Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


An interview with Bishop Konzen

By MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Executive Editor | Published April 19, 2018

ATLANTA—In the weeks preceding his ordination as auxiliary bishop of Atlanta, Father Joel M. Konzen, SM, in the midst of moving and setting up his new office and preparing for his new duties while winding up former responsibilities at Marist School, found time to sit down for an interview with The Georgia Bulletin. He reminisced about his family, his journey to the priesthood, and some of the rewarding aspects of his career and ministry.

This is a formal portrait of Atlanta’s newest bishop, Joel M. Konzen, SM, when he was toddler back in Oak Harbor, Ohio.

GB: Tell me more about your upbringing.

I grew up in a town that didn’t have a Catholic school. Both my parents were highly involved in the church. My dad was 50 when I was born. My mother was almost 42. I was the tail end there. And our house because of that was a quiet household. My brother was three years older.

We had kind of a typical 1950s upbringing, I would say. We didn’t get a television until I was about 6. My dad got tired of hearing reports that my brother and I were looking into windows to see television.

In those days things were pretty simple and revolved around the church. I grew up in a small town. The church was, in many ways, the center of our activity. And the school, the public school, was just a block away. So if we served Mass in the morning, or if I went to Mass with my mother, we just walked to school a block afterward. I was a server, so sometimes, in those days, if you had to serve a funeral, I literally just walked into the office as a sixth-grader or something and said, “I have to go to a funeral at church,” and they said, OK, come back at whatever time. You didn’t sign anything, you just walked out the door and you came back.

It was a pretty simple existence. We didn’t have any relatives around. My dad was a pharmacist, and my mother had been a teacher for 17 years before she got married. She only did substituting after she got married—so she was effectively a homemaker.

GB: So your parents were very instrumental in your faith.

Yes, well, we certainly had a church-oriented childhood. We had Mercy sisters, who came on Saturday from the neighboring town. Loved those sisters. I really take my hat off to them now because they taught all week long, Monday through Friday, then, in addition to grading papers and what have you, they came on Saturday morning to our town where we did catechism from about 8 or 8:15 until 11:30, or so. Mass was part of it at the end. … We had close to three or two and a half hours of instruction. … I was confirmed when I was in third grade because we only had confirmation every four years. I was in the youngest class. I remember I started serving Mass in third grade. My brother and I were always serving together. We would walk home from services of various kinds together.

In his youth, Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, right, was an altar server with his older brother, Raymond, left, at their parish, St. Boniface Church, Oak Harbor, Ohio.

GB: Who was your confirmation saint?

John. I think it was my other grandfather’s name. Matthias, my middle name, was my mum’s dad. John was my dad’s dad. So I couldn’t even tell you which John it was.

GB: What age were you when that thought of being a priest occurred to you?

Maybe seventh . . . but in eighth I did act on it. And I remember going to the rectory and just ringing the doorbell and saying to the priest, “I think I want to go to the seminary.” And he said, “Come in. I’m going to need to see your parents and you and here’s a time when you can come.” He gave me a little card, and we came back and chatted and at the end of it, he handed me a card and said this is where you will be going. There was no choice or anything. And it was the Josephinum (the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio).

We had a great respect for priests and sisters in our house. My mom had an uncle who was a priest out in Pueblo, Colorado, and we had another cousin who was a Sister of St. Agnes. My dad had friends who were priests. I think it was a given that priests were held in high regard. The Mercy sisters kind of pushed us to think of vocations. And so I was thinking about it and then a good friend of mine, who will be coming to the ordination, went to the seminary a year ahead of me. Our families were good friends. His name is John.

And so I thought I might want to do that.

GB: So you went there for high school?

Yes, through high school. And it was good. It was absolutely the right thing. I was ready to make a change. I told the kids at school sometimes, when you get tripped on the way back (from) working the problem on the blackboard because you got the right answer, you know it’s time to move on. … I was ready for a more academic place and probably a more spiritual school.

Although I have to say that public school at that time, in the small town in Ohio, was pretty religious. … We said the Lord’s Prayer together every day and sang religious Christmas carols, and all those things that you can’t do anymore. In that sense, whether we were Lutheran, Methodist or Catholic, it was enough the same … that you could do those things.

As a youngster on the day of his first holy Communion, Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, poses for a photograph with his parents, Margaret and Lawrence.

I knew when I got there, after the first week, I mean, it felt right. I thought, this is where I belong.

GB: This was going away from home, right? How were your parents about you going away to school?

It was. It was about 100 miles away.

My mother was very supportive. I think she was very pleased. … I think my brother would corroborate that. I think he would say, yes, that was something that she and my dad both supported. And especially because it was 100 miles away doesn’t mean we saw each other very often. There was a fall visitors day, there was a spring visitors day and then there was Christmas vacation. And that was it. But they were wonderful. Each one of them wrote me a letter every week. I wrote them a letter every week. That was back in the days when you did that. Those letters they wrote were four pages and my letters were four pages.

GB: When you majored in English in college, what drew you to that major?

All of us who went to Josephinum had a wonderful education there, but particularly wonderful in English. Writing and languages were highly emphasized at the Josephinum in that day. We had a wonderful teacher, Msgr. (Leonard J.) Fick. I think that anyone who went there would tell you the same thing. …

It was … kind of what they say about Father (Gerard) Hageman at Marist, that if you ever had either of those, you knew you were good to go in terms of writing and so I liked to write.

Msgr. Fick was a good teacher, a very good teacher. He had an interesting way of assigning books. He gave us a choice of two, but we had enforced study hall at night, so if you finished the one book, you looked at the guy sitting next to you and whispered, “Is that any good?” “Oh yeah, I like it.” So you’d read the second book, too. We wound up doing a lot of reading.

When I got to college (St. Meinrad in Indiana), again, we had great English teachers, all of them monks. … Two of them in particular, Father Mel and Father Blaise, were great English teachers, and I think many of us who went there felt we had gotten a particularly good education. But at St. Meinrad, you could major in many different things. There were biology majors, psychology majors, philosophy majors. It was by no means the only thing you could major in. … I’ve said to people, it served me really well. Little did I know that so much of my work was going to be speaking and writing.

This 1978 photo of Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, was taken on the day of his diaconate ordination as a young seminarian. Standing at his side for the occasion is his mother, Margaret.

GB: How did you come to choose the Marists?

Well, that happened a good deal later. All I knew was the diocesan priesthood. I grew up in a small parish and that’s what we had. Went to St. Meinrad for college, which is, of course, a religious order, the Benedictines, and went all the way through that. I loved my time there, but it never occurred to me to become a Benedictine because that’s a monastery and a different life. So then at the end of college, I knew people here in Atlanta, specifically, (Father) Jim Miceli, who was my friend. We had at that time, 23 people in our ordination class in Toledo and I thought, I don’t know how much I’m really needed in Toledo. I might be interested in a mission diocese. Well, I talked to Jim and we were always seeing the Atlanta vocation directors at St. Meinrad because it was one of those dioceses that came and recruited and you knew it was always a place that the welcome sign was out. So I thought I might want to go talk to them and see if I could transfer into Atlanta. So I did and (Father) John Adamski was the vocation director and I wound up talking to Father Tony (Michael A.) Morris. Father Jake Bollmer did the psychological tests and at the end of it, they said, yeah, you’re accepted and we’re going to send you to Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. So I said, OK, that’s great.

Went down there where the Marists were on the staff, six of them. But again, no intention of ever joining a religious order. In second theology, I woke up one night and I thought, “Oh good heavens, you’re going to be a priest in about two years. Is this really what you want to do?” It was one of those moments of truth that come every once in a while. I’d been on a conveyor belt and wasn’t thinking about it all that much. And all of a sudden I said, I don’t think I want to be a parish priest and I think I want to belong to a community of some kind. I wonder what’s out there?

I went to my spiritual director, Father Tom Ellerman, who is here in town now, and Tom was just a young priest at Notre Dame at the time, teaching theology. I said, “This is where I am.” So Tom said, “Well, what are you thinking?” I said, I don’t know, Jesuits, maybe, Holy Cross. Anyway, I spent about three months going through all those things. I went and visited a monastery. I looked into the Jesuits, Holy Cross, and any number of other orders. I came back and said, “I don’t think any of this is fitting.” And that’s when he said, “Have you thought about the Marists?” And I said, “Not for two minutes.” …

He gave me something to read, I went that night and read it and I absolutely loved it. I mean, it was a spirituality that I understood and it made a lot of sense to me and seemed to kind of resonate with me. Our household was a very Marian-oriented household. We said the rosary together, and we had images of the Blessed Mother everywhere. I saw that, I read that. The fact that they were educators, too. I came back the next day and said, “I think I want to do this.”

GB: Father Ellerman waited a while before he brought it up!

Exactly! At that time the (Marist) novitiate was in New Orleans and that’s where I was. And he said, “Well, I’ll take you over to the novitiate, and you can meet some of the guys and see what you think. So I did. I met some of the current novices, and I met some of the priests who were there at the novitiate. And again, I liked everybody. They seemed very down to earth, very approachable, and very good examples of what they were supposed to be.

I applied to the novitiate and was accepted, and so after second theology, I went to Washington to the novitiate. It moved from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., and I went there for the following year, 1974-75. I made the novitiate there in Washington, D.C., and then at the end of that was professed, took my first vows as a Marist at the end of that year. I continued on in theology at Catholic University for the next two years.

GB: That was a great story on your journey.

I always tell people that with the Holy Spirit, you can’t see the path going forward, but you can trace it going backward. You know, you can see where the Holy Spirit was at work, but if you’re expecting to know that ahead of time, you probably won’t!

GB: Favorite author, favorite books? Anything you recommend?

My favorite book/novel, “Cry, the Beloved Country,” by Alan Paton. It’s about an Episcopal priest during apartheid in South Africa and the difficulties that ensue in just navigating apartheid. It’s a neat book.

I’ve probably read almost all clerical literature: Michael Novak, “The Tiber Was Silver,” and Graham Greene, “The Power and the Glory.” There are a lot of those kinds of things I like. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction anymore because I find most of it not interesting. Every once in a while I will pick up something. I’ve probably read all of C.S. Lewis at least once and love generally most of the things around him.

GB: What did you find most rewarding about being a teacher?

Helping young people to being able to claim their own talents and abilities. I think that’s the great thing about being a teacher. And you wind up getting to know these people pretty well, in a variety of ways, and that’s always fun. I felt like high school was the most formative time of my life. Being able to turn that around and help students at that level was something that was a real privilege.

This is a photo of Atlanta’s new bishop when he was Father Joel M. Konzen, SM, hanging out on the porch of the Marist Provincial House in Washington, D.C. The year and name of the dog are unknown.

GB: How have you been preparing for this change in your role? Are you doing anything in particular?

Praying a lot! I talked (not nearly enough) to Archbishop (Wilton) Gregory and Bishop Ned (Shlesinger), just to get their take on things, trying to see what’s important. And I’ve been watching YouTube, trying to see what bishops do! Looking at the various rituals.

I think a lot of it has just been responding to people who’ve been kindly offering their congratulations and thoughts, just trying to keep up with all that, and trying to keep up with everything that I owe the diocese for these upcoming ceremonies. So there hasn’t been a lot of extra time, which is good, I think. I feel like the archbishop has been really gracious and offered to give me any help, advice and thoughts that I wanted. And I have needed some of that because it’s out of the blue. I didn’t spend any time prior to Jan. 27 thinking about what it would be like to be a bishop.

GB: How would you describe your work style?

My work style anymore is a lot around a table. It involves other folks and listening and trying to come to a good decision together as much as possible and really using counsel and council as much as I can. When I was younger, I didn’t mind making decisions by myself, and I still will do it when I need to. But these days I enjoy the conferencing, I enjoy the consultation a lot. And I enjoy hearing people’s thoughts on what would be a good way to go because I am not under any illusion that I have either the only way or the best way a lot of the time.

GB: Is there a Bible verse that inspires you or that you think of often?

The one—and I preached on this just this past Sunday at Marist—is from Psalm 116, “What return can I make to the Lord for all that he has done for me?” To me it has always resonated. It’s one of those that I have scratched in the front of the Bible. It’s one of those that’s like an examination of conscience for me.

And the other is from Luke’s Gospel. I’ll give you the old translation, from the early ‘70s; it’s changed now. It’s Jesus talking to the disciples saying, “When you have done all that you have been commanded to do, say we are useless servants, we have done no more than our duty.” For those of us in religious life, or the priesthood, that’s kind of where we belong. So obedience has never been a big issue for me. It’s always been easy to say yes. Now admittedly I’ve worked for some pretty nice people that I didn’t mind saying yes to. But I think because of that, that understanding that all of us are out there to be servants in the same way that Jesus served the will of the Father. It seemed to me that that’s our goal, and that we’re trying to make an impact but then basically not leave a particularly big wake. You know what I mean? We come in quietly, we go out quietly.