Congregants at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock listened intently July 25 as Bishop Erik Pohlmeier of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., shared spirit-filled words of wisdom from the pulpit, as he had so many times throughout his 24 years as a priest in the Diocese of Little Rock.
His homecoming celebrated his 25th anniversary of priesthood on the feast of St. James the Greater and marked his second visit back to Arkansas since he was ordained bishop July 22, 2022. Diocese of Little Rock Bishop Anthony B. Taylor and retired Archbishop J. Peter Sartain concelebrated the Mass.
"Well, it's good to be here," Bishop Pohlmeier said to the faithful he had spent his priesthood ministering to as a pastor and in faith formation, diaconate formation and pro-life issues. For his homily, he chose to ponder a simple yet profound question, one he said he had been asked countless times already since his return visit: "How's it going?"
"The only way to really answer that question is to try to account for what God is doing. Because our lives are lived within the plan of God," Bishop Pohlmeier said. "And the more attuned we are to trying to follow what God desires for us, then the only way that we ought to answer that question, at least in our own heads, is to pause for a second and say, 'God, what are you up to?'"
Bishop Pohlmeier was ordained a priest July 25, 1998, and in every moment before, since and in between, God has been preparing his life for the service of others.
"He's a terrific priest and he's got so many talents and puts them at the Lord's service so effectively," Bishop Taylor said after the Mass. "Very organized, an excellent leader and he's off to a great start, already a year at St. Augustine. He was a good pastor at Christ the King and brought all of that with him to being pastor of a whole diocese."
His parents, Deacon Tom and Sharon Pohlmeier, parishioners at St. Joseph Church in Paris, were in the front row, smiling as he celebrated Mass.
"He just relies on the spirit all the time. He said as a priest, the vow of obedience makes you joyful wherever you are because that's where God wants you," his mother said. "It's just been amazing to see in the last year. It's been hard having him that far away from home because we were used to seeing him a lot. We miss him."
Bishop Pohlmeier celebrated an anniversary Mass at his home parish in Paris July 23.
Before celebrating Mass at the Cathedral, Bishop Pohlmeier prayed at Subiaco Abbey where he was ordained a priest.
Because Bishop Pohlmeier grew up in Paris, about five miles from Subiaco, then Bishop Andrew J. McDonald decided it would make sense he'd be ordained close to home, to celebrate with those who loved him most.
"I went to pray there yesterday on my anniversary itself so I could sit there and reflect in that place," Bishop Pohlmeier told Arkansas Catholic July 26. "Whenever I'm at Subiaco, the part of it that stands out to me the most is the laying prostrate on the floor. So that's the moment of that surrender. I remember being told by my spiritual director in the seminary about the generosity of God and be ready to ask God for those graces to be able to serve; serve as he calls. So that moment was the one that was really the kind of key moment of that surrender and receiving what God wanted to give."
His calling to religious life came many years before, as a sophomore at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he was involved in campus ministry. Bishop Pohlmeier said in learning about alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, he realized the "miraculous work of God" was not relegated to history.
"Reading stories of conversions of miracles that were happening to people now, it just clicked in my head that this work of God is something for now, not just for the past," he said, adding that his desire to help people solidified his journey to seminary.
"What got me over the edge was a realization that the best possible way to help people is the Eucharist," Bishop Pohlmeier said. "... It was that connection to offering the Eucharist, that's what caused me to decide to become a priest and certainly that has never changed; that has only grown stronger."
After his ordination, he served as associate pastor at Christ the King Church in Little Rock, the same parish he ended his priestly ministry in Arkansas as pastor when he was called to serve as bishop.
He also served at Our Lady of the Lake, Lake Village, St. Mary and St. John churches in Hot Springs and Our Lady of the Holy Souls in Little Rock. During his priesthood, he served as the diocesan director of the Office of Faith Formation and Office of Diaconate Formation, theological consultant for Arkansas Catholic and director of continuing education of clergy.
In each assignment, he lived out the concept of "a shared life," being with people throughout the highs, lows and the normalcy of life.
"So, in one part, that means a priest has to open up his life for people to call on him, and not always when it's convenient. So especially situations in people's lives — health things, hospital calls in the middle of the night, but also relationship problems and struggles," Bishop Pohlmeier said. "But then it goes both ways, because then a priest is also brought into people's lives in these significant moments when they are celebrating a marriage or a birth of a baby or graduations, these big moments in people's lives.”
One of those shared life experiences that continues to stand out from his priesthood was the COVID-19 pandemic and parishioners returning to Mass after months of closures. There were many moments of parishioners regaining that hunger for the Eucharist.
"I remember those first couple of weeks back after that. People crying, people that were regular (Mass-attending) people that hadn't been able to go to Mass and then were restored to that," he said. "I would say that was a big moment of just appreciating just how significant that is in people's lives and the kind of thing we don't fully appreciate until it's gone for a bit."
That sense of appreciation was apparent in the congregation July 25, as familiar faces stared back at him. The nostalgia for home became real.
"I didn't think about it until I got up into the chair and looked back over the congregation, and it was people from all of the parishes where I've served. So that reminder of the connection with so many people and then in the course of 25 years, lots of people have changed," Bishop Pohlmeier said.
While Bishop Pohlmeier got a glimpse of how life had progressed for his former congregants, his life has changed this past year as bishop in ways he couldn't imagine before receiving the call.
During his first week of celebrating Masses in the various deaneries, Bishop Pohlmeier heard so many prayer requests he wrote a prayer based on the litany of needs he heard from his new flock. It's printed on a prayer card for parishioners to pray along, but ultimately, he desires to carry out one of his promises as bishop to "pray for his people without ceasing."
This year has been one of learning and meeting people, to soon create new opportunities for spiritual growth.
"I would imagine people in St. Augustine would say evangelization has been a central thing I've emphasized," he said. "By evangelization, I think it's really a back-to-the-basics thing. In fact, I'd say one of the most significant things I've done since I've been there is we just hired a director of evangelization. So that's a new position that hasn't existed. They had talked about it, and they kind of created it but didn't hire anybody for it."
He emphasized a return to personalized evangelization can permeate the diocese and beyond, even in pro-life outreach.
"Pro-life is most effective when it's people in pregnancy centers meeting one-on-one with a pregnant girl who's scared," he said. "That's a big part of what I want to emphasize and learn about those things. There's been a whole lot that's impressed me about what I've inherited by becoming the bishop there. So now I just get to move into more direct action with it myself."
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