Marking 50 years of the Monsignor

Saturday, February 22, 2003

Much has changed in the Catholic Church during the 50 years that Monsignor Richard Rolwing has been priest:

Mass is no longer spoken in Latin.

The altar was reversed so that priests now face the congregation when reciting Mass.

Lay members, not just the clergy, are involved in making decisions about parishes.

There is no way, Rolwing says, that he could have imagined the church of 2003 when he was ordained Feb. 28, 1953.

On Friday, Rolwing, 75, will celebrate his 50th anniversary in the priesthood with a golden jubilee Mass at St. Mary's Cathedral. The Rev. John J. Leibrecht, bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Catholic Diocese, will celebrate Mass at 6 p.m. About 35 priests from around the diocese and other ministers from Cape Girardeau also will attend the service. And at least 600 guests will join Rolwing for a reservations-only banquet in the school gymnasium after the service.

Many of the radical changes in the church since Rolwing started came from the Second Vatican Council, a 1962-1965 gathering that reconsidered the church's position in the modern world.

The Council reformed the liturgy of the church and brought more members into worship participation, provided for more missionary activity and spiritual renewal. It is considered to be one of the most significant religious events since the Reformation.

"When we trained, the Mass had always been in Latin and we were told it would never change," Rolwing said.

But it did. Now the worship service is in English.

During Rolwing's childhood, few women ever entered the altar of the church unless it was on their wedding day, he said. Today, women read Scripture and serve communion during Mass.

But the most revolutionary change in the church is members involvement in administrative duties, Rolwing said. They serve on parish councils, finance committees and parish school boards.

Lay people have gained a sense of ownership for their church.

"It's their church," he said.

But that radical change could also pose a challenge for the future, Rolwing said. Any further streamlining of church order must consider spiritual matters.

"It means that people will have to lead the church with gospel values and be models of vision and leadership," he said.

And over the years, Rolwing has tried to model that leadership both to parish members and newly-trained priests serving under him. He has worked in parishes both large and small in the region, but has served at St. Mary's Cathedral for the longest time --16 years.

New creation

Rolwing grew up in Charleston, Mo., and attended Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis. During his early days, Southeast Missouri was part of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. It wasn't until 1956 that a diocese was created to serve southern Missouri from Springfield to Cape Girardeau.

When the new diocese was created, Rolwing was one of three priests with ties to the area that requested to come here. He served at St. Francis Xavier parish in Sikeston and Guardian Angel in Oran before coming to St. Mary's. He served at parishes in Branson, West Plains, Springfield and Piedmont too. He also served as founding pastor of Holy Trinity parish in Springfield.

But Rolwing's choice to enter the priesthood wasn't something that came on suddenly or in one defining moment. "It was just this pervading thing that stayed with me and wouldn't go away," he said.

As a high school senior, he headed to seminary. Dormitory rooms designed for two were filled with four students because there were so many young men enrolled. Rolwing's graduating class had 18 men enrolled.

That certainly isn't the case today. Fewer men are entering seminaries and studying to be clergy. In the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese, only two men were ordained as priests in the past year. There were none in the Archdiocese of St. Louis during that time.

There was a point, Rolwing said, when the church could feel the shortage pinch. "It was during the seventies, after the Second Vatican council that men were leaving the active ministry," he said.

Effects of shortage

That same priest shortage could also affect Rolwing's retirement later this year. "There are so many variables still," he said. Rolwing expects that he will be called on for either part-time work or to fill in when parish priests are away.

And that easily could be the case. "With the shortage, we are looking at more parish life coordinators -- and that could be lay members or religious women -- to do administrative tasks and a priest to celebrate Mass and Eucharist," said Marilyn Vydra, media director for the diocese.

Few priests in the diocese have reached the milestone Rolwing has. Only four other priests, who retired but are still living in the diocese, have celebrated their 50th anniversary. And only nine other priests share the honorary title Monsignor, a designation recommended by the bishop and approved by the pope.

Rolwing said that so many priests strive to reach their 50th anniversary that after that event, they seem to collapse. He doesn't want that to happen, but does intend to stay active even after his retirement.

Losing Rolwing to retirement could be a blow to the diocese. Appointing younger priests to serve under Rolwing "is ideal for the new men coming in," Vydra said.

Everyone needs a mentor, Rolwing said. He remembers fondly the first priest he served under, who was a gentle man who let him make mistakes and learn from them.

But today's priests bring more maturity to their vocation than did Rolwing, he said.

"Perhaps its because of college, and that they aren't as young today, but we probably needed more training."

Rolwing and his seminary classmates still gather each year on the anniversary of their graduation to reminisce and retell stories. He'll gather with the eight remaining members of his class on Thursday.

"We make it a practice of getting together and celebrating Mass and eating a steak dinner," he said. The group regularly gathers on Wednesday for lunch and when Rolwing is available, he tries to join them.

But it's not always that Rolwing can join his classmates because the life of the parish requires his attention. Most of his days are spent doing administrative paperwork, teaching religion classes at the parish school, celebrating daily Masses and making hospital visits. His evenings are filled with committee meetings and parish council duties.

Rolwing unquestionably feels called to his vocation. His reassurance "comes in counseling sessions where people are hurt because of interpersonal relationships and you can help them work through that so they can be at peace with themselves," he said. "I've felt that is the work of the Lord and not anything I said or did when it all came together and you can see it work out."

After 50 years, Rolwing said he doesn't feel the anxiety he felt during his ordination.

"There was the uncertainty about what the future holds," he said. "But now it's a sense of giving thanks to God."

335-6611, extension 126

Want to go?

Golden jubilee Mass and banquet Friday in honor of Monsignor Richard Rolwing at St. Mary's Cathedral in Cape Girardeau. Mass is at 6 p.m., with reservations-only meal to follow.

Special Mass at 10 a.m. March 2 at Old St. Vincent's Church in honor of Monsignor Rolwing.

Concert in celebration of Rolwing's golden jubilee at 3 p.m. March 2 at Old St. Vincent Church. The concert is presented by friends and faculty of the Music Department at Southeast Missouri State University. There is no admission fee. A reception will follow at the Kelsen Gallery.

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