that the church as a whole has done the right thing in dealing with it? And do you believe the church can overcome the pain and suffering it has caused among the faithful?
I do believe the church has to continue to do what they are doing as well as continue to develop even more ways of helping survivors of abuse. It was a very, very dark time in which we became aware of what was taking place. It’s unconscionable that this would be part of the church or part of people’s experience of the church.
As I look, I also think that the church has taken steps that can be an example to other institutions of how we can reach out to survivors, how we can handle accusations and protect the most vulnerable. And that goes with the background screening that we do. The monitoring program where we have … or the training program where they may become even more aware and sensitive to areas where there’s potential for abuse. All of those things are really great examples for me of things we really have to be at the forefront of.
Q. The office of pro-life activities in the diocese has not had a director since the death of Father Leonard Klein in late 2019. What would you say to the pro-life advocates who believe the church needs to be among the leaders in the fight against abortion?
I would certainly agree. We need to protect life and the sacredness of life from the moment of conception to natural death. And that there are different ways that we do that. Certainly, there’s prayer. Just this morning, one of the prayers in the universal prayer was the protection of all life. There’s developing programs that will help protect life and help people to have children. Provide for the needs of young parents or to-be parents. There’s the need to continue to make — who we are and what our faith tells us – make it known, in the public square also.
Q. We now have our second Catholic president of the United States in the nearly 250 years of our nation. President Biden is from Delaware and a regular churchgoer his entire life. There is a great divide in our diocese, as there also seems to be among leaders of our church. Some of our local Catholics are proud to say our president is a Catholic. Others are quite the opposite – they believe he should be denied the Eucharist and some even say he should be excommunicated. What do you say to people who would like to engage in that conversation? People identify Joe Biden as being Catholic, but do the public policy positions of the president send a mixed message?
To me, this is something that has to be taken up with an individual. That’s the role of a pastor. And, so, I would welcome the opportunity. I’ve never spoken to President Biden. I would welcome the opportunity to have a conversation with him. As a Catholic bishop, I am called to teach the fullness and the beauty of the Catholic faith.
Q. This isn’t the only issue that has created polarization. As we see threats against democracy manifest themselves in ways scarcely seen in this country, isn’t social polarization the greatest threat to our living together in freedom?
I do see that there are certain camps that judge the other camp. There isn’t a coming together, whether that’s in government or whether that’s at times seen in other places. I think when people actually come together they realize that we all are very similar. That we all have common interests. Unfortunately, though, we can fall into just lumping that other group, instead of just seeing that individual in that other group.
Q. How can we evangelize and invite people to join the Church in a time when the Church is deeply divided on several fronts?
The best way is to allow them to experience the fullness of our faith. We have a tradition that goes back 2,000 years. It’s to allow them to know Christ whether that through our preaching, our teaching, the sacramental life of the church. That’s the first way. And the other way is to bring people together so that they realize they’re not all alone in practicing their faith. There’s others of us who have the same values and have the same desires … have the same pursuit of goodness.
Q. Livestreaming Masses has been taken to a new level over the past year or so. Many Catholics have come to rely on that. How can we walk that line of continuing the access to Masses via livestream and social media but encourage the return to Mass and the sacraments in person?
I think we have to see how it develops. People have said to me, ‘We’re so glad to be back to Mass. We’ve been watching it on YouTube, watching it livestreamed, but it’s just not the same.’ That to me says that this has led to even a deeper appreciation of being in that place where it’s not just listening to the words of prayers and the homily but receiving the Eucharist and being part of our Eucharistic celebration where we become part of that sacrifice and we’re offered up along with that bread and wine and transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
(Livestream) can be an instrument, a step in people being more appreciative of the Mass. We still have to see how this thing evolves as we come back again. In some ways, the idea of the Eucharistic fast is to allow us to grow in our appreciation for what we’re going to be receiving, and we don’t eat an hour before. In some ways, this COVID thing has for some of us been a fast because we couldn’t get to church and makes us even somewhat more aware and appreciative of what now we are able to participate in again.
Q. Bishop, you have a background in Catholic Youth Ministry. We have an active Catholic Youth program that includes all sorts of engagement to get young people involved in their church. Many of us are Catholic parents who raise our children in the church only to find that they make different decisions for themselves as they grow older. What can we do better to more fully engage young people in their faith and help make it a part of their lives?
First of all, let’s know we leave some things in God’s hands and therefore we turn to God in prayer. Saint Monica was the great example of that as far as her just dedicating her life to praying for her son, Saint Augustine.
Part of it is, we do our best to form young people, making sure that they go to Mass, that they experience the sacraments, but then when they get to a certain age we also realize that as young adults now they have freedom and now we have to step back and continue to pray that they make the right choices. And that they know the truth of our faith and the riches of our faith. I don’t think there is one way where you can just say ‘This will turn everyone around.’ The important thing is giving them an experience as they get older and then stepping back and allowing them to make their choices.
I must say, in my parish experience, I’ve been touched by the example of grandparents, who will bring children to Mass, maybe when they’re staying with them for a weekend or perhaps if they’re in the same neighborhood, they bring them to religious education, part of it is because the parents are working and they can’t get the children to religious education, but the grandparents are the ones who expose their grandchildren – this next generation – to our faith.
Q. You’ve done some interesting work in your priesthood. What’s the best job you ever had?
(Laughs) Umm, McDonald’s … no. My first job while I was in high school, flipping burgers (laughs). I think the best job I had was being a pastor. Being in a parish with schools where there’s so much energy and life seven days a week. Meeting the great diversity of the young as well as the backbone of the parish, a person who was older, the real longtime parishioner. That to me was the greatest job that I had.
Q. Bishop Malooly ordained Father Michael Preston in May. It was a joyous event. It also was our first priestly ordination in four years. We also had ordination of a transitional deacon and appear poised to have a line of seminarians beyond that. Still, we have a great need for vocations. You have a significant background as a vocations director. What can you bring to that effort? And how do we as a church help support men to follow through on the path to priesthood?
It’s multifaceted. As a vocation director, personal invitation or recognition of qualities or gifts that a person might have that would lead one to believe that this person might have what is needed to be a good priest. It’s an important thing to recognize the person. So whether it’s a parent or a relative or just another parishioner, just the opportunity to say to this person, ‘You’d make a good priest.’ That could be a seed which is planted in that person, and perhaps nothing will happen, but the chances are that person will not be insulted by a comment like that.
Just planting a seed or recognizing that is one way of even beginning the support. I think prayer is an important ingredient to support vocations. Some seminaries have a Holy Hour maybe once a month for vocations where people would pray specifically for people to answer the call.
Once a person is discerning, I think bringing those discerners together to try to support one another and to strengthen one another in listening to God’s call is an important thing. That’s more of the formal work of a vocation director. And then trying to get the best of seminary formation to the person would be essential.
Q. As you move to a new place, what are some of the things you will miss most about home?
I’m not going to miss traffic (laughing). I’ll miss my friends and my family. But the good thing is I’m not too far away from those people. And with the wonders of technology, I’m very close to those people. I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t feel like it’s anything I’m going to miss except for some of the people that I would otherwise see much more frequently.
Q. I know there are so many topics and items of discussion, and we’ve touched on just a few. If you take a minute to think about your opening message to churchgoers in the Diocese of Wilmington, what did we miss? What more would you like to say as you begin your leadership here in the diocese?
One of the questions at the news conference was ‘What are my priorities?” Well, my priority is to find out what my priorities are. To learn what to assess and gauge and to hear what the needs are and to go from there. As I’ve gone into other parishes in my priesthood that’s really been my modus operandi for going forth. So that’s really what I’m looking forward to in Wilmington when I get there. I’m excited to learn the towns and where they are and the different parishes that are part of the Diocese of Wilmington, both in Delaware as well as in Maryland.