NEW YORK – Bishop Jeffrey Monforton has mixed feelings as he leaves the Diocese of Steubenville.
On the one hand, he’s eager to relocate to the Archdiocese of Detroit, where he was born and ordained as a priest in 1994. On the other hand, he’ll miss the people of the diocese and the place he’s called home since 2012, and “would have liked to see through” the process of a potential merger of the Steubenville and Columbus dioceses that could still happen sometime in the future.
Monforton began exploring a merger of the two dioceses about two and a half years ago, when the Vatican expressed concern over declining numbers. Monforton announced publicly that a merger was on the table last October, which was met with swift backlash that ultimately tabled a November U.S. bishops’ vote on the idea and temporarily tabled it.
Looking back at that process, Monforton acknowledged that it could’ve been handled differently, but he said he “wouldn’t change a thing” as he leaves the diocese about a year later.
“There’s a process that occurred, [and] I just ran with the ball. I took a look at the situation and I did not like what I saw when it came to our numbers,” Monforton told Crux.
“We lose 2 percent of our Catholic population every year, and the question is not a matter of keeping the diocese survivable, it’s keeping the Church relevant and focused and strong in the Ohio valley. That was my focus.”
The Vatican announced Sept. 28 that Monforton, 60, was being transferred out of his post in Steubenville to the Archdiocese of Detroit, where he will serve as an auxiliary bishop under Archbishop Allen Vigneron. Observers saw Monforton’s appointment as somewhat surprising, given that bishops are not typically transferred into roles which theoretically carry less responsibility, as an auxiliary does compared to the chief shepherd of a diocese.
Monforton said Cardinal-designate Christophe Pierre, the pope’s envoy in America, called to tell him the news of his new appointment. He said he wasn’t given a reason for the decision, and “didn’t ask” for one. He also noted that he doesn’t worry about the perception that he is moving into more of a supporting role.
“I welcome it. We live in a culture where people talk about climbing the ladder, and for me climbing the ladder is climbing a ladder to eternal life with Jesus Christ, and he gives us different opportunities as well as assignments throughout our lives,” Monforton said.
“From the eyes of the world it may be, ‘Hmm, now he’s a supporting cast,’” he said. “My response is, ‘So what?’ We’re here for Jesus and I will do whatever he asks me to do, and Pope Francis is the Vicar of Christ, and successor of St. Peter, and I will go wherever he wishes me to go, and I will do it joyfully.”
In a statement, Vigneron offered Monforton a “heartfelt ‘welcome home’.”
“On behalf of the clergy, religious, and faithful of the Archdiocese, I offer a heartfelt ‘welcome home’ to Bishop Monforton,” Vigneron said. “This is the local Church in which his priestly vocation was nurtured, and we are blessed to have him be with us once again to help lead our efforts to unleash the Gospel.”
Bishop Emeritus Paul Bradley of Kalamazoo, Michigan, was appointed to temporarily take over the Diocese of Steubenville as Apostolic Administrator. The Diocese of Steubenville comprises 5,913 square miles in Ohio and has a total population of 481,411, and a Catholic population of 28,339.
Monforton will begin his ministry in Detroit no Nov. 7. He joins three other active auxiliary bishops and three retired auxiliary bishops, as well.
Of his time in Steubenville, Monforton said he’ll remember most fondly his time with the faithful. He said he visited every parish in the diocese. The most prominent memories include recording three-minute blessing videos for nursing home residents and staff to watch during the COVID-19 pandemic, his interactions with students when he would visit diocesan schools and answer their questions in his weekly “Ask the Bishop” column, and the annual Masses and ordinations the diocese held.
“Encounter was number one,” Monforton said. “Just having the chance to meet people.”
Monforton also called the diocesan priests his “heroes,” highlighting the fact that most of them have at least two parishes, some three parishes, and one priest even oversees four parishes.
Conversely, he said he wishes he had focused more on substance than volume when visiting parishes.
“Having a chance to sit down and visit with them is important, but sometimes I stack too much on my calendar because I want to see everybody, for them to know that the bishop is here for them,” Monforton explained. “But to have the chance to maybe sit down and talk for a little bit longer, certainly I’m remiss from time to time on that.”
Over the last year, many of the headlines out of the Diocese of Steubenville pertained to the possible merger, including the process and backlash that ensued. After the U.S. bishops’ vote was tabled in November, no formal steps were announced until February, when Monforton announced that the diocese would undergo an external financial audit. Results of the audit have not yet been released to the public.
Monforton said that “everything is still on the table” for Steubenville, but he intends to remove himself from the process unless asked for counsel from Bradley, the Vatican, or anyone involved going forward. That said, he’s certain that something will have to change.
“The status quo is obviously not going to work,” he said. “We have to really, really, work on our resources,” he said.
“We’re just living in a different world than we did when we had the coal mines and the steel mills here. It’s playing catch-up ball, so to speak, and we’ll see how this all transpires and grows,” Monforton said.
Follow John Lavenburg on X: @johnlavenburg