Some men know they want to become a priest when they’re just a boy, but that wasn’t the case with Monsignor John Folda.
Folda, an Omaha native who takes over this month as bishop of the Fargo, N.D., Diocese, didn’t hear his calling until he was in his early 20s. But from the time he was a child, the 51-year-old was surrounded by Catholic men and women of faith, whose example would eventually lead him to the priesthood and to becoming one of the country’s younger bishops.
Whether it was his parents, his grade school nuns, a university chaplain or a youthful Polish pope with rock star appeal, role models influenced Folda, his faith and his vocation to serve the Lord.
For 14 years, Folda has been rector of St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward, Neb., running the four-year college and providing spiritual guidance for young men preparing for the priesthood.
On March 26, Folda received a call that would change his life.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the pope’s representative in the United States, had important news.
Vigano told Folda that Pope Francis had chosen him as the next bishop of the Fargo Diocese. The appointment process was confidential, so Folda said he had no idea he was being considered.
Folda was surprised, honored, nervous and humbled.
“It wasn’t a blessing I had sought or asked for,’’ he said. “I know there are many, many priests who would have been even better candidates. I was just kind of overwhelmed.”
But Folda also knew an appointment from the pope reflects God’s plan. That gave him the confidence to know he could tackle the responsibility of leading more than 72,000 Catholics in a diocese that includes 132 parishes and 13 Catholic schools.
Folda said he will miss being near his mother in Omaha and family and friends in the Lincoln area. But he said he’s excited.
An important part of his role will be helping Catholics get to know Christ better, which is what he entered the priesthood for 24 years ago.
“All I can do is my best,’’ he said. “God will work through me.”
The bishop-to-be doesn’t spend all his time in prayer.
Like any good Husker fan, he slips on a red sweatshirt when catching games on TV and jumps from the couch and cheers when Nebraska turns a big play. He loves skiing in Colorado and is known as a fierce Trivial Pursuit player. He also can produce laughs from his 2-year-old great-niece when they play with her stuffed animals.
Folda, who has Czech and German roots, grew up the youngest of three kids in a ranch home near 48th Avenue and Bancroft Street in central Omaha, just six blocks from St. Thomas More Catholic Church, his family’s parish. The Folda kids attended grade school there.
His parents did more than attend Mass.
Folda’s father, James, was a lector, reading scripture from the pulpit. Folda remembers sitting in the pews as a young boy, feeling proud as his dad delivered the readings in a strong clear voice.
His father, who died in 2010, also sang baritone in the church choir and helped organize the annual parish festival.
Folda’s dad didn’t preach about making faith a priority. He demonstrated it every night when he knelt by his bed, bowed his head and prayed.
“It made a strong impression on me,” Folda said.
His mother, Mabel, who still lives in the family home, sewed quilts and embroidered dish towels that were sold at the parish festival to raise money for the church.
She visited the sick as a member of the Legion of Mary, a Catholic women’s group she still belongs to.
Both sets of grandparents also were strong Catholics. One grandmother told Folda when he was 5 or 6 that he should become a priest because they needed one in the family
Folda’s reply: “I want to be a dad with a big family.”
The future bishop was a typical boy, which included occasionally annoying his sister, Mary Gramann, who’s 7 years older and lives in Adams, Neb.
When he was a toddler, he broke the arm off Mary’s favorite Barbie doll. Like any good big sister, she still teases him about it, telling him the Barbie would probably be worth a lot of money today if it had both arms.
He loved riding his blue Schwinn bike and jumping on the amusement rides at Peony Park. He was a Cub Scout, swam the freestyle on a swim team, and took trumpet and piano lessons.
Even then, he was good at board games, beating his sister at Battleship and Sorry.
He did a funny impression of a 1960s cartoon character whose favorite line was, “You dirty rat.” His sister and brother, Jim, always asked him to repeat the line because it made them laugh.
He loved to draw, especially castles and skyscrapers, and won art contests in grade school. He dreamed of becoming an architect.
But something else was at work in his life. Every day, as he walked to school, he went past the convent for the nuns who taught there.
He knew the sisters led lives that were different, that they lived together and were their own family. He knew they were devoted to Christ, and he remembers Sister Karen, his second-grade teacher, speaking with excitement when describing the joy they would experience at First Communion.
He became an altar boy and enjoyed slipping on the black cassock and white surplice servers wear and lighting the candles.
Folda loved being close to the action as the priest celebrated Mass.
One of his favorite priests was the Rev. John Vernon, a former pastor at St. Thomas More.
Folda noticed that Vernon was reverent as he said Mass but would laugh and shake hands with parishioners after the service. Folda realized that a priest was holy but also human.
He attended the now-closed Archbishop Ryan High School, where he played trumpet in the band, competed on the speech and debate teams and became student government president his senior year.
He listened to music by Boston, ELO and other 1970s bands. He loved rooting for his high school’s football and basketball teams, then heading to Burger King with his buddies.
He also attended Mass regularly and prayed every night, just like his dad. He had faith, but it deepened at a retreat he attended for Catholic teens during his senior year. Young people gathered in groups and told how their faith guided them. That was powerful.
“There is a certain kind of solidarity,’’ Folda said.
After high school, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study architecture, later switching to electrical engineering, his father’s field.
In fall 1979, during Folda’s freshman year, Pope John Paul II visited the United States. The pope, elected the year before, drew huge and joyful crowds in such cities as Boston, Chicago and Des Moines.
Folda watched TV coverage of the visits and was struck by the passion that Catholics, particularly young people, showed for the new pope.
“You couldn’t help but see him as a strong priestly example,’’ Folda said.
About that time, Folda began thinking about the priesthood. He attended Mass at the Catholic Newman Center on the UNL campus and developed a friendship with the Rev. Leonard Kalin, the chaplain.
Kalin asked Folda if he had considered entering the seminary, and he said it had crossed his mind. Kalin encouraged Folda to pray about it, and he did.
The chaplain was another example of what the priesthood could be. Kalin preached great sermons and was devoted to the Lord, but there was more to his life. He loved running and joining students for pizza or a piece of pie after the 10 p.m. student Mass.
Kalin also answered questions for Folda, such as how priests can accept a celibate life.
Halfway through his senior year at UNL, Folda told his family he wanted to enter a seminary. His announcement surprised his mother and father. His dad thought Folda should finish at UNL, then decide.
But they realized their son had heard his calling and gave their blessing.
He began his training for the priesthood at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, graduating in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, then earning master’s degrees in divinity and theology.
On May 27, 1989, he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Lincoln. Folda said that even though he is from Omaha, it made sense to become a priest for the Diocese of Lincoln because that’s where he made his decision to enter the seminary, and he had developed roots in the community.
He served a number of roles after ordination including teacher, guidance counselor and parish priest. He later became director of religious education and assistant to the vicar general.
In 1999, he was appointed to run St. Gregory the Great Seminary, operated by the diocese. He was named a monsignor in 2007.
Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln has known Folda for 20 years and said he combines the strong pastoral and administrative skills a bishop needs.
As rector of the seminary, Folda has held one of the diocese’s most important administrative positions, Conley said. That’s because the seminary is the pipeline for future priests.
Tim Danek, a recent graduate of the seminary, said Folda knows how to connect with people.
He joins seminarians to watch football on TV or play board games, sometimes staying up until 1 a.m. when the last game is finished.
He stops seminarians in the hallways and asks how they’re doing and about their families, and it’s not just a 15-second conversation. He’ll ask about a big test coming up, a sick relative or anything else in their lives.
When Danek’s brother was hospitalized four years ago, Folda spoke with Danek every day, asking for updates and offering prayers.
Danek said that when seminarians talk about Folda, they refer to him by one word: dad.
“He’s got the heart of a pastor,” Danek said.
That heart now will minister to the Catholics of Fargo, and Folda’s mom, for one, is thrilled.
She called his appointment as bishop “awesome.”
“It’s a tremendous blessing for our whole family,’’ she said.
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