By Theresa Carson
On Dec. 2, Pope Francis appointed Father Norbert Hans Christoph Foerster SVD as the next bishop of the Ji-Paraná Diocese in the State of Rondônia, Brazil. A native of Germany, Bishop-elect Foerster completed his philosophy and theology studies in Münster before further studies in Brazil. For the past 31 years, he has served in Brazil as a pastor, formator, administrator, educator and missionary. Associate pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lakewood, N.J. and a member of the Chicago Provincial Council, Father Guilherme Andrino SVD was a novice when he met then-Father Foerster. Father Andrino gives us insight into Brazil’s newest bishop.
What do you remember about first meeting Bishop-elect Norbert Foerster?
I met Bishop Foerster when I was in the novitiate. He was the formator for the philosophy students of the Registro Diocese under the care of Bishop Jose Bertanha SVD. We had a get-together day with them. I remember that Bishop Foerster had prepared good snacks for our afternoon; I really liked the cheese spread that he had prepared. He later made time to teach me how to prepare it. He was a very good listener and loved to be with his Divine Word confreres.
How did his guidance as a formator impact your life?
One good piece of advice that I learned from him was to be good in school and good in my ministry to the people. He said that if I did these two things, then all will be okay. He tried to give the students enough space to grow in the formation years. I mean, he avoided policing us; he was more of a friend on a journey. One thing I really admire in him is his simplicity. He would go to the houses of all people, no matter how rich or poor they were. We used to minister in the slums of São Paulo, where there was a lot of violence and drugs. People would be scared to walk on those streets; however, Bishop Foerster was okay—no fear at all. People loved him.
How would you describe his spirituality or prayer life?
I see him as a person who prays in action. Bishop Foerster was always reading, he would go to bed very early and get up early, around 3 or 4 a.m. He would be reading and praying, and many times before we were awake, he had breakfast ready and would be waiting for us in the chapel. He knew how to bring the sacredness of our spiritual life to the regular lives of people and always with a big smile.
How did his example of intercultural living broaden your understanding of the world?
As Divine Word Missionaries, we get to meet missionaries from all around the world during our formation process and while in our mission assignments. From each missionary, we get to know a little bit more about different cultures and traditions. Bishop Foerster knew the Portuguese language very well; he was always finding time to be with the people—going to their homes for meals, visiting the sick or just talking. He was one of the tallest men in the neighborhood and especially in the parish community. He would not pass unnoticed on the streets when visiting people. He loved being with the youth and with the kids.
As a person who was born and raised in Brazil, what did you observe about the way that Bishop-elect Foerster adapted to Brazilian culture and way of life?
He became more Brazilian than many Brazilians. It was easy to relate to him. Becoming his friend is easy. The story of Joseph Freinademetz reminds me of Bishop Foerster because they say that St. Joseph, who worked with the Chinese people, became Chinese. I guess you could say the same about Bishop Foerster. He immersed himself in Brazilian culture, customs and traditions.
What are some of the challenges that Bishop-elect Foerster might face in the Ji-Paraná Diocese?
The Ji-Paraná Diocese is in the northern part of Brazil. That diocese has been without a bishop since the retirement of Bishop Bruno Pedron SDB in June 2019. There are some Divine Word Missionaries and Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters working in the diocese. They face challenges, especially lack of clergy. There are parishes with 50 or more outstations, chapels that are as far away as 200 miles. Often, there are only one or two priests to cover all those places.
Most of the time when a bishop or priest visits the chapels or communities, the people have not seen a clergyman for weeks or even months. The priest administers all the sacraments at once and gives formation training to the leaders. The visit takes a full day.
The religious women play a central role in the diocese. Because of the lack of priests, many sisters are administrators and minister to the people on behalf of the clergy. Some of our Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters oversee parishes in the diocese.
The terrain also poses a challenge. Sometimes the roads are very bad and the infrastructure very poor. The trips are very costly. Certain isolated communities are especially difficult to reach. The size of the Ji-Paraná Diocese is bigger that many countries in Asia and Africa. The State of Rondonia is part of the Amazon region and has seen a large migration of people from the south. In the region, there also is a growing number of neo-Pentecostalism and Protestant churches.
How will being a Divine Word Missionary help him in his new role?
I think Bishop Foerster’s formation is a mixture of inculturation, Prophetic Dialogue [two-way conversation and understanding], a good education and an openness to new experiences. These characteristics are all part of the Divine Word way of live. I am sure that the people of the diocese and the diocesan clergy and religious communities will benefit from his leadership. I also foresee the diocese becoming more community guided.
What did he teach you about being a leader?
I learned from him that we should always be attentive to the voice of those whom we serve and to make time to be with them. They know their own communities. They know best their own needs.
What personal characteristics will make him a good bishop?
He is a strong pastoral leader, a shepherd. He is a simple person who loves to help those in need. He is very intelligent and a good listener.
What else should people know?
I am happy about his appointment. Knowing him, I am sure it was not a position that he was looking for; however, he is a wise choice by the Holy Father. Bishop Foerster has all the priestly qualities that Pope Francis has been talking about in his homilies since day one. I will be praying for his ministry to be fruitful.