In his 24 years of priestly ministry in the Diocese of Little Rock, Bishop-elect Erik Pohlmeier has pastored parishes, held a variety of diocesan roles including director of faith formation and diaconate formation and has been a national voice for natural family planning.
When it was publicly announced May 24 that Pope Francis had chosen him to be the next bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine in Jacksonville, Fla., the responses of the faithful he’s ministered to have been congratulatory, often telling him they knew he would one day be chosen, mixed with sadness about the goodbye to come. On June 21, Bishop-elect Pohlmeier sat down with Arkansas Catholic ahead of his July 22 episcopal ordination to reflect on his time in Arkansas and the road ahead.
Did you ever think you’d be a bishop?
No. It's not something that you even think about. People say kind things, but it's just in passing. I'm also aware of so many friends of mine, people that I think would be great bishops. Even now I think they would probably be best suited for it.
You mentioned during your press conference that, after celebrating Mass, you were thinking about going to see a movie when you got the call that Pope Francis wanted you to lead the Diocese of St. Augustine. That’s a dramatic shift going from a calm Sunday to a life-changing call. What went through your mind?
The first thing was shock. Literally reminding myself to breathe again. Then it was more starting to be the weight of everything, knowing what a bishop does, what the responsibility is. I would say that was the emotion really for that day and the next day. The only person I could talk to was Bishop (Anthony B.) Taylor, but that was great, because I got a chance to talk about it out loud. Of course he understands, because he received that call, too.
What was your prayer at that time?
I've cultivated a life of prayer over all my years and so I spent a lot of time in the chapel in that day and a half as well. I wasn't praying for anything specifically. It was more of a sense of “OK, God, you're behind this. What do you want?” And really just a sitting-with, to let God guide and however he wants to guide. What was always clear all along is that there was a sense of gratitude because feeling the weight of it, there is also the sense of an honor of being chosen for this and then a reminder in prayer of God, “This is me, this is me choosing you, this isn't you.” So that kind of reminder and reassurance was good.
What were some of the notable responses of your immediate family members or friends?
All of that happened on text (May 24). I couldn’t tell any of them. I had to tell them by text and then I didn’t talk to them for days. Because you can’t say anything until it’s announced. So then an hour or two hours later, I had the press conference. And then for the next two days, and I didn't ever stop. I was going from meeting to meeting. I sent out messages and the message said, “This is happening and I’m turning my phone off.” Because it’s going to buzz nonstop. I had to do a lot those two days. So I sent the messages, turned off my phone and then two days later I checked messages.
What was your parents' response?
I told them in person. They had the same shock that I had. But I had that five-day silent retreat for the deacon formation at Subiaco (May 18-22). So I told them and then at night after the retreat would wrap up, I would go back over there. So I had several days, not just to tell them, but to tell them and go back and talk about it and let all the questions they had surface and the comments that they wanted to make.
Now that people have had time to sit with this reality, what have been the responses?
The two responses are the people here that know me well, they're excited for me, and they make lots of compliments of, “Oh we knew a long time ago” and “You'll be great” and all of those compliments mixed with, “Oh but you're leaving and you’ll be gone and we won't see you anymore.” So there's that mixture of happiness for me, sadness for leaving. But then there's the reaction of everybody there. Because that's totally different, they don't know me at all. So they're all very excited and their excitement is purely the understanding of what a bishop is, a recognition that this is a connection to God, their faith that comes with having another bishop.
You were born in Colorado. How did you get to Arkansas?
My mom is from Arkansas, from Paris. She was born in that house. When I was 3, my grandpa died, and we moved in with my grandma. So I lived there since I was 3, same house she did.
You grew up at St. Joseph Church in Paris in a very faith-driven family. How did that upbringing prepare you for your new role?
I would say it was a constant kind of growth. And there's a maturity that happens from a combination of things. Partly it's just getting older, you see the world differently just for getting older. But then as you build a life of prayer, then there's a spiritual maturity. And then experience as a priest, that starts to bring more and more of kind of the emotional maturity, that emotional intelligence of interacting with people in all the highs and lows of life. So there starts to be a better sense of that, what people's lives are like, how to interact with people, so that increases. I think as you have more and more experience in all of those ways, there can be an appreciation of a lot of that as well, because when I was a young priest, a lot of attention was taken up making sure I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, and how's this supposed to go and how's this supposed to go, and allow a lot of the kind of mechanics of things are second nature. So it's easier to be focused on the people involved and on the deeper truths involved.
You’ll celebrate 24 years as a priest July 25. What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned about ministering to people?
I don't know if I can narrow it down to an important lesson. The thing that struck me about priesthood all along is that it's such a shared life. People invite you into their lives, or they need you at a moment. So sometimes it's an invitation like at a wedding, or sometimes it's a chance occurrence at a hospital bed. But you're intimately part of people's lives. In many cases, you're an intimate part of the biggest moment in somebody's life, like their wedding, or the death of a loved one, or a baby being born or whatever. Being that connected to people in those ways, it just kind of opens up the recognition of people and God at work in people's lives. And, you know, one thing that struck me with being called as a bishop is that it's so much like the visible structure of the Church. People know who the bishop is even if they don't know him at all and identify him there even if they don't understand why he dresses the way he dresses. And yet, for all of that visible reality, it's all a structure so that God can affect the lives of individual people that are always beloved to him. And so all of those moments of encounter with people, whether it's my 200th wedding or what, for them, it's a moment that reminds them of God present in their lives in that moment. And so the whole point of all of it is so that this exists for their sake.
You’ve been involved with promoting Couple to Couple League/natural family planning, the permanent diaconate, faith formation, theological consultant for Arkansas Catholic, along with all the other roles a pastor takes on — what has been the most spiritually fulfilling?
Well, spiritually fulfilling is the routine of prayer that goes underneath all of that. In just finishing deacon formation, one of the things that they had to learn was that spirituality isn't a class you take. You do take a class of spirituality because you learn about the history of spirituality, the teachings of the saints, but spiritual formation doesn't happen in that class. It happens in your prayer, in your conversations with spiritual directors, where you take all the stuff that's happening in your life and in your head and you process it in the more interior reality. So the most spiritually fulfilling is that; it's having the routine of prayer, where there's that encounter with God and bringing into that, whatever has been happening in the day. So in terms of spiritually, it would definitely be that more personal encounter.
Is there a style of prayer you’re most drawn to?
I would say the meditative reflection. I was ingrained early on in the importance of a holy hour. And the importance of not filling that with kind of busyness. So more sitting-with.
Will there be anyone close to you in Arkansas who will have a role in your ordination?
My two deacons, my dad (Tom) and my brother (Jason). So my brother is going to serve as deacon for all the events, and then my dad is going to serve at part of them. For the ordination, he wants to be dad. But part of a bishop ordination is that they take a big, decorative book of the Gospels and hold it over the bishop’s head. So that’s part of the ceremony, and that's done by two deacons, they hold it over your head. So that'll be the moment with Dad and Jason both standing there holding that book. I'll be kneeling and there'll be holding the book over my head.
That’ll be really powerful I’d imagine.
I’d imagine. They’ll probably have to scoop mom up off the floor after that.
Is there anyone else?
Oh yeah, it’ll be all the stuff — altar serving, lectors, offertory, all of those things are almost all family members.
What have you learned about your new diocese that you are encouraged to see?
Everything I've seen has been encouraging. When I started doing that search of parish bulletins and listening to homilies, it was clear that people are motivated by devotion, by prayer or by evangelization. And you can tell that by what they're promoting. So that's exciting. And then the handful of conversations I had in those two days with staff and priests, their excitement about what they're doing.
What have you learned about being bishop from the ones you’ve served with, Bishop Andrew J. McDonald, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and Bishop Anthony B. Taylor?
So Bishop McDonald, he was the bishop my whole life really. So I experienced him as a bishop that was just very personable and always enjoyable to be around and coming to visit my classroom when I was a little kid. What he was extraordinary with was his correspondence with people. Like an outrageous amount of sending letters and cards to people. And when I was in high school, I got one of those cards, inviting me to become a priest. So I still have it. And then right after I was ordained, he was gone so I never really experienced him as my boss, only as a kid growing up with him as the father figure. So I can always relate to him, so to see the bishop in that light, always on the move, and yet always helping people feel connected to the Church.
And then Bishop Sartain came and he brought just a clear focus on what we're about, on the holiness of the life of the priesthood. He came in 2000, and he was younger than I am now when he came. And then he was here two years later when the the sex abuse crisis erupted and so he's responding to that and guiding us through that. And I remember distinctly, him talking about, he said talking to us, “You're not guilty of this, but you're responsible.” And he didn't mean you're responsible for it happening. He means you're responsible period. “And as responsible people, you have to help the Church heal now.” And so that was a challenge to not wring your hands or say, “Well, I didn't do this. Why do I have to deal with it?” But rather to embrace this as the cross and say, “Dealing with whatever, that's the responsibility that you accepted by joining your life to the cross.” So, you know, I remember that, just that clear focus, what that takes.
Then Bishop Taylor, so he's been the bishop now that I've worked with at the diocese the closest because of those three years there. He's just fearless. He says frequently, “The only person you have to satisfy is Jesus” and a lot of people say that, but I don't know anybody that actually believes and lives it the way he does. So now talking to him about being a bishop, he's very good about dealing with whatever's difficult, complex, has no good answer. And then yet, sleeping peacefully because he's done everything that he can do to please God in the midst of it.
What kind of bishop do you hope to be?
I don't know. I'm not sure even how to think about that question. And one of the things Bishop Sartain told me, and then several other bishops have told me is you have to just be yourself. Because for whatever people thought or anything, you're only chosen to be a bishop because people along the way see things about you. Well, everything they see is you serving as a priest, you serving as a pastor. And so whatever those qualities were, that caused them to say you would be a good bishop, those are the things you need to still do. Don't try to become something different.
I know family and being with students and visiting with young people is important to you, so is that something you’ll carry with you?
Being with, I think the simple thing is that, but it's being with everybody. That’s one of the things I see already as a bishop, is that you really are responsible for everything. In a way you're not as a pastor. And so, being responsible for all of that means you're relying on a lot of people. And so a big part of supporting them is being there. So I wouldn't limit it to any particular group, even if it's schools, as much as we want to support our schools. It’s not even just kids, it's the prisons, it's the nursing homes. It’s the 50th wedding anniversary, it’s the Knights of Columbus group, it’s every single thing. It’s every single group doing every single thing and the bishop being there, that's a huge part of encouraging them — using their talents as God wants them to. So I would say that the being there is going to be the thing. So there will be the tension, the pull between the administrative responsibility, that's part of it, that's important, and the being there. That means getting around to as many people as possible, but it's a smaller diocese, which makes it more available like that.
In your last homily at Christ the King you mentioned you wanted people to pray for you. Is that the best thing everyone can do for you during this transition?
That's the most consistent thing I've gotten from other bishops. So I have a stack now of letters, other bishops traditionally write letters of congratulating and offering prayers. And the most frequent thing in those letters is a new sense of how palpable that support is. And so all those bishops have felt that and I can say the same thing. So it's that prayerful support that allows the focus to be what it needs to be, so that it doesn't get caught up in either side of where this could go — of holding myself up on a pedestal or saying, “Oh, it shouldn't be me.” In between those extremes is the focus that no, God says, “I am putting you here, and I need you to use the ways I have formed you for this ministry.” So the ability to kind of shut out the noise and stay focused. That's what the prayer does.
I would imagine you had somewhat of a plan of how you thought the rest of your life was going to look like, and then all of a sudden, that completely changed. So what can you say about the faithful embracing change in their lives?
Lots of people have joked about in church circles, “You want to see God laugh, make plans.” Because of my (faith formation and deacon formation) jobs at the diocese ending, I was totally focused on just getting through June. And I was very intentionally not planning anything. Because I thought, “OK, in July, that's when I can reset and settle in” and really look at “Oh, what do I want to do here (at Christ the King Church and St. Francis of Assisi Church in Little Italy)?” So, definitely, there has to be that recognition that things can change in an instant. In my case, it's a change that comes with a lot of excitement, but every day, people are getting news that is life altering, that isn't so positive. So we have to live in this kind of readiness. And that's why you asked about prayer a couple times. That's why the prayer has to be “OK God, help me be who you want me to be in this moment.” Because if it gets more specific than that, well, then you set yourself up to be disappointed.
So in fact, in my last homily from Sunday, I preached about how often people say “I'm blessed,” because people say it all the time. But they mostly have a superficial notion of I say, “I'm blessed” when a lot of good things happen to me, then I'm blessed. That's not the way the Bible talks about being blessed. So God's notion of blessed is because God's present in everything. So if those good things are taken away, and I associate them with being blessed, that means I think I'm cursed now. And that's not the way God operates. So we have to live with that recognition that I'm blessed because God is part of my life. And that allows me to adapt to the good and the bad that comes.
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