From a college campus to leading a diocese
May 24, 2016
HOUSTON — Prayer Breakfast keynote speaker, Bishop Michael J. Sis, has been discerning his path to the priesthood since he was a teenager. From director of immigrant ministry to pastor at a church filled with college students, Bishop Sis has met the challenge of leadership in the church all the way to his ordination as the sixth bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Angelo on Dec. 12, 2013.
Bishop Sis recently spent some time to respond to questions from the Texas Catholic Herald about his calling to the priesthood, campus ministry and the theme for his talk at this year’s Prayer Breakfast, set for 7:30 a.m., July 28, at Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel at 1600 Lamar St. in downtown Houston.
Q: Starting from the beginning, when did you get The Call to priesthood? What was your spiritual journey from hearing The Call to accepting it and moving forward with your decision?
A: The first time I ever thought about the priesthood was when I was 13 years old, when our parish priest suggested that I consider it. The idea had never before entered my mind. During three summers in my teenage years, I attended the Explore Program at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston. It was always a highlight of my summer. I went with other altar servers from my parish of St. Anthony in Bryan. It was almost like a summer camp experience with prayer and reflection on the priesthood.
I entered the seminary in my sophomore year of college at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. The seminary was run by the Congregation of Holy Cross, but I was a seminarian for the Diocese of Austin, which is my home diocese. When I entered the seminary, I was not sure whether God was calling me to become a priest. It was a gradual discernment process where I and the Church were both discerning whether or not the priesthood was the right path for me. The seminary provided a context for thorough discernment, including spiritual direction, communal liturgical life, ministry to those in need, human formation, peer support and academic coursework.
After finishing the undergraduate level of the seminary at Notre Dame, my bishop sent me to study Theology at the North American College in Rome. Our classes were taught in Italian, and our fellow students came from all over the world. It was a beautiful experience of the worldwide communion of the Church in the rich variety of human cultures. In Rome I studied at two different universities — the Gregorian University and the Academia Alphonsiana of the Lateran University. Being so far from home helped me to realize my complete dependence on God’s grace. During one year I did the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, which had a profound impact on my relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
During the summer of 1983, I had the opportunity to serve in a mission in rural Tanzania, East Africa. That experience helped to solidify my acceptance of God’s call to the priesthood. Probably the most important element in the seminary process is the regular practice of individual spiritual direction. It is in that forum where the Holy Spirit did most of his work on me to mold and shape me for priestly ministry.
I highly recommend the priesthood to any young Catholic man who loves the Lord and who loves people. It is a beautiful way to pour out your life in service.
Q: What was your most rewarding experience ministering to college students at St. Mary Catholic Church in Bryan? What was the biggest challenge?
A: The most rewarding experience was to see the light of faith come on in the heart of a college student. To see a person fall in love with God, and to watch as they allow God’s will to guide their actions and decisions, is a special privilege.
The greatest challenge was the regular turnover of our congregation. Because ours was a student parish, the congregation was continually changing as the students graduated. This entailed the need for continual recruitment of ministers and training of new leaders.
Q: How did your experiences in College Station prepare you to become bishop?
AWhile I was serving in College Station, I certainly did not view it as preparation to become a bishop. I was just doing my best to serve the people I had been sent to serve. Looking back, I can see that there are elements of that ministry that have shaped me as a priest and that help my episcopal ministry to be more fruitful. One is the need to recruit and oversee highly committed staff in order for a ministry to thrive.
Another is the application of good principles of stewardship and accountability. Campus ministry at a major university also puts one in a position to respond to an endless stream of challenging questions about the faith. This sharpens the minister theologically. University ministry also meant regularly interacting in a constructive manner with ministers of other faiths. There is an important ecumenical and interfaith dimension to the ministry of a bishop. Finally, the experience of ministry at Texas A&M put us always in a conversation about leadership, and this has shaped me personally, spiritually and pastorally.
Q: What is your theme for the talk at the Prayer Breakfast? What inspired your topic?
A: The theme is “Jesus Christ the Leader.” The call to leadership is experienced by men and women in all walks of life. I believe the participants in the Archdiocesan Prayer Breakfast have to meet the challenge of leadership on a regular basis at work, in the family and in the broader community. There are many who write and speak about leadership, from a variety of perspectives. Not all of those perspectives are Christian. Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Lord of the universe, and He leads us as our Good Shepherd. The way He exercised leadership did not match the style of most worldly leaders. Since He is the model for our lives as Catholic Christians, we will do well to identify the principles of leadership that we can take from His example and apply them to our own situations.
Q: What do you hope attendees remember and take to heart from your talk?
A: I hope they will make some more connections between their personal devotion to Jesus Christ and the way they exercise leadership in the world.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share about your spiritual journey; perhaps a favorite story or memory?
A: I recall that, in my attempts to be a leader, some of my most important decisions have been made in silence on my knees in the presence of Our Lord Jesus in a church.
Tickets for the Prayer Breakfast are available online at www.archgh.org/prayerbreakfast. One can purchase an individual ticket, tables for 10 people each, or sponsor a priest or sister to attend the event. Due to limited seating, there will be no walk-up registration on the day of the event.