Bishop praises priests and people as he reflects on episcopacy

Laura Keener, Editor.

On July 27, Bishop Roger Foys will celebrate his 75th birthday and, as required by Canon law, submit his resignation to the Holy Father. As the date approaches, the Messenger sat down with Bishop Foys to talk about the process of getting a new bishop, to review his accomplishments and to share his thoughts about his episcopacy and the people of the Diocese of Covington. Also, this edition highlights the work of the Curia and its staff who have assisted Bishop Foys throughout his episcopacy.

Q. On July 27 you will celebrate you 75th birthday and will be submitting your resignation letter to the Apostolic Nuncio. Why is that and what is the process of naming a new bishop?

A. On a bishop’s 75th birthday he, by Canon law, sends his resignation to the Apostolic Nuncio who communicates it to the Holy Father. Once a bishop sends his letter, a number of things can happen. The Holy Father might accept it immediately, for example because of health reasons. Or the Holy Father can say “I accept your resignation and it will be effective once the new bishop is named”; that bishop would then stay on as the bishop. A bishop could also ask that his resignation be accepted immediately, most often for reasons of health. So there is no clear-cut, one size fits all. If the Holy Father accepts the resignation and it’s effective when the successor is named, then the process begins for naming the new bishop — that process can take anywhere from four months to a year.

Q. As you prepare to submit your letter of resignation, what’s on your heart and mind?

A. People ask me, “Will you miss being the bishop?” The short answer is, I will still be a bishop. Once my resignation is accepted I won’t be an active bishop in the sense of administering the diocese. As far as the administration is concerned, that’s a part of being a diocesan bishop that is for some bishops, and it is for me, difficult because it’s a thin line sometimes between being a pastor and a CEO or COO.

What’s on my heart? I will miss the pastoral side of the episcopacy. I will miss parish visits, I will miss confirmations — I will still go to festivals.

I will still make myself available for pastoral work — pastoral work I haven’t had the chance to do because of the demands of the episcopacy. I recently blessed the Parish Kitchen, and that’s the kind of thing I would like to do, to help out at a place like Parish Kitchen or to fill in when priests need help, when they are on vacation or not well. So I will still be involved in pastoral ministry directly to the people.

What’s on my mind is that I hope that I did a good job. I hope I fulfilled the role of the ministry of bishop to God’s people. It’s a complicated ministry. For example, the ministry of the bishop to his priests; he’s called to be father, brother, teacher and friend. That relationship has been strained among bishops and priests since the onset of the sexual abuse crisis in terms of the trust between a bishop and a priest. The lines are very clear cut what bishops have to do — should do — and because of that, trust between priests and bishop has eroded some. That’s always been a struggle because a bishop is called in Canon Law to be especially kind to priests who are in trouble. Depending on what the trouble is, that can be a challenge. In the end, when I stand before the throne of God, I hope to say that I did the best I could.

Q. What’s the state of the diocese right now?

A. Overall the diocese is doing more than holding its own — I think the diocese is thriving. We have been blessed with good priests, good religious and good people. In 2002, when I first came and we faced the sexual abuse crisis — one of the very first dioceses to face it head on — the state of the diocese was tenuous. All of this was coming out in the open and it was horrific and embarrassing, but our people responded in such a generous way. I don’t mean just financially but just a generous and accepting way with compassion. Now I think the diocese is thriving.

Q. You did a lot of building projects. How were you able to afford to do those? Are we in debt?

A. The diocese itself is debt free. There is some debt on the parishes and schools that did some of these building projects but all of the building projects that we did as a diocese, for example the Curia building, those are all paid for. We could afford it through the generosity of God’s people and their pride in their schools and the pride in their parishes.

Q. Which projects are you most proud of?

A. I am proud of them all, I really am. Each of them has its own reason for having been built, remodeled or renovated and for that parish or school it’s something they are proud of. I am just so proud of the entire diocese that has done this remarkable amount of renovation and building in really a short amount of time to expend $190,000,000.

Q. You did establish some new departments at the Curia, obviously Buildings and Properties. How has that helped the diocese?

A. We would never have been able to do as much building and renovation as successfully as we have without the Buildings and Properties Office. Buildings and Properties Office put together a Building Commission that reviews all plans and looks for the best value that we can get, while at the same time not taking shortcuts. It’s also given us the ability to plan for the future. Some places — and every diocese and parish is like this — we had differed maintenance. That is one of the worst things because you can get to the point where buildings are so deteriorated that a parish comes close to closing or the school is no longer safe. This office has been able to keep us abreast of everything that needs to be done on a regular basis.

Q. When you arrived, Pro-Life ministry was a part of the Family Life department and now it is its own office. How has this ministry grown?

A. As we studied the different ministries in which we were engaged it became clear to me that we needed a greater focus on our pro-life ministry. It is for this reason, and at the request of what had been the Pro-Life Commission without status as a full-fledged diocesan office, that we initiated a Pro-Life Office with a director and a staff. This office has done a remarkable job in promoting pro-life and respect for life at all its stages. It has engaged in this ministry not only locally but also nationally. Pro-life and respect for all life is basic to our belief as Christian Catholics.

Q. One of the biggest accomplishments under Spiritual Works is the Synod. Do you feel like the Synod met its purpose?

A. Yes and no. I think that the Synod brought people from all over the diocese together. The Synod enabled people to look at the diocese and look at the Church, to study the documents that cover the entire life of the diocese — the spiritual life and the material life. For the Synod itself — when we gathered so many people and voted for the Synod documents — the Cathedral was filled. In that respect it was a huge success. What was disappointing was the census. It was just a very difficult time. We were in the throes of the sex abuse crisis and we did not do as well as I had hoped with the census part of the Synod. The census would have given us a clearer indication on what we needed to do in terms of establishing new parishes. Aside from that, the Synod gave us direction — all of the objectives and goals were achieved — and now we have an annual plan that was born of the Synod. It’s time, I think, for a sixth Synod of the diocese, but I will leave that to my successor.

Q. Many of our urban parishes were challenged to do things that I don’t know that they even thought they could do and yet they have done it. How did that happen?

A. In a lot of dioceses, people in urban parishes are just waiting for their church to close and they have no hope. When you give people hope and you give them some assurance that they have meaning and are providing a ministry and a service to others, then they take ownership of their church. That’s why our urban core parishes were able to thrive. First, they were led by pastors who believed in them. Then the parishioners began to believe in themselves. They know their history, which is a rich history of all our parishes and schools, and they want to keep that alive. I don’t think they want to walk out either. They don’t want to say, “I’m the last one out, shut the lights.” These parishes have been around for a long time and they have all held their own.

Q. Bringing Bishop Maes home to the Cathedral, are you glad you did it?

A. I have no regrets about bringing Bishop Maes’ remains back to the Cathedral. He didn’t build the Cathedral as a testament or a monument to himself. He says clearly that he built it for the people of the entire diocese and not just the Catholic people, but all the people. He had come to love Covington. He wanted the Cathedral to be the center of Covington, a place where people could come and pray and see art; a place that would lift people’s minds and hearts to God. For me that’s what our Cathedral does. It goes back to the faith of our people — they sacrificed a great deal to build this monument to God. I felt moved to bring his remains back to the Cathedral he built out of love of God and for the people of this community — Covington.

Q. What’s it like celebrating Mass with Bishop Maes there?

A. From the bishop’s chair you can see directly into the crypt and see his image on top of the sarcophagus. I am very conscious that his remains are there. I never hesitate at any Mass to pray for him and ask him to pray for us. It has changed the way I look at the Cathedral. It was like bringing him home. I was touched to see the Cathedral filled for his requiem Mass; that spoke very highly of God’s people.

Q. How has ministering through the pandemic given you a deeper appreciation for the Church?

A. Ministering through the pandemic has been a real struggle for all of our priests and people and for me. The weeks we were not able to have public celebration of the Mass, were the worst. The most difficult decision I had to make in my life was to suspend Mass — I was the last bishop in the area to do so — because I denied people the Eucharist. As magnificent as our Cathedral is, preaching to an empty Cathedral left a real hole in my heart. Having daily Mass privately in my chapel was difficult because I was doing something that I had denied my people. I was celebrating Eucharist and receiving the Eucharist and I could not do that for the people to whom I minister. Having been denied the privilege of having people in Church heightened my compassion for God’s people and has, really for me, made much more real the fact that the Church is living, breathing people. It is the people of God who make the Church come alive and make the Church beautiful.

Q. You have ordained 41 priests for the Diocese of Covington. Did you ever have any doubts that you would be able to get vocations?

A. I never doubted that we would get vocations. I have preached all my priesthood that the vocations are there; we have to look for them and encourage them. The Lord promised he would never leave us without shepherds. So we began in earnest a vocations program that reached out to people in the parishes — we had people praying for vocations. Success always breeds success and vocations started to come. When I see that I have ordained 67 percent of the active priests in the diocese, it is a very humbling thing. When a bishop ordains a priest, that priest is his spiritual son. When the candidate puts his hands in the bishop’s hands and promises respect and obedience, that’s a two-way street; the bishop is also promising to support and care for this priest who is now his son. Early on I was encouraged to close parishes, to consolidate parishes because we don’t have enough priests. The answer was not to close parishes, the answer is to build and you build by encouraging vocations. I attribute that to our priests and people who prayed for vocations and encouraged vocations.

Q. What are the needs of the diocese now?

A. It’s time for a new confirmation homily. I have preached a confirmation homily that is very similar, if not identical, at every confirmation. People are kind to me; they still comment on it. I try to involve the candidates and find out where they are at this time in their life. Someone questioned why I preach the same homily … because it works. The Gospel is the Gospel. The Gospel message is simply that God loves us. I could find 150 different ways to say it but that’s the Gospel and that’s what I preach. One of my joys has been confirming the over 21,500 confirmation candidates. It’s wonderful to see the excitement in their faces. They have the rest of their life ahead of them and to have empowered them with the grace of the Holy Spirit is a real grace. The Holy Spirit works through all of us. I see the Holy Spirit working through the candidates, their parents and sponsors and it gives me great hope for the Church.

Q. What are things that you think the next bishop will need to work on?

A. When you are in a place for any length of time you don’t always see what needs to be done. I have every confidence that he will see what needs to be done. He will inherit a wonderful presbyterate, laity, staff and consecrated religious. I have no doubt at all that there have been deficiencies in my ministry in the last 18 years and he will see what those are. The Scripture tells us that one man plants, another one waters, another one sees the plant come to fruition — it’s going to be that way.

Q. You are very available to the Curia staff, celebrating baptisms, weddings and house blessings. You often mention that they are your family. Can you elaborate on your relationship with the Curia staff?

A. I will miss working with the Curia staff. I have come to look at them as my family. Working in the Curia, for our staff, is not just a job. The Curia exists to help our parishes and our schools. Unfortunately the Curia is not always appreciated outside of the Curia. I see them day in and day out and I know what they do and I know how committed they are. They are my family, we have shared good times together, we’ve shared bad times together; we have shared successes and we have shared some failures. However, I have found in my 18 years here that they have always been very supportive of me and of our work and our mission. I have tried to be as supportive as I can to them. We work together and we pray together — we are family. I really and truly will miss them. My successor is inheriting a wonderful staff and I hope he comes to know them as a family as I have. I will never forget the wonderful people of the Curia.

Q. How were you able to accomplish all of the work that has been done?

A. I can’t take credit for all of this. What makes me feel good about the work that’s been done is that it is the work of so many priests, deacons, lay people and religious. It’s what happens when God’s people come together and work together.