The Catholic Diocese of Bismarck, covering roughly the western half of North Dakota and numbering about 62,000 Catholics, is 100 years old this year.
About 8,000 Catholics are expected to gather at the Bismarck Civic Center from Friday through Sunday to mark the centennial anniversary.
Even the pope was invited. The late Marge Grosz, editor of the monthly Dakota Catholic Action, insisted on issuing the invitation, though obviously the pope would be unable to attend, said the Most Rev. Paul Zipfel, bishop of the Bismarck Diocese. Grosz, who put a tremendous effort into the initial planning for the centennial celebration, “is smiling down right now,” Zipfel said.
The state and country has seen tremendous changes in society, in technology and in culture, since the diocese was formed in 1910.
The Catholic Church in western North Dakota, pioneered by Benedictine religious orders and priests who traveled by horseback across the prairie and on primitive trails, has evolved as well.
The modernizations of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was the crux of the greatest change, Zipfel said, “to the chagrin of some and the desire of others.”
Zipfel was in his last year of seminary during Vatican II, and he saw the changes as a young priest. Theology after Vatican II was less “clear-cut,” he said, which made it a difficult time for many.
Liturgy changed as well, with the language of Mass changed from Latin to the language of the local populations.
“We did need a change,” he said. “People (began) participating as they had never done before. It touched the people in a new way; they became more involved in the life of the church. It broadened opportunities for all to become involved.”
Some of those opportunities were as plain as a new answer — “You can” — to young girls who asked, “Why can’t I be a server?”
“A real blessing for the church,” Zipfel said of the inclusion.
In western North Dakota, Catholics feel the economics, politics and demographics that affect the state as a whole.
The state has struggled with outmigration for many decades, and the church has been challenged to find ways for its priests to minister to smaller congregations and sparse communities.
“You do the best you can,” Zipfel said. “You stretch to find enough priests and ministers to meet the needs.”
One great impact of these challenges is that people have chosen to become more involved, and that’s good, he said. “People have stepped up.”
The Bismarck Diocese is fortunate, Zipfel said, to be able to ordain one or two priests a year, which is better than many dioceses.
“That’s not our doing,” he said. “It’s God’s grace.”
Looking toward the future, the church will put a larger focus on evangelism, Zipfel said. For many reasons, a number of people no longer are attached to the church. Part of the centennial celebration focuses on what is called “Catholics Come Home,” he said.
“We want to be there for people who want to come back, (who realize) these are their roots,” Zipfel said.
What he hopes for is “to touch a note in the hearts of people who are asking, ‘Is this the time (to come back), to make that effort to reach out.’”
Looking back, Zipfel said he marvels at the blessing the Benedictines were to the church.
They traveled on horseback through wind and rain, under very hard conditions, because of their great love for the church, he said.
Their circumstances remind him of a visit he made to the diocese’s mission in Kenya.
The answer to “What was it like there?” is “about the same as North Dakota in the 1930s,” he said.
The bishop said he is excited about the upcoming celebration because it’s a chance for people from all over the diocese to come together as “the big church.”
“It’s good for our people to experience the other people, to worship together, to learn together,” Zipfel said.
“We need to see who all belongs (to the diocese),” he said. “They need to see that, too.” Bismarck Tribune