They gathered for a group photograph on a bitterly cold February day in western Kansas, resplendent in their bishop's miters and vestments.
When the Rev. John Brungardt was ordained as the newest bishop of the Catholic diocese of Dodge City last week, he became the fourth Wichita priest to be named a bishop since the summer of 1998.
On a per capita basis, four in nearly 13 years is more than such Catholic strongholds as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Baltimore and one of the highest rates in the nation, church watchers say.
"That's just extraordinary for a diocese of the size of Wichita," which has 115,000 Catholics, Brungardt said.
Brungardt joins his predecessor in Dodge City, Bishop Ronald Gilmore, who was ordained in 1998; the Rev. Paul Coakley, who became bishop of the Salina diocese in 2004 and will be installed as archbishop of Oklahoma City on Friday; and the Rev. James Conley, who was named auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Denver in 2008.
The bishops are all quick to credit God and those who supported them along their journeys not their own merits for their selections.
"Is there something in the soil, in the water, in the air?" Gilmore asked in an e-mail response to questions. "While I do not know comparable figures from other places, it certainly does leave me shaking my head, and wondering about the ways of God."
Bishop Emeritus Eugene Gerber, another native priest of the Wichita diocese, said the role of divine inspiration and direction can never be overstated.
"It is a very astute and grace-filled process through which the Holy Spirit works," Gerber said. "When Jesus walked the earth, he picked the apostles himself. Now he picks them through others."
Selecting a new bishop is an exacting process, with current bishops submitting the names of priests they believe would make good bishops.
Their qualifications are reviewed, and lists are trimmed and moved through the channels until the dossiers of a select few land in the hands of the Congregation of Bishops, a Vatican committee. It offers final recommendations to the pope, who has the final decision.
"Anyone coming in from Wichita, they're going to get an exceptionally close look," said Rocco Palmo, editor of Whispers in the Loggia, a blog that covers issues and developments in the Catholic Church.
There are several reasons for that, he said. One is Conley, who spent 10 years working as collaborator for the Congregation for Bishops in the Vatican before returning to Wichita in 2006.
"Conley was tremendously well-respected in Rome," Palmo said.
Because Conley came from the Wichita diocese, he said, there's an immediate reaction to candidates from there of, "If they are from Wichita, they must be good."
Another factor, Palmo said, is that Wichita has had two bishops in a row "that are very well-known" in the Vatican: Michael Jackels and Thomas Olmsted.
Before being appointed bishop of Wichita in 2005, Jackels spent eight years as an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a department of the Vatican that monitors doctrinal matters to ensure they comply with Catholic teaching.
His boss was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who took the name Pope Benedict XVI when he was chosen to succeed Pope John Paul II in 2005.
Olmsted, Jackels' predecessor in Wichita, served as assistant at the Secretariat of State of the Holy See and assistant spiritual director at Pontifical North American College in Rome.
With such highly respected Vatican officials as Conley, Olmsted and Jackels having Wichita ties, Palmo said, "you've got the pedigree there but pedigree will only get you so far. You also have the quality."
Beyond sexual abuse
Benedict XVI is striving to help the Catholic Church in America heal and move beyond the clergy sexual abuse scandal that has hounded it for years, Palmo said.
To do that, the pope is looking for and selecting bishops "who won't sweep the tough things under the rug," Palmo said. "Someone who can convey the teaching of the church with savvy, with substance, but also with great compassion."
These recent selections reflect a shift away from a mindset of bishop as administrator toward a bishop "as preacher, as teacher, as missionary," Palmo said.
It is a model that meshes well with the approach embraced in Wichita for many years now.
A bishop, Brungardt said, "is the shepherd of a diocesan flock, leading and guiding and comforting and healing, preaching and bringing the sacraments."
He had about 1,000 parishioners as pastor of St. Mark's in western Sedgwick County, he said. Now his flock is about 60,000 people in western Kansas.
"My skills, background and call matched the Dodge City diocese," Brungardt said. "I grew up on a farm near Abilene, and here I am in a farming and ranching community in Dodge City.
"I have a background in Hispanic ministry, and 60 percent of the Catholics are Spanish-speaking in the Dodge City diocese.
"I have a background in teaching, and my role as a bishop is to be a main teacher of the faith," he said. "All those skills prepared me well for this new ministry."
The esteem in which the Vatican holds Coakley, Palmo said, is evident in his selection as archbishop one of fewer than 40 in the country.
Coakley was humble about his appointment.
"God's ways are mysterious," he said. "The Lord chooses and calls whom he pleases.
"It is not necessarily based on merit. As Mother Teresa once said, 'God doesn't choose the qualified. He qualifies the chosen.' "
'A vibrant diocese'
Gerber said John Paul II and Benedict XVI chose well in selecting the four Wichita priests.
"Understanding that Christ can choose the weakest to confound the strongest, nonetheless these are strong candidates," he said.
"It's a vibrant diocese. We have families of solid faith. We have a proven Catholic education system... we have given some of our best priests to missionary work outside of the diocese.
"It is a strong missionary diocese," Gerber said. "It thinks outside itself."
That the diocese is in such a healthy position, Conley said, can be credited to Gerber and his predecessor, Bishop David Maloney, who headed the diocese from 1968 to 1982.
"Those years were years of tremendous turmoil in the Catholic Church" in the wake of Vatican II, Conley said.
Vatican II introduced numerous reforms in the church, among them celebrating Mass in the local language rather than Latin.
"Vocations dropped all over the country," Conley said. "Priests left. He (Maloney) chose seminaries during those difficult years... which provided a solid formation" for priests.
When Gerber returned from Dodge City to serve his home diocese as bishop in 1983, he continued to use the same strong seminaries, Conley said.
"Both Maloney and Gerber also were forward-thinking in sending priests off for further education and further training," he said.
Gerber called it a conscious effort to help priests fully develop their talents, for the good of the diocese and the church as a whole.
Gerber also embraced and encouraged the concept of stewardship the use of time, talent and treasure to sustain and build a parish that has proven so successful that dioceses around the country are now emulating it.
"The idea of stewardship... bore great fruit not just in vocations but in good formation as well," Conley said. "A lot of the Wichita priests have been nurtured in that.
"It's a good approach to not only leading a healthy parish but also leading a healthy diocese."