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Published May 29 2012

Fargo’s Bishop Aquila to head Denver Archdiocese

FARGO - Eleven years after Samuel Aquila was surprised by a call telling him to move from Denver to become the bishop of the Fargo Diocese, he’s equally surprised to make the move in reverse.

“All of this is overwhelming,” said Aquila, who was announced Tuesday as the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

It’s a homecoming of sorts for Aquila. The 61-year-old Burbank, Calif., native studied in seminary in Denver, and was ordained there in 1976. He worked there until coming to Fargo, where he’s been bishop since 2002.

He said the move to Fargo from Denver, where he had spent most of his life, taught him to appreciate obedience.

“I learned what it means as a priest and a bishop to be committed to his church,” said Aquila at a news conference in Denver on Tuesday morning.

He praised Fargo as “a place where both the Christian faith and family life are strong.”

The Fargo diocese, which covers the eastern half of North Dakota, claims about 84,000 members. The Denver archdiocese has about 550,000.

Aquila will remain here until shortly before he takes over in Denver on July 18.

Luke Meyer, chancellor for the Diocese of Fargo, said the Denver Archdiocese has become an increasingly important hub of Catholicism in the region.

“Denver has a very vibrant young church right now,” said Meyer, who himself attended seminary in Denver. “They’ve been the seed-bed for a lot of new movements in the life of the church.”

In his time in Fargo, Aquila was an outspoken advocate for a number of Catholic positions, including opposition to abortion and some forms of contraception.

On Tuesday, he called Fargo “the most pro-life environment – and I mean pro-life in every sense of the word – that I have ever experienced.”

He also made headlines for defending the exclusion of same-sex couples from Catholic adoption and foster care services when the church clashed with state governments over the issue.

Meyer said it’s been “an adventure” working under a bishop who wasn’t afraid to stake out high-profile positions or land in the news.

He said Aquila’s style was very different from that of his predecessor, James Sullivan. “One was a soft-spoken Irishman, the other was a courageous Sicilian.”

Meyer also said Aquila has a less serious side as a serial teaser and prankster among his clergy.

“When he’s out for confirmations, he loves to take his pastoral staff, and if he sees someone in the aisle that he knows, he’ll give them a little poke,” he said.

After Aquila leaves, either Pope Benedict XVI or a local group of priests will pick an administrator for the Fargo Diocese “to kind of keep the boat afloat until we get a new bishop.”

Selecting a new bishop could take six to 18 months, Meyer said.

He said there isn’t necessarily a profile for a good fit for the Fargo Diocese. A good candidate will be willing to put in “windshield time” to travel throughout the spread-out diocese and build on the work of his predecessors, he said.

In Denver, Bishop James Conley, apostolic administrator for the archdiocese, said Aquila would be welcomed back.

“Because the new archbishop is an old friend to so many of us, we are especially joyful today,” he said. “Among friends, Archbishop Aquila is a gentle and compassionate man, and Archbishop Aquila is always among friends.”

The announcement, made at noon in Rome, came at 5 a.m. in Fargo, and an hour earlier in Denver.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502