The Church of North Florida has a New Shepherd

By Jean Gonzalez

It was St. Augustine who said the title of “bishop” is not one of honor, but one of service.

Judging by the expressions and emotions crossing newly ordained Bishop Erik Pohlmeier’s face, he took that honor to heart, especially during two moments of his ordination Mass as the 11th bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine.

On July 22, 2022, Rev. Erik Pohlmeier was installed as the eleventh Bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine at St. Joseph Church in Jacksonville, Florida. Fran Ruchalski for the Diocese of St. Augustine Picture made July 22, 2022.

First was when he was kneeling and his father, Tim, and brother, Jason, both deacons of the Catholic Church, held the Book of Gospels over his head to signify the bishop’s principal task of proclaiming and living the Gospel. Then a soft, yet overwhelmed, expression lit the 51-year-old’s face as principal ordaining prelate Archbishop Thomas Wenski vacated his seat so that the new bishop, wearing his mitre and holding his crozier for the first time, sat down to be presented as the new shepherd of the diocese. 

The packed congregation of 2,250 plus gave him a standing ovation.

From July 21 to 24, the diocese of northeast Florida gave thanks to Bishop-emeritus Felipe Estévez, and welcomed Bishop Pohlmeier during four liturgical celebrations: vespers, the ordination Mass, the first deanery Mass held at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Gainesville, and the first Mass at the Cathedral-Basilica in which Bishop Pohlmeier will sit on the cathedra to signify he has formally taken possession of his cathedral.

St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jacksonville played host to vespers and the ordination Mass. At vespers, Bishop David Toups of Beaumont, Texas, described his friend and priestly colleague of 30 years as a “man of great integrity and genuineness,” who is “a wonderful man worthy of the name Christian, priest and bishop.”

Retired Bishop Felipe Estévez described the vespers as the “first liturgical act of apostolic succession.” Congregants made sure that act was cemented in prayerful song.

“We give thanks to the Lord for Pope Francis choosing this very capable priest of the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., to be our next bishop,” Bishop Estévez said at vespers. “That’s why we are here all together this evening. We are here to pray for Bishop-elect Erik Pohlmeier so that he may reside in the place of Christ on this rock in northern Florida.”

Archbishop Wenski of Miami served as presiding celebrant at the July 22 ordination Mass, with Bishop Estévez and Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock serving as co-celebrants. Shrouded in ritual and tradition, the Mass included a formal reading of a mandate made by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio for the United States, on behalf of Pope Francis, declaring Bishop Pohlmeier as bishop. The nuncio read from the mandate, gave a congratulatory hug to the bishop-elect, and offered him the formal declaration on parchment. At that point, the native of Arkansas walked up and down the aisles of the church with the official document. 

Back upon the altar, the Liturgy of the Word began, which culminated in a homily by Archbishop Wenski. Before addressing the congregation, he turned to his episcopal colleague whom he had served with in Miami and offered him kudos for his 11 years of service to northeast Florida. “Bishop Estévez, take some holy pride in your stewardship of this diocese. This diocese has borne much fruit of the faith thanks to your guidance.”

Those words by the archbishop were followed by extended applause and a standing ovation by the clergy, religious and faithful of the standing room only congregation.

In his homily, the archbishop focused on what it means to be a bishop. He said although each bishop might be “keenly aware” of their own “unworthiness” to be called a bishop, the archbishop told the younger man not to worry and trust God. 

“Bishops must be filled with the courage of humility – not asking what prevailing opinion says about him but following the criterion of God’s truth and taking his stand accordingly – whether opportune or not,” Archbishop Wenski said. “Follow your episcopal motto and always ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God.’ With the grace of God, you’ll do alright.” 

Then the archbishop addressed the congregation as he concluded, “The call to the order of bishop implies a complete abandonment to the mystery of the cross – to the mystery of love. It is a dying to self. … And so, I ask you, my dear people of God, to respect this new bishop, to love him, and to pray for him, that his ministry as bishop among us will be fruitful.”

Before the end of the Mass, Bishop Pohlmeier offered words of gratitude to his family, his spiritual family in Arkansas where he had served all 24 years of his priestly life, and the priests, religious and laity of his new home in the 17-county region of the Diocese of St. Augustine. He said the excitement of everyone he has met has made him “very ready to get started” as a shepherd.

“The harvest is abundant I come to you a new apostle,” Bishop Pohlmeier said. “Now as he sends me, I call on you to listen to the voice of Jesus. If you are young and imagining your future, make sure that Jesus has something to say about it. Listen to him. You cannot go astray. … But that is not just a message for the young. It is for all of us. If you are settled into a life Jesus has more for you to do. The harvest is abundant. We have Good News to share.”