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EIGHT YEARS IN AS NUMBER EIGHT

Bishop Peter sits for an interview with the Idaho Catholic Register

The following story appeared in the December 16 Idaho Catholic Register.

Bishop Peter Christensen gets ready to cut into a cake honoring his upcoming 70th birthday and commemorating, as well, his eight years as Bishop of the Diocese of Boise. At right is Christian Welp, diocesan director of special projects. (ICR photo/Vero Gutiérrez)


By Gene Fadness

Editor


Bishop Peter Christensen will celebrate his 70th birthday on Christmas Eve and, for him, one of the biggest gifts is a confidence that he will stay in the Diocese of Boise.


“I remember thinking not long after I came here (in December 2014) that if I can get to 68, I’ll get to stay. Now that I’m 70, I think this is it,” the Bishop said. The Vatican will rarely move a Bishop to a new diocese as he nears the mandatory retirement age of 75, the Bishop said. “There are exceptions, as in the case of Bishop Wilton Gregory in Washington, D.C., but I think that was because of some unique circumstances there and his abilities.”


Employees of the Diocesan Pastoral Center surprised Bishop Peter Christensen with an early birthday party on Dec. 8. In addition to employees of the Diocese, friends from Nativity of Our Lord Parish in St. Paul, Minn., also flew in for the occasion. “It was a total shock, but really wonderful,” he said.


This month also marks the 8th anniversary of Bishop Peter’s December 2014 arrival as the 8th Bishop of the Diocese of Boise. At the time of his call to Boise, he was serving as Bishop of the Diocese of Superior, Wisc.


The Idaho Catholic Register sat down with Bishop Peter to talk about his eight years in the Diocese of Boise.


Q. Tell us first about your call to serve in the Diocese of Boise. Were you expecting a change in assignment from Superior?


A. I’ll never forget the day. I was just sitting down to eat in a restaurant in St. Paul when my phone on the tabletop started ringing with a 202 area code (Washington, D.C.). I said to the friend I was having breakfast with, “Uh-oh, here we go.” I’d been in Superior for seven years and felt this would be the call. (Younger bishops, like priests, typically serve about six years.) A woman’s voice said, “Can you hold the line. The Nuncio (the Pope’s representative to a nation) would like to speak to you. After a nice, short greeting, he said, “Pope Francis would like you to be the next bishop of the Diocese of Boise.” I said, “OK.” He said, “You’re going to answer that quickly?” I said, “I can’t say no, can I?” And he said, “No.”


He also said, and I thought this was odd, “The reason Pope Francis is asking you to serve as Bishop of Boise is because you don’t mind driving.… He knows you’re part of a mission diocese in Superior so you also know how to run a mission diocese.”


In Idaho, I put about 20,000 miles a year on my car. In Superior, I put on about 52,000 a year. The reason being that geographically the diocese in Superior is small enough that everything there could be done in a day trip; you go to the event and come back the same day. In Idaho, because we are so geographically large, I do ‘tours’ or several stops at once, so fewer trips in total.


Now when people ask me how far is the farthest parish because you’ve got the whole state in your diocese – a state of 83,000 square miles – I tell them about 9 to 9.5 hours. But, I could be assigned as Archbishop of Chicago and spend that much time stalled in traffic. Where would you rather be?


Q: What did you know about Boise at the time of your call?


A: Not much. I did call my brother and sister when I was free to announce it. They had both had been here and said, “You’re going to love it. You’re going to love the people and the country.” And they were right. My brother who lives in Olympia would fly into Boise a lot as a corporate pilot and loved downtown Boise.


But, I had definitely heard of Boise. In fact, even though I was born and raised in Los Angeles, I applied to go to Boise State University when I was in high school.


Q. What prompted you to apply to Boise State?


A. To get away from home. I was looking for something not too far away that would have some kind of interest. I actually ended up going to Missoula (the University of Montana).


Q. Was it difficult to leave Superior since that was so close to where you went to seminary and had served as a priest?


A. When it was announced that I would be Bishop of Superior, it was a perfect distance, 2.5 hours from Minneapolis-St.Paul. So, I could still be with friends and family on my days off. And I knew a few priests in the Diocese of Superior. In Superior, I had easy access to things I knew, so no real separation anxiety at all. Also, for me the beauty of Superior is that it allowed me to sail on Lake Superior, which really is like an ocean, an amazing body of water. So that was an added bonus. The people were really great. The people who lived in the countryside were farmers or those who work in occupations that involve nature: forestry and mining. They are lovely people; good, solid Catholics. And we had a wonderful presbyterate, very small, about half the size of Boise. They were very unified, enjoyed each other and worked well together.


Boise, on the other hand, was kind of a walk in the dark. But, when I got here, right away I could feel a depth of spirituality that I have not felt all that often in other places. I thought, “There is a core goodness here, a natural faith that hungers for more.” Also, the people are very kind. You know people talk about “Minnesota nice,” but there is kindness to people here in Idaho that is palpable. I noticed it in places like the grocery store.


Like Superior, the people in this Diocese are close to the land, with farming, ranching, mining and forestry. It makes me feel more at home. Superior prepared me for Boise because it gave me a little separation, which prepared me for even more in Boise. I didn’t know anybody from Boise when I came and I did have to let go of some stuff, like sailing. Here I got involved with camping. I love touring the state and never grow tired of seeing the scenery. The first year here, I rode up to McCall, to Coeur d’Alene, to Priest Lake and over to Salmon and Challis. Wherever you go, it’s a picture out of a wonderful nature magazine. My first year here, whenever I had a day off, I would go exploring. I love the dirt roads. I would just get in the car and drive. I love places like Idaho City and Silver City; anything out of the ordinary.


It sounds as if your background before Superior was more of an urban lifestyle, while Superior and Idaho got you into a more rural way of living.


Very much so. The parish at which I was the pastor before being called as Bishop to Superior (Nativity of Our Lord) was a typical urban parish in St. Paul of about 2,000 families and 800 kids in the school. It was very much a Normal Rockwell parish scene.


Q. What was most challenging to get used to here?


A. Whenever a person who leads, whether it be a church or a corporation, there are different ways of doing things that maybe you inherit that don’t make much sense. Some things you learn, with patience, that do make sense. There are other things you realize, over time, that need to be changed. That was true here, as it is anywhere. In time, I grew to love the interaction between the chancery and the parishes. There’s a certain amount of autonomy here. There’s seems to be real respect of letting each parish have its own flavor, but also if they need help or advice, we at the Chancery would give that.


I was also very impressed with the staff here. At 35, its larger than what I was used to, very professional, well-educated, and they know their realm of responsibility. As a Bishop, it’s nice to know that the person who is running a department has expertise in that field, far superior than my own. I had some concerns with our Idaho Catholic Register. I didn’t think it was the kind of news that needed to be presented. I think we turned things around there. I can honestly say that I am very thrilled with this paper.


Q. You didn’t have to make a lot of staff changes. I supposed when a new bishop comes in he might like to have his own people?


Not so much. The advice I give to priests when they come into a parish, and this applies to bishops as well, is not to make a lot of changes right away. Some you have to make for the well-being of the diocese or the parish. But, first, learn from what’s there. If the style for the staff is different than what they are used to, they tend to leave on their own.


Q. What has been most gratifying about serving here?


A. The unity of the priests and the faith of the people. I talked to some people early on and I would ask, “Why do I feel like the faith here is so desirable and strong?” They would say that it was probably because of the retreats and conferences we’ve had. This Diocese has had a great record of wonderful speakers coming in, great conventions like ICYC (Idaho Catholic Youth Conference), the men’s conference, the women’s conference and so many other positive, faith-building opportunities here. I think those events are the leaven of the seeds being planted. And there’s more to come.


Q. We are a minority religion in an area where there is a majority religion, so people may be hungry to know and defend what we believe. Is that a factor in your mind?


A. Absolutely. This is especially true in certain parts of our Diocese. When I’m in those areas for Confirmation, I read all the letters the students who are seeking Confirmation write, and they tell about themselves. In those letters, you can tell they are struggling not only to defend their faith, but live it freely because not everybody values the faith they’re living. And there is much more conviction of the faith, or at least the desire for it. How could the Lord not answer that desire for greater conviction, greater faith. It’s quite lovely. There are some pretty heroic people here.


I would also add this to your question about what I find most gratifying. There’s a tremendous amount of variety to what a Bishop does. One of them is to be part of liturgical celebrations in a large church, say in the Boise metro area, where you have hundreds gathered for a liturgy. But, what is especially gratifying to me is to be in these little clapboard churches in rural Idaho. I tell people that where a microphone system is not needed, I probably enjoy it the most. I love the intimacy of a small community, which is really like a family. I step in to a “can-do” kind of spirit because they work hard to keep their community alive. Everybody has a function.


Q. It’s really a big deal, isn’t it, when the Bishop comes to these communities because in the Boise area, in particular, they see you more often?


A. I’ll never forget – I think it was Montpelier – I pull up and there’s balloons all over the church, and they were throwing confetti as I got out of the car. It was just a very joyful occasion, so humbling. But, it’s the same faith no matter where you are – urban or rural – and you’ve got to love that.


I’ve also enjoyed working with our priests here, who are as unified or more so than Superior. There’s a split between the Chancery office type of work and traveling outside the Chan-cery to visit our parishes and priests. I enjoy working with the department heads here and the support staff, but I also really enjoy my travels out and about and enjoy our priests very much.


Q. Some say it takes about four years for bishops to really start to feel at home. Did you find that true here?


Yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact, I would have your readers look to the center section of this paper (pages 8 and 9) and you’ll see the progression in these little Christmas card inserts that tell more of the story of feeling more at home.


Q. What have been some of the major challenges you have faced here?


A. Whatever affects our people in a hard way affects me in a hard way as well. We’ve had some scandals that are not pleasant to deal with. But, somehow, I know the Lord guides us and gives us hope again, refreshing our day and our step. We move on to do what it’s really all about, and that is to build the kingdom of God, not to tear it down. There is a temptation by some to want to tear it down, and part of my role is to help them look at the good.


Every human being, at times, can see themselves as a victim of maltreatment by somebody else. But we shouldn’t see ourselves as victims. The power of Christ in us brings us resurrection over the death we have suffered. That redemption should bring us greater joy so that we are not always under the pall of suffering as a victim. I don’t think that’s the good news of the gospel. We have a responsibility as followers of Christ to bring the light of Christ to the world and not to wallow in the darkness because there is darkness in the world, and it sometimes can get pretty consuming. That’s not where we should be hanging out. We should be marching ahead or coming to people in darkness and saying, “You know there’s another answer. Let Christ be that for you.”


Another major challenge for us is to continue to promote marriage and family life. As has been said before, “As the family goes, so goes society.” Therefore, I really feel strongly that we have to care for our families and our couples. They need a lot of support right now. There is so much more that we probably need to do, and I don’t know what all of that is yet. A lot of it will be catechesis, so people can understand what those relationships are before marriage and why the Lord must be the center of it all.


Q. Can you speak to the vibrancy or lack thereof among our young adults and the challenges they face in today’s culture?


A. There so many competing voices today, so many voices telling people what to do and how to do it. Our youths really need time to discern the voice of God. Just because something may be legal does not mean it is God’s will. That’s confusing to young people, whether we are talking about abortion or legalized drugs or their very identity as human beings made in the image of God. These are just very confusing times. Among those who affiliate themselves with the Church, I would say I’m seeing a new, dynamic Church especially in the college-aged years. So that is very hopeful. There were only 12 disciples, but the world changed because they gave witness by their exuberant faith, which drew others to do the same.


Q. What would you say have been your most significant accomplishments?


A. I don’t think I would know. Those are kept from me so I can stay humble!


What’s been fun for me, personally, is I always thought I wanted to be a graphic artist. And I loved that work for a while, until I knew it wasn’t the real purpose for my life, and it was made clear that I was to be a priest. But, one of the things I love about being a priest, and now a bishop, is that I can still do the graphic arts and I can do it in a way that is less cumbersome than if I worked for a corporation or a magazine. Every year I can design a Christmas card or the bookmark insert for the card, or the “Marriage for Life” decal or the “I Shall Give Half” logo.


I also like anything that has do with caring for and supporting the life issues. When we see some success in the Legislature and other arenas, it is very heartwarming. That’s because there is nothing more that the Lord wants than life respected, and there’s nothing more that Satan wants than life destroyed, and he will take all kinds of opportunities to do it. But, the Lord is stronger and if we can move with Him and do what He asks of us, He will be victorious.


Also significant is the fact that we’ve got some wonderful, growing religious communities. We now have a community that wants to make Boise their provincial home. We’ll have more to announce about that later. We are getting more foreign-born priests to help fulfill what would have been a shortage, and we are experiencing an increase in vocations. We’re now up to about 15. If we get to 20, I can retire! And these are good guys; I’m really impressed.


Our Catholic schools are doing a really good job. We’ve got great enrollment now, which I believe will continue to increase as the value of Catholic education becomes more evident. We will be building more schools in the state, hopefully another high school in Coeur d’Alene and possibly one here in the Treasure Valley toward Nampa.


My middle name is Forsyth. So many of the Scottish, Irish and English names have a motto that go with them. The motto for Forsyth is “rebuilder of ruins.” It’s kind of been the story of my life. I’ve worked at rebuilding not only with capital projects, but also in areas of spirituality and morale.


I’m looking forward to seeing five new apartments added to our priest retirement center, thanks to the generosity of so many in the Diocese to treat the retired priests with the dignity they deserve and in an environment that’s respectful of them.


We’re also looking forward to have a groundbreaking soon for the new chancery down by the Cathedral. The big project, which I probably won’t see completed in my time as Bishop, is the new retreat center in Garden Valley, a 50-room retreat center, with a conference room, chapel and dining hall.


We also have a new church camp. I had very little to do with that other than saying yes. That was a total gift. Amazing.

Parish-wise, we are looking at perhaps another parish in Meridian or Star, another further west and another one in the Kuna area, all due to the tremendous growth and increased population.


And, as far as spiritual rebuilding, I said at the men’s conference years ago that I think a new Pentecost is coming. I believe that more than ever now. We’re going to see more evidence of Christ moving in our world today through our actions, empowered by the Holy Spirit.


Bishop Peter Christensen’s surprise birthday party was themed, “Pedro’s Cantina: 70 Years in Business.” Friends from one of his first parishes in St. Paul, Minn., flew in for the occasion. (ICR photo/Vero Gutiérrez)


Q. Why do you think we are experiencing that now or soon will be?


A. Because we have to. My new prayer is this: “Lord, you understand everything we are going through. You understand what I’m going through in my life, you understand what we’re all going through here in the Diocese of Boise and in the world. Lord, you’re stronger than any singular or collective evil, so our prayer is ‘Have at it. Let your kingdom come, do what you desire through the intercession of your people, and let me be part of that.


Whatever you call me to, in great ways or small ways, let me part of what you need for that change, for that transformation, to come.’


This new Pentecost is also needed because of the culture we’re in. It’s probably no different than in times past, but it’s more extreme, in a sense, because it is in our face constantly. I love the passage in Isaiah 42, “I will lead the blind on a way they do not know; by paths they do not know I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them, and make crooked ways straight.” I’m basing my everything on that. I have no clue what I’m supposed to do right now and where I’m supposed to go right now. I feel like sometimes I’m in a fog, but there’s enough light in the middle of that fog to see where my feet are standing. I’ve got to trust that the Lord is directing me and leading me, regardless of what I see or don’t see.


Q. Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to add?

A. I don’t say thank you nearly enough to our priests and parishioners. You are a can-do people. You step beautifully in the path of our Catholic faith with purpose and direction. Thank you for joining me on this same journey.


Finally, I would add, there’s nothing I love more than when a person writes me telling me how much they love their pastor or their deacons. That puts my heart at peace.


If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it, please consider buying a subscription to the Idaho Catholic Register. Your $20 yearly subscription also supports the work of the Diocese of Boise Communications Department, which includes not only the newspaper, but this website, social media posts and videos. You can subscribe here, or through your parish, or send a check to 1501 S. Federal Way, Boise, ID, 83705: or call 208-350-7554 to leave a credit card payment. Thank you, and God bless you.




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