Crookston ministry 'a real joy and a treat,' Hoeppner says at farewell Mass

News: Diocese of Crookston

Bishop Michael Hoeppner entered his cathedral sanctuary Thursday for the first time in 13 years without carrying his crosier, the symbol of a diocesan bishop’s governing authority. Another man sat in the cathedra, a cathedral’s fixed chair of authority.

Hoeppner sat in a smaller chair as he offered Mass in the church, before turning over his keys and packing for a move “to a place where it’s warmer” than Crookston, Minnesota.

Hoeppner, who had been Bishop of Crookston, announced his resignation Tuesday, after a 20-month investigation into his administrative leadership of the diocese, especially allegations he coerced a man to recant an allegation of sexual abuse against a diocesan priest, failed to follow Church procedures and civil laws regarding abuse reporting, and made several significant lapses of judgment regarding the ministry of some priests.

During the Mass, Hoeppner spoke about what he had enjoyed about being Crookston’s bishop.

“It’s a Mass of Thanksgiving for the blessings that Almighty God has bestowed upon us, and myself especially, these past 13 and a half years. It’s been a real joy and a treat, and we thank Almighty God for it this morning,” the bishop said in remarks before the penitential rite.

The bishop’s resignation was requested by Pope Francis last month; Hoeppner is the first U.S. bishop to be investigated for negligence under the auspices of Vos estis lux mundi, a set of norms for investigating bishops promulgated by Pope Francis in 2019, in the wake of the Theodore McCarrick scandal. While several other U.S. bishops are now under Vos estis investigations, Hoeppner is the first to be requested to resign.

“Pope Francis has asked for my resignation, and has accepted it as I’ve given it,” Hoeppner said in his homily Thursday. 

“It comes as a result of the investigation into reports that I, at times, failed to observe applicable norms when presented with allegations of sexual abuse involving clergy of this diocese. And so that resignation has been accepted and Bishop Pates comes now,” he added, making reference to the man sitting temporarily in the cathedra, and temporarily carrying the crosier, Bishop Richard Pates, 78, who will serve as Crookston’s apostolic administrator until a new bishop is appointed.

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“The church describes the ministry of a bishop as teaching, sanctifying, and governing. It has been a joy and a blessing for me to serve as your seventh bishop these 13 and a half years,” Hoeppner said in his homily, which did not mention survivors of clerical sexual abuse or others who had called for his ouster. 

Much of bishop’s homily was nostalgic, listing the things he had enjoyed during his years in Crookston.

“I have enjoyed so very much sharing with you the teaching of the Church in the articles, the presentations, the homilies— I think of the different deanery presentations we put together… our convocation, and the year after our convocation as we reflected on where the Church is and where the Church is going. 

“It’s so important for us to have solid teaching — solid teaching — especially in our world today. We pray that the Lord continue to give good teachers in our Church. Especially for our young people. So many are confused about so many, many things in our world today, and it’s important that the truth of the Gospel and the Church’s tradition be clearly presented for all to hear.” 

“I enjoy teaching,” he concluded.

“I’ve also enjoyed celebrating the sacraments.” 

“The Acts of the Apostles today talks about the forgiveness of sins that Jesus gives to the Church and gives to his priestly ministers. The ability to forgive sins — we pass over that so lightly some times. But it is about the coming of forgiveness of sins and then the application of it when someone comes and asks forgiveness.”

“I enjoy celebrating all the sacraments,” Hoeppner reiterated, mentioning that he had celebrated “hundreds of confirmations a year” in Crookston, and ordained some of the 20 or 25 priests in attendance at the Mass, nearly two-thirds of the diocese’s active presbyterate.

“I enjoy the ordinations,” he added, “and of course the beautiful diocesan celebrations here at our beautiful cathedral.”

While he mentioned ordinations, Hoeppner’s homily did not mention Ron Vasek, a Crookston man who was close to ordination as a deacon when, he says, Hoeppner coerced him into recanting an allegation that a Crookston priest had sexually abused him as a teenager. 

Vasek, whose son is a priest in the diocese, ultimately did not become a deacon. His ordination was scheduled in 2017, but just weeks before it was to take place, Hoeppner decided not proceed, well after invitations had been sent and Vasek had been measured for vestments.

Bishop Hoeppner “lost his servanthood,” Vasek told The Pillar on Tuesday.

“When you lose what you’re ordained for as a deacon — and you lose the attitude of a servant, power goes to your head, and God ceases to be the focal point of your life. Instead it’s ‘me.’ And that’s what happened here.”

“He forgot he was a servant,” Vasek said.

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During his homily Thursday, Hoeppner also discussed governance, though he did not address in detail his own apparent failures in diocesan governance. 

“Governing involves providing vision and direction,” he said. The bishop mentioned a diocesan synod that took place shortly after his 2007 arrival in the diocese, adding that “we’re now following Pope Francis’ encyclical (sic) ‘The Joy of the Gospel.’

“I am very happy to say the diocese is very financially healthy,” he also noted, expressing gratitude to Catholics who have financially supported it.

The homily also offered some words of gratitude.

“I want to thank all the wonderful people with whom I have had the privilege of working these many years,” Hoeppner said.

“My brother priests, what a wonderful presbyterate you have here —  we have here.”

The bishop thanked deacons, religious sisters, and the diocese’s lay Catholics.

Hoeppner also thanked members of the diocesan staff.

“It’s been a delight for me to come to work every day at the chancery here, and it’s because of the people. It’s always because of the people. It’s just a delight, and there’s so many good people there. And we thank each and every one for the wonderful work they do for this local church,” he said.

Hoeppner, 71, added that in addition to his plans to move “somewhere warmer” with his sister, “I am trying to get my knees fixed.”

A livestreamed video of the Mass cut off toward the conclusion of the bishop’s homily, because of technical difficulties, a diocesan spokesperson told The Pillar. The entire Mass is expected to be posted online, even while it was intended initially for diocesan employees and priests.

A spokesperson for the diocese told The Pillar that the Mass had been envisioned for those who had worked directly with Hoeppner to say goodbye before he departs.

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Pates, the incoming temporary administrator of the diocese, told The Pillar by letter that he has three priorities during his tenure in Crookston. 

The bishop intends to “move about as much as I can in the Diocese of Crookston to meet the parish communities, to establish relationships as we move forward on our journey together.” 

Pates will also “spend priority time with the priests serving the Diocese of Crookston,” the bishop said, noting that an upcoming presbyteral gathering “will afford quality time for me to be with them.”

Finally, Pates said, he wants to “work together with a task force to be assembled, as we gradually re-open our churches as Covid protocols are lifted.”

“My hope is that this not be a passive moment, but is to be very intentional and strategic based on the Eucharist as the center of our lives. For me, this is not so much a challenge but an opportunity to evangelize.” 

“The Church exists to evangelize,” Pates added.

As Pates and the Diocese of Crookston prepare to move into the future, Hoeppner’s farewell homily offered them a few words of contrition.

“I certainly apologize to you and everyone, as I have apologized to our Holy Father, for any failures that are mine as governing — as bishop,” Hoeppner said.

“At the same time, I hold dear the many good things and blessings that God has showered upon us these past years.”