Bishop Alexander Sample on the need for a renewal of orthodoxy

By Jim Graves
(the Catholic World Report)

Bishop Alexander Sample at his episcopal ordination in 2006

Bishop Alexander Sample, 50, is celebrating the fifth anniversary of his ordination and installation as bishop of Marquette, on Michigan’s upper peninsula. At the time of his episcopal ordination, he was the youngest Catholic bishop in the US, and the first to be born in the 1960s.

Sample was born in Montana and grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, and attended Catholic schools there. Although he had thought about a vocation to the priesthood while growing up, he initially decided to pursue a career in engineering.

His family moved to Michigan, where he attended college. “I immediately fell in love with the upper peninsula of Michigan,” he recalled. “I loved the beautiful country and the people.”

After earning his BS and MS degrees in engineering, Sample opted to go to seminary. “I was more prayerful than many of my peers,” he remarked.  “That opened me up to the action of the Holy Spirit.”

He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Marquette in 1990, and filled a variety of diocesan positions, including serving simultaneously as pastor of three small parishes, before being ordained bishop of the diocese.

Marquette is a rural diocese; surrounded by three of the Great Lakes, much of it is wooded, and it is known for its cold winters. It has 50,000 Catholics, 94 parishes and missions, and 53 priests, many of whom must serve multiple parishes. Local industries include mining, lumber, and tourism, but much of the area is economically depressed, especially in the current recession.

Although a young bishop, Bishop Sample has been outspoken in his defense of Church teaching. In 2009, for example, he asked Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, retired auxiliary bishop of Detroit, not to speak in the Marquette diocese because of his dissenting views on such issues as homosexuality and the ordination of women. He also condemned the University of Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Barack Obama, calling the move “unconscionable” and “completely out of step with the Catholic Church’s teaching.”

Bishop Sample recently spoke to CWR.

You’ve said that when you made the decision to enter the seminary and pursue ordination to the priesthood, you never doubted your vocation, but others close to you did.

Bishop Sample: I never doubted my call to the priesthood. From the time I decided to enter the seminary, I felt a great peace. There were those who opposed my decision, including my father and my college professors. And, since I was ordained a priest, I have loved and enjoyed my life ever since.

My father knew I had pondered the idea of a vocation, but wanted me to become an engineer. He was proud of me, as were my college professors, and he thought I’d put the idea of a vocation out of my head.

Also, I was his only son. My grandfather was Alexander I, my father Alexander II, and I was Alexander III.  He wanted me to carry on the family legacy, and hoped there would be an Alexander IV.

When I announced my decision to him, he was unpleasantly surprised. He was cool to the idea. I had been living and studying at home, so we went through some rough months.

But he had a spiritual experience that led him to change his mind. He loved boats, and had one on Lake Superior. He was out boating, and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise. As he watched it, he realized that God had given him many good things in life. He had a good family, enjoyed financial success, and survived his first battle with cancer.

He realized that God had blessed him in many ways. He also realized that God was asking him, in return, to give him his only son as a priest. He returned from the trip and immediately called me down to the dock to talk to him. He shared his experience and said, “If this is what you believe God is calling you to do in your life, then I’m behind you 100 percent.”

From that moment on, he became my biggest supporter. He’d write me every week in the seminary to encourage me. His cancer returned, unfortunately. He made it to my ordination to the diaconate in 1989. In fact, he skipped a chemotherapy treatment to be there. I think he knew he wouldn’t make my ordination to the priesthood, however. He died a couple of months later.

Although he couldn’t be with us physically for my ordination to the priesthood in 1990, since he was with God, I like to say he had the best seat in the house.

What sort of growth has the Diocese of Marquette experienced in recent years?

Bishop Sample: Sadly, our Catholic population has been declining. The number of those regularly going to Mass has declined, and so has the income we’ve received in our parishes. We struggle to keep some of our small parish communities going.

There are two reasons why this has happened. The first is demographics in our region; there is a decline in the number of young people in the Upper Peninsula, especially due to the poor economy in Michigan. Young people can’t find work, so they leave the area in search of jobs to support their families.

Additionally, here in Marquette we’ve experienced what they’ve experienced in other parts of the country: some of our Catholic people are drifting away from the faith. They are not well formed in the faith and have been swayed by a secular culture. They don’t see religious values as important.

Is the use of contraception a factor?

Bishop Sample: Absolutely. Not everyone wants to talk about it, but that is a clear factor in the decline of the Catholic community. When I speak to my pastors, I hear them ask, “Where are the children?” We’re struggling to keep our Catholic school population up. This is true in our public schools as well.

My pastors want to have flourishing schools, but the children just aren’t there to fill them. Couples are using artificial contraceptives to limit the size of their families, and sterilization is also becoming a common practice. Families think they have the number of children they want, and then close off any further openness to life that God might want to bring into their family.

You’ve said that, to your pleasant surprise, scandalous behavior by a few members of the clergy, rather than being the end of the priesthood, has led to a time of transformation and renewal. Can you explain?

Bishop Sample: I’ve been involved in priest personnel work for many years. For nearly a decade, I was Marquette’s chancellor and director of ministry personnel services. I was the point-man when it came to dealing with issues of clerical sexual abuse. In 2002, when the priestly scandals were erupting, we were already struggling with vocations. I thought—this is going to be the death blow for vocations. What young man in this climate is going to give his life to the priesthood?

I was completely surprised. Many young men—wholesome, faith-filled, zealous men—stepped forward to become a part of the solution, to rebuild the Church. They wanted to be a part of the renewal of the priesthood. That’s remarkable. It’s a work of the Holy Spirit.

I think we’re on the verge of a new Pentecost, which has to start with the priesthood. In the parish, it is the pastor that sets the tone. I tell my priests—as goes the head, so goes the body. The priest ministers to the Church in persona Christi capitis, in the person of Christ, the head.

Jesus is the head of his body, the Church. The priest ministers in the person of Christ, the head. And if the head is holy, strong, zealous, and fervent, strong in faith, hope, and love, then that will help lead and guide the rest of the body, the Church.

I’m excited. I recently ordained two fine young men to the priesthood. They’re excited. They’re ready to go. They want to be priests and serve Christ and his people. All the men we have in the seminary are an inspiration to me for the future of the Church.

Who are some priests you especially admire?

Bishop Sample: I consider myself a John Paul II priest and bishop. Blessed John Paul II was a great influence on and inspiration to me.

As I was discerning my vocation, I thought about the direction in which the Church was heading. I lived through the late 60s and 70s when there was so much confusion, upheaval, and experimentation, both in our culture and in the Church. I needed to know where the Church was going before I could climb onboard and give my life as a priest.

Pope John Paul II burst on the scene. He was a dynamic and personable leader for the Church. I confess—I’m half Polish, and I took great pride that he was from Poland. He had great zeal and enthusiasm, and spoke boldly on matters of faith and morals in the face of a culture that rejected the very moral values that the Church had always upheld. I was pleased to attend his beatification in Rome earlier this year.

I also admire Pope Benedict. While serving as a cardinal he was unfairly portrayed as harsh. Anyone who knows Pope Benedict knows him to be a humble, spiritual, and kind man.

I am pleased with what Pope Benedict is doing in regards to liturgy. I agree with the Holy Father’s efforts to bring about a “reform of the reform.”

I am also inspired by other bishop leaders, such as Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Charles Chaput [now of Philadelphia]. Archbishop Dolan has a great love for the Church and the priesthood; Archbishop Chaput has been courageous in asserting that the Church has a right to have a voice in the public square. Cardinal Raymond Burke is also an inspiration. Like Pope Benedict, he has been unfairly characterized in the media as harsh, but what he does comes from a deep faith. He loves the Lord and loves the people. He wants to help us all on the road to salvation.

You’ve described yourself as a member of “the first lost generation of poor catechesis,” which “raised up another generation that is equally uncatechized.” What’s wrong with catechesis and what have you done to help solve the problem?

Bishop Sample: My generation was the first in the wake of Vatican II. While I certainly don’t blame the Council, much upheaval occurred in the Church in its aftermath. Culturally, society was experiencing the sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement, and the anti-war movement, among others. There was an anti-authoritarian spirit.

In this time of great confusion, catechesis suffered. We booted the Baltimore Catechismout the door, but there wasn’t anything to replace it. I was taught the faith in Catholic schools using materials that were weak and insubstantial. I wasn’t being taught my faith. The liturgy suffered from experimentation as well.

When I speak about this publicly, invariably people of my generation come up to me to agree with what I’m saying. This includes many bishops.

My generation raised up the next generation. Since we weren’t taught the faith, we raised children who weren’t either.

We need a renewal in catechesis. I feel passionately about this. In my Diocese of Marquette, I directed the development of a diocesan curriculum for faith formation for grades K-8. It is a solid, substantive, systematic, and sequential curriculum, which builds from one year to the next. It is topical, based on the pillars of the catechism. Every parish is expected to follow this curriculum.

Now I’m turning my attention toward adult faith formation. If we can get catechesis and the liturgy right, we’ll be well on our way to the renewal and growth of the Church for which we hope.

You recently released a pastoral letter on the diaconate. What concerns led you to write such a letter?

Bishop Sample: I didn’t have a concern about the permanent diaconate, but a great interest in seeing the program prosper and grow in a way would help build up the Body of Christ. There needed to be a clear, common understanding of what the ministry of the permanent deacon is.

I formed a study group, which included many deacons, and the fruit of the study was summarized in the pastoral letter. I’m disappointed that the media chose to focus on one small part of the letter, the question of the deacon preaching at Mass [he should preach rarely, according to the letter].

The basic point of the letter is that the deacon, through his sacred ordination, is configured to Christ sacramentally as Christ the servant. The priest or bishop through ordination is configured to Christ the priest. The deacon isn’t ordained unto priesthood, but unto service. He is configured to Christ as the servant of all.

What concerns do you have regarding the Church and the public square?

Bishop Sample: I have two grave moral concerns, in the areas of the protection of innocent human life and the defense of traditional marriage. As a society, we must take steps to protect the unborn, and also the elderly and handicapped. And, since marriage and family are the basic unit of society, the health of society rests on the health of marriage and family life. Anything which threatens either of these is seriously destructive.

What is a basic program of spirituality you recommend to the faithful?

Bishop Sample: That is a good and important question. I emphasize the importance of a strong sacramental life, especially participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I recommend frequent reception of the sacrament of penance; the fall-off in its use worries me greatly. We priests and bishops need to preach often about the importance of confession and be available to hear confessions.

It’s important that we learn to pray on a deep level, not just vocal but mental prayer and contemplation. We’re so busy in our lives and the world is so noisy; we need to learn to be quiet and listen. We need to develop a personal, deep relationship with the Lord and pour our hearts out to him in prayer.

And, we need to stay close to the Lord as part of the Body of Christ, the Church. This means being part of the local Church under the diocesan bishop, being docile to the word of God and humbly accepting the teachings of the Church.

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17 Responses to Bishop Alexander Sample on the need for a renewal of orthodoxy

  1. Toadspittle says:

    “He also condemned the University of Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Barack Obama, calling the move “unconscionable” and “completely out of step with the Catholic Church’s teaching.” “



  2. kathleen says:

    Bishop Alexander Sample is anything but a ‘dingbat‘ Toad….. (I had to look that word up in the dictionary BTW!) He is a sound, honest, orthodox Catholic bishop; just the sort the Church needs right now to solve some of our current problems wrought by decades of bad catechesis and liberal innovations in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

    The University of Notre Dame’s decision to honour President Obama is an issue which has been deplored and widely discussed in the Catholic media and on EWTN. Obama stands for so much that goes against Catholic teaching, that honouring him was seen as hypocritical and like a stab in the back.


  3. Toadspittle says:


    Obama is the first, decent, honest and intelligent president America has had for half a century.
    No wonder he upsets so many people so much.

    Universities are always “honouring” presidents with degrees. Even Dubbya!
    To get all bent out of shape about it is just silly. And makes the Church look silly, too.

    Still, a new word is always handy. You can use it on Toad.


  4. Robert John Bennett says:

    Bishop Sample writes, “I am pleased with what Pope Benedict is doing in regards to liturgy.” And so are many of us in Europe. On Sundays, I go to a church here in Germany where priests have the cardinal’s permission to say Mass in the extraordinary (traditional Latin) form. By the time the collection basket has gone around the whole church, it is always overflowing with five and ten euro notes. This doesn’t happen at ordinary Masses.


  5. João Pedro says:

    Great to read such courageous words by a young bishop who is not affraid to speak against the Political correctness…


  6. João Pedro says:

    That’s great news, Robert. I just didn’t think the five and ten euro bills were so important :-))


  7. Toadspittle says:

    “I just didn’t think the five and ten euro bills were so important ”

    By next week, they won’t be.


  8. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    RJB tells us that those who attend a Latin Mass are more generous with donations – must be something in the language….better class of people obviously..

    K says that Obama is against Catholic teachings…does that mean that war criminal Dubbya’s illegal war on Iraq for no good reason except oil was in keeping with Catho teachings?…No, I thought not…How Catholic was it to give loads of tax cash to the rich which was taken from the poor? Very unCatholic I’d have thought. Obama is a huge disappointment, yes, for he has caved in the the military/industrialists that even Eisenhower warned against. I wouldnt care so much about US politics but they could be the death of us all and they have made a terrific start in many countries..

    Fee-Fi-Fo- Fum, I sense the firm smack of authority when I read of ‘liberals’ and ”political correctness’.


  9. kathleen says:

    Mr. Whippy,
    I was referring to Obama’s dismal approach to Catholic teachings on issues such as abortion, marriage, family, homosexuality etc.

    What has that got to do with the war in Iraq? I was against it; like many others foreseeing the future suffering this would bring…… especially to the martyrised Iraqi Christians. The Pope, in union with all the bishops of the Catholic Church, came out against the invasion of Iraq, as you well know.


  10. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    K,yes I know that the Church was against this evil war.; I didnt refer to that. And any decent person, such as yourself, would be.

    I meant that in comparison to Dubya, Obama is a saint – even if he is a miserable failure.

    I had no criticism of the Church here – the opposite in fact.


  11. Toadspittle says:


    Well, Kathleen, we can’t expect Obama to echo the Catholic viewpoint on every issue – he’s not a Catholic. (Not a Muslim, either, in fact.) But, of course, that’s exactly what you do expect, is it not?
    However, as to, “marriage, family, homosexuality,” I would have thought he sets a shining example with his own family life that any Catholic could only approve.


  12. kathleen says:

    Not every issue Toad, but when for instance he signs away the life of millions of the unborn, and gives the same rights to homosexual couples, as a heterosexual couple (and undermining the family by doing so) just for starters, I think, as a Catholic, one has not only a right, but also a duty to protest.

    Besides, you can’t separate being a Catholic from just being human.


  13. Toadspittle says:


    “Besides, you can’t separate being a Catholic from just being human.” True enough.
    And nor can you separate a U.S. president, or a even homosexual, from just being human.


  14. João Pedro says:

    “By next week, they won’t be.”

    Toad: that what is was trying to say… hello???

    And congrats for your wonderfull work here on the comment box.


  15. Toadspittle says:


    The Euro is in big trouble, Joao. If that’s what you are asking. Might vanish altogether, some think.


  16. kathleen says:

    Besides, you can’t separate being a Catholic from just being human’.

    Sorry Toad, that was very muddling reasoning! (I tapped out that comment in a great hurry. I have to share my computer, and my time was up ;-).)
    What I was trying to say was something similar to what Archbishop Chaput explains on the other article – and of course he says it far better than I could – that if you are a faithful Catholic, you believe in certain rights and wrongs for everyone, no matter who he/she might be, and in no matter what circumstances. He was talking about doctors, lawyers, politicians and, of course, bishops, but the same goes for all Catholics. It is true, Obama is not a Catholic, but that doesn’t mean that those of us who are can agree with some of his policies.

    BTW, I wonder if Obama knows he has such a famous fan as our Toad. I’m sure he would be delighted :-).


  17. Dana says:

    I am so happy to hear that Oregon’s new Archbishop is Orthodox! Trust me this archdiocese needs it.


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