Pope Francis names Bishop Robert D. Gruss of South Dakota as new Saginaw bishop

Pope Francis has announced Rapid City, South Dakota, Bishop Robert D. Gruss as the seventh bishop of Saginaw on June 24. Bishop Gruss, who was introduced to local faithful in Saginaw on May 24, will be installed on July 26. (CNS file photo)

Former commercial pilot, vice rector of Pontifical North American College 'shocked' to be named seventh bishop of Saginaw 

SAGINAW — Pope Francis has named Bishop Robert D. Gruss as the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw.

The current bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, Bishop Gruss' appointment as the next bishop of Saginaw was announced May 24 in Washington, D.C., by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican's apostolic nuncio to the United States.

Bishop Gruss, 63, will be installed on July 26 at 2 p.m. at St. Mary Cathedral in Saginaw. Until then, former Grand Rapids Bishop Walter A. Hurley will remain as apostolic administrator. Bishop Gruss will succeed Bishop Joseph R. Cistone, who died Oct. 16, 2018, at the age of 69, after a battle with lung cancer.

During a press conference at the Diocese of Saginaw's chancery, Bishop Gruss greeted local parishioners and members of the media. 

“The nuncio called me three weeks ago, and I've been carrying this news with me for three weeks,” Bishop Gruss said. “The nuncio told me Pope Francis appointed me to be the next bishop of Saginaw, and I realized, once again, how one phone call can truly change your life.”

A self-described “introvert” who isn't comfortable in front of the camera, Bishop Gruss told conference attendees he is a “cowboy at heart” who loves hunting, fishing and hiking and looks forward to learning more about the Diocese of Saginaw. 

Before coming to Saginaw, Bishop Gruss looked up the diocese's website and researched its mission statement: “Trusting in the Holy Spirit and nourished by the Eucharist, we the faithful of the Diocese of Saginaw are companions on the journey to share the love of Jesus Christ.”

“Considering that mission statement, it appears to me the Lord has sent me to the right place,” Bishop Gruss said. “God always tries to give us courage and support, and we know in the Lord's mind, there are no coincidences. When I was celebrating daily Mass today, it was the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, 'This is my commandment, to love one another as I have loved you.' That has been my episcopal motto for the last eight years. A sign God is with me on this journey.”

Bishop Gruss was named bishop of Rapid City by Pope Benedict XVI on May 26, 2011, and ordained on July 28 of that year at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City.

During his tenure, Bishop Gruss in 2017 opened the canonization cause for Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man turned Catholic catechist who died in 1950.

This year, Bishop Gruss announced a Year of the Eucharist to commence in the Diocese of Rapid City, set to begin on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, June 23. The hope was for pastors to preach on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and to “help parishioners grow in appreciation from the Mass and to encounter Christ more profoundly during the celebration.”

“I was shocked when I found out I was moving,” Bishop Gruss said when asked about his initial reaction to being named bishop of Saginaw. “I know bishops can't stay in a diocese forever, and after eight years in one place, the time was coming. But from the moment I found out, there was peace in my heart. The Lord gives us peace, and we go where the Lord takes us. I'm leaving behind a wonderful diocese. Every place I have been as a priest or a bishop has been a blessing, and I expect nothing else while I'm here.”

Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron tweeted congratulations to Bishop Gruss on his appointment.

“Congratulations to Bishop Robert Gruss, announced today as the bishop of Saginaw. Know of my prayers for you, and for all the faithful in Saginaw. Welcome to Michigan!,” tweeted Archbishop Vigneron, who as archbishop of Detroit, is the metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Detroit, which includes all of the dioceses in Michigan.

Bishop Gruss was born June 25, 1955, in Texarkana, Arkansas, and was raised in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Wisconsin before graduating from Edgerton Community High School in Wisconsin in 1973.

After earning an associate’s degree in civil engineering from the Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin, he earned a commercial pilot's license from the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1979, beginning a career as a flight instructor and commercial pilot.

After a decade of flying, the future Bishop Gruss began discerning the priesthood, earning a bachelor’s in pre-theology from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, in 1990 and began seminary formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome from 1990-94.

“There was a point in my career when I really embraced my Catholic faith, claimed it for my own,” Bishop Gruss said. “The Lord sent me on this journey. I was a commercial pilot, flying for a private corporation, and I became more involved in my faith as a single person. I desired to ask God, 'What is it you want to do with me, and could it be the priesthood?' In short, I was not going to go through life wondering; I was going to find out. So I quit my flying job, broke-up with my girlfriend and saw what the Lord wanted from me. And by the grace of God, I stand before you today.”

After earning a bachelor’s in sacred theology and a master’s in spiritual theology from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome in 1993 and 1994, respectively, Fr. Gruss was ordained a priest July 2, 1994, for the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, by Bishop William Franklin at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

After serving as associate pastor at various parishes in the Diocese of Davenport, Fr. Gruss was pastor of St. Mary Parish in Pella from 1999-2004, before being named director of vocations for the Diocese of Davenport from 2004-2007. He was later named chancellor, director of the Propagation of the Faith and director of the diocese's victim assistance program from 2005-07.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI named Fr. Gruss a monsignor and assigned him to be vice rector of the Pontifical North American College and director of human formation.

In 2010, he returned to the Diocese of Davenport to be rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral, before being ordained as bishop of Rapid City on July 28, 2011.

The Diocese of Rapid City covers western South Dakota, with 88 parishes serving an estimated 30,700 Catholics.

The Diocese of Saginaw is located eastern Central Michigan, covering the counties of Arenac, Bay, Clare, Gladwin, Gratiot, Huron, Isabella, Midland, Saginaw, Sanilac and Tuscola.   

The diocese has 56 parishes serving an estimated 153,260 Catholics.