By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — It wasn’t in his plans to become a bishop. In fact, Bishop-designate Robert Gruss prayed it wouldn’t happen. “But the Lord answered my prayers, and it was ‘No,’” Bishop-designate Robert Gruss told his congregation at the end of the 9 a.m. Mass on Sunday, May 29, at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport where he serves as rector.
Just back from a visit to Rapid City, S.D., seat of the diocese he will lead as bishop beginning July 28, the priest shared how his life has been forever changed by a phone call he received three weeks ago.
He described feeling like he’d been “hit on the side of the head with a baseball bat” when a Vatican official called, asking him to accept an appointment from Pope Benedict XVI to serve as bishop of the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D.
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, told the stunned priest he didn’t have to give his answer right away; he could think about it for a day. That detail evoked laughter from the congregation, and from Bishop-designate Gruss.
While he consulted with his spiritual director, as Archbishop Sambi had advised, he knew deep in his heart what the answer would be.
“How can I say ‘no’ to the Holy Spirit or to the Holy Father, for that matter?”
During his visit to Rapid City, Bishop-designate Gruss learned that the people there had been praying for him for the nine months they have been without a bishop. “They just didn’t have a name or a face for me.”
Following the official announcement, kept secret per Vatican rules until May 26, the future bishop said he’s received well wishes from across the country. A friend who is an auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia shared with him a quote: “This has been in the eyes and mind of God since the beginning of time.” The idea that the Lord has always had this in mind is helpful, the 55-year-old bishop-designate said.
‘I planned on retiring here’
He couldn’t have imagined God’s plan for him at age 25, in the weeks after his mother’s death and his arrival to the Quad-Cities as a contract pilot, alone and wondering whether there wasn’t more to life. That’s when he began praying to God to help him understand his life’s purpose. And still, he kept thoughts of the priesthood in the background for years, and even considered marriage with a woman he loved. But in prayer he discerned a call to the priesthood and 17 years ago at age 39 he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Davenport.
In the intervening years, the future bishop has served in a variety of ministries, including as vice rector of seminary life and director of human formation for the Pontifical North American College in Rome from August 2007 to June 2010. He has served as pastor and rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral since July 2010. On July 28, he’ll be ordained a bishop in Rapid City.
Serving as a parish priest is a ministry he truly loves — and the only one he aspired to.
“To be honest, I had planned on retiring here,” he told his congregation. “I love this parish.”
Parishioners, too, had hoped he’d be with them longer and gave him hugs and well wishes after Mass in the back of the cathedral. “We knew this would happen, we just didn’t think it would happen this soon,” one parishioner said.
Bishop Martin Amos was hoping it wouldn’t happen quite so soon, but he’s happy for his friend and brother priest.
“I have enjoyed working with Bishop-designate Gruss as he has taken on increasingly challenging assignments from director of vocations to chancellor to vice rector of seminary life for the Pontifical North American College to rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral. His love of God and of the people he serves will sustain him as chief shepherd for the people of the Diocese of Rapid City.”
“He will be very pastoral, caring, and collaborative in his leadership,” added Msgr. John Hyland, the Davenport Diocese’s vicar general. “He will be truly missed in our diocese.”
Deacon Bob McCoy, the diocese’s deacon personnel director said, “I have known Bob for over 21 years since he was beginning seminary. His deep personal spirituality is evident like smoke from incense. In a word, he is authentic in all he does!”
“What strikes me about Bob is that after prayerful discernment — even if the decision may have been difficult — he would respond ‘yes’ when taking on new assignments and challenges,” said Laurie Hoefling, staff support for diocesan headquarters.
The keys to the cathedral
And there will be challenges.
In an interview with The Catholic Messenger, Bishop-designate Gruss acknowledged that poverty is one of the issues he will be dealing with in the Rapid City Diocese. The counties within its five Indian reservations include five of the poorest 11 counties in the U.S, according to statistics the diocese provided.
The warmth, enthusiasm and support he felt from the people and the priests he met during his May 26-28 visit to Rapid City should go a long way in fortifying his efforts.
“They’ve been so welcoming, and happy that their prayers have been answered,” he told The Catholic Messenger. “From their perspective, I’m the man God has chosen.”
He’s already chosen his motto as bishop — “No greater love” — and is working on the design for his coat of arms. Then there’s shopping for bishop’s clothing.
And before his ordination as bishop he’ll return to Rapid City for the ordination of a priest whose formation he had a role in nurturing when he served at the Pontifical North American College.
Last year he and a friend — one of five priests he vacations with each year — visited Rapid City, S.D., as an overnight side trip to their vacation. The next morning they went to visit the cathedral, “but the doors were locked,” Bishop-designate Gruss said. “Little did we know that the next time I’d have the keys.”
Bio of Bishop-designate Robert Gruss
Robert D. Gruss was born June 25, 1955 in Texarkana, Ark. He holds an associate degree in civil engineering from Madison Area Technical College, Madison, Wis.; a Bachelor of Arts degree in theology from St. Ambrose University in Davenport; and a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree and a Master of Arts degree in spiritual theology, both from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.
Before entering the seminary, he earned his commercial pilot’s license, (instrument rating and multi-engine rating) from the Spartan School of Aeronautics, Tulsa, Okla. He worked for various companies as a charter pilot, flight instructor and corporate pilot.
He was ordained to the priesthood following seminary formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He has also completed spiritual direction training from the Institute for Priestly Formation.
After ordination, Bishop-designate Gruss was named parochial vicar of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, Davenport. Subsequent assignments included: parochial vicar, St. Anthony Parish, Knoxville; St. Mary Parish, Pella; and Sacred Heart Parish, Melcher; pastor, St. Mary Parish, Pella; vocations director; chancellor; Propagation of the Faith director; Victim Assistance Program director; vice rector of seminary life and director of human formation for the Pontifical North American College; and rector and pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral, Davenport.
He has served on a number of boards in the Davenport Diocese: Presbyteral Council (currently serving as chairman), Diocesan Personnel Board, Diocesan Corporate Board, Diocesan Review Board for Clergy Sexual Abuse, Hope & Healing Ministries and the St. Ambrose University Board.
Bishop-designate Gruss was awarded the Chaplain of His Holiness, with the title “Monsignor” in August 2007.