WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael W. Warfel of Great Falls-Billings. Coadjutor Bishop Jeffrey M. Fleming immediately succeeds him as head of the diocese.
The resignation and appointment were publicized in Washington Aug. 22 by Cardinal-designate Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.
Bishop Warfel, 74, has headed the eastern Montana diocese since his installation in January 2008. Bishop Fleming, 57, was named coadjutor bishop of the diocese in April 2022. A coadjutor automatically becomes the head of the diocese upon the retirement or death of its bishop.
Bishop Fleming, a native of Billings, was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Helena, Montana, in 1992. At the time of his appointment as coadjutor bishop, he had been serving as moderator of the curia and chancellor for the Helena Diocese for about two years and had just become the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Helena.
He was ordained a bishop June 22, 2022, during an afternoon Mass of welcome at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Great Falls. His episcopal motto, “Go Make Disciples,” is the beginning of the Great Commission Jesus gives to the Church — that “all believers are called and commissioned by Christ” to go and make disciples.
An enriching experience
In a video message to the faithful of the diocese announcing his resignation, Bishop Warfel said he had sent his letter to Pope Francis requesting his resignation as head of the diocese “some time ago,” and is “overjoyed” that Bishop Fleming “will assume the responsibilities of the diocese.”
Bishop Warfel, who is a native of Elkhart, Indiana, in the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese, was appointed the seventh bishop of Great Falls-Billings by Pope Benedict XVI in late 2007. He was the bishop of Juneau, Alaska, from 1996 until his appointment to Montana.
On the national level, he is a former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Home Missions and a former chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Evangelization.
When the pope appointed a coadjutor for Great Falls-Billings, Bishop Warfel said at that time he had petitioned Pope Francis for such an appointment “to help me in the administration of our diocese and to begin a transition” for an eventual new bishop.
As he awaited word Pope Francis would accept his resignation, Bishop Warfel said in his Aug. 22 video message, he reflected “a lot and turned a lot to the Book of Ecclesiastes” and its message that there is “an appointed time for everything.”
“Timing is everything and the time now is for me to resign as the ordinary of the diocese. Now, I’ve pointed out that my resignation is not the same thing as retirement — a bishop never really retires,” he said. “I have a lot of ministries, various kinds of events and activities that will keep me quite busy for many years to come.”
Bishop Warfel turns 75 on Sept. 16, the age at which canon law normally requires bishops to submit their resignation to the pope. But Bishop Warfel noted he had submitted his resignation months ago because “it is time to move on to a different way of serving as a bishop.”
“It’s been a joy” to shepherd the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, he said. “There’s been certainly ups and downs, twists and turns, but overall it’s been a very enriching experience for me, and I hope that I have served you well.”
“There have been difficult times certainly in the times I’ve been here — we went through a whole series of lawsuits,” he said, referring to the diocese being sued over abuse claims that spanned more than 60 years. In March 2017, the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, and a year later came out of the process, reaching a settlement of $20 million for victims of past clergy sex abuse.
Bishop Warfel continued, “I look back on the weddings I’ve done, the many baptisms and confirmations that I’ve celebrated, and above all the time I’ve been with you parishioners at your parishes and just shared life together with you. It’s been very enriching for me. I hope to continue being present to you. It’ll just be in a different context now.”
Montana native becomes bishop
Jeffrey Michael Fleming was born Feb. 10, 1966, to Mike and Glenda Fleming in Billings and raised in Belt, Montana.
He graduated from Carroll College, a private, four-year Catholic diocesan college in Helena, with degrees in theology and religious education. He attended Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon, where he earned a master’s degree in theology, and was ordained to the priesthood May 19, 1992, by Helena Bishop Elden F. Curtiss.
His first assignment after ordination was as associate pastor for the Anaconda Catholic Community in Anaconda, Montana. Four years later, in 1996, he was named associate pastor at the Cathedral of St. Helena.
He then took a sabbatical year for studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, where he earned a licentiate in canon law in 1998.
That year he was appointed chaplain to Carroll College. He also served as priest-director of Legendary Lodge in 1998. The Catholic-run Legendary Lodge offers weeklong summer camps for youth, with the collaboration of the Helena diocesan Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry.
In 2003, then-Father Fleming was named pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Dillon, Montana, before becoming pastor in 2006 at Christ the King Parish in Missoula, Montana, which serves the University of Montana.
In 2019, the priest was assigned to Helena to serve the diocese as director of the chancery, vice chancellor and adjutant judicial vicar, and before that he had pastoral responsibility for St. John the Baptist Parish in Frenchtown, Montana, for six years.
Concurrent with his diocesan posts he was administrator for two Montana parishes and one Catholic community: St. Thomas Parish in Helmville, St. Jude Parish in Lincoln and the Flint Creek Catholic Community.
In his video message, Bishop Warfel asked Catholics of the diocese to pray for Bishop Fleming and that his service to the diocese “will be fruitful and effective” and that “you will learn to love him deeply as he has already manifested his love for you.”
The Diocese of Great Falls-Billings covers about 94,000 square miles of Montana, which has 29,607 Catholics out of a total population of 433,562.