Austin priest ordained bishop of San Angelo
By Peggy Moraczewski
Saying farewell to longtime friends is never easy, and this is the dilemma Bishop Michael Sis faced recently when appointed Bishop of the Diocese of San Angelo. Newly ordained and installed on Jan. 27, Bishop Sis considers it a “great privilege” to be one of the first bishops appointed by Pope Francis.
This “great privilege” was only enhanced by the presence of his father, Raymond, a permanent deacon, serving at his ordination. Bishop Sis said, “It probably has not happened very often that a father has served as a deacon at his son’s ordination as bishop!”
His parents, Dr. Raymond and Janice Sis, said, “This is a very exciting time for our family. We are pleased and blessed that Pope Francis has bestowed this honor on Michael. Throughout his life he has always had a very positive, loving spirit and has always been committed to serving others.”
Having served in the Diocese of Austin since his priestly ordination in 1986, Bishop Sis stated frankly, “I have invested my life in the Diocese of Austin and leaving causes a sense of grieving and loss. I have loved the people of this diocese. But, in obedience we go where we are sent, and the community of faith continues. The center of the whole picture is Jesus Christ, not a particular priest or bishop. Jesus is always there for us, no matter where we go.”
Bishop Sis is the fourth of five children and at the time of his birth in 1960, the family was living in Mount Holly, N.J., where his father was stationed at McGuire Air Force Base. The family relocated to Bryan-College Station when his father, Raymond, became a professor at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine. Michael was 6 years old and entered first grade at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Bryan. Little did he know, as the future Father David Konderla and he made their First Communion together in 1968 that many years later they would work together as priests in Catholic campus ministry in College Station.
Bryan was a friendly community and Bishop Sis said, “It had a small-town feel to it and you could not go anywhere without seeing someone you knew.” The Sis children played outside a lot, and they had many pets over the years. Animals brought home by his dad would soon become family pets … dogs, cats, rabbits, gerbils.
Growing up in a Catholic household, young Michael learned about his faith through the example of his parents. As a young couple, Raymond and Janice participated in the Christian Family Movement (CFM) where they realized the importance of building their marriage upon their Catholic faith.
“They were always very active in parish life and my mom served as Coordinator of Religious Education,” Bishop Sis said.
Although initially he attended St. Joseph Catholic School, the majority of his elementary and high school years were spent in the Bryan Public Schools. It was in fourth or fifth grade religious education class when his teacher, a student at Texas A&M, “had a tremendous impact on my prayer life and I do not even recall her name. She talked to us about developing a personal friendship with Jesus. I had never thought about this before and it really affected me,” Bishop Sis said.
When he was 13, Father Raymond Brezna suggested he consider the priesthood. Then, in the summers of 1973, 1974 and 1976, he attended a weeklong retreat called “Explore” at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston. Priests and seminarians ran the retreat, prayed with them, and gave teens a preview of life in the seminary. Today there are many priests throughout the state of Texas who attended “Explore” in Houston during their high school years.
High school friends became lifetime friends. Participating in student council and band (alto sax), parish programs, and as an altar server, Bishop Sis said, “I met these fun, nice young people at St. Anthony’s in Bryan and observed them living their Catholic faith. They had a wonderful, active prayer life, a devotion to God and the sacraments, and they had a big impact on my life. It’s a blessing that we’ve kept in touch, and I’ve been able to baptize some of their children.”
Over the years, various people influenced Michael’s faith; one of these people is Msgr. Don Sawyer, who currently serves as pastor of Our Lady’s Maronite Catholic Church in Austin. He was the associate pastor at St. Anthony Parish in Bryan and served in the parish youth program when Michael participated.
“Regular participation in CYO, a Catholic social and service group for teens, as well as CCD classes, may have had the greatest impact on my faith development,” Bishop Sis said.
Msgr. Sawyer said, “I always looked at my role to mentor others, giving them encouragement and helping them to discover where the Lord was calling them. What is important is that each person goes and does what God wants of them.”
Leaving the comfort of his Texas home, Michael travelled north to the University of Notre Dame/Moreau Seminary in South Bend, Ind. He found new opportunities to grow as an individual, becoming an avid racquetball player while in college, a sport he continues to play. But, more importantly, his faith continued to grow.
“I was a thousand miles from home and, trusting in God, found a context for growing in prayer, including Marian prayer at the grotto on the campus of Notre Dame. My relationship with Mary grew a lot and remains an important part of my life,” Bishop Sis said.
As a Moreau seminarian, Michael resided in the seminary and attended classes on the campus of Notre Dame. Later, when he went to study Theology at the North American College in Rome, his relationship with God continued to develop. He did the 19th Annotated Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola with the guidance of his spiritual director, Msgr. Jim McNamara, a priest of the Rockville Centre Diocese. Recently, in a message to the people of the Diocese of San Angelo, Msgr. McNamara said, “You are truly getting a gem of a Christian and a gem of a priest. He (Bishop Sis) will be a wonderful bishop and shepherd for all in the Diocese of San Angelo.”
After ordination in 1986, Father Sis was able to grow in his Spanish language skills as he ministered to the parishioners of Cristo Rey Parish in East Austin. He also served at St. Mary Cathedral in downtown Austin and devoted more than 13 years to St. Mary Catholic Center in College Station as associate pastor and pastor. Under his guidance, the campus ministry program at St. Mary Catholic Center at Texas A&M University (www.aggiecatholic.org) grew to play a substantial role in establishing the Diocese of Austin as fertile ground for vocations to the priesthood, the religious life, and strong Catholic marriages.
Bishop Sis said, in regard to his experiences in Catholic campus ministry, “We built on strong foundations that were laid by those who came before us. We listened to young people and tried to involve them in finding solutions.”
Friend and coworker at St. Mary Catholic Center, Father David Konderla said, “He (Bishop Sis) is a very humble man, a man of deep prayer and has a beautiful pastor’s heart. I don’t know anyone who works as hard as he does, and I believe he will be an excellent teacher for the people in San Angelo. I also believe that he will be successful in attracting vocations to priesthood and religious life in that diocese.”
Leaving College Station in 2005, Father Sis returned to Austin to serve as diocesan Vocation Director and since that time has also served as pastor at St. Thomas More Parish in Austin and, most recently, as Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia for the Austin Diocese.
“I learned a tremendous amount from Bishop Joe Vásquez and my colleagues on the diocesan staff regarding the administration of a diocese,” he said. He will carry this knowledge with him to his new position as Bishop of San Angelo.
Bishop Sis loves to travel, and that is a good thing, because his new diocese covers 37,000 square miles in 29 counties. His predecessor, Bishop Emeritus Michael Pfeifer, averaged 47,000 miles of travel per year and logged a million miles during his tenure as bishop. Interestingly, the two bishops share a common first name, so the people of the Diocese of San Angelo will have continuity in expressing their prayers for their bishop.
Prior to leaving Austin, Bishop Sis said he was looking forward to “listening to the priests and people of the Diocese of San Angelo, learning about their lives and walking with them in faith. Moving into this new assignment feels sort of like driving down a country road at night with my headlights on. The headlights only illuminate a little piece of the road in front of me. What lies further ahead is an unknown mystery. But, I trust that God is already there, in that unknown place, and I look forward to discovering him there.”
Understanding that transitions of leadership are not always easy to accept, Bishop Michael offered these reflections: “Everyone who comes to fill a role in ministry brings a unique set of talents and skills. God finds a way to use those gifts to fill the needs of the people. In a time of transition, such as this, when a priest leaves us, we give thanks for the gifts received through his ministry, we let go of him as he joins himself to a new community, and we welcome his successor with open minds and open hearts. We allow God to use him with his own unique set of gifts and insights as a humble instrument.”
Bishop Joe Vásquez, who was born, raised and ordained in the Diocese of San Angelo, offered these words of encouragement to Bishop Sis, “I think you will be happy there. They are very good people.” And, in turn, the Diocese of San Angelo has been blessed with a very good person in Bishop Sis.
“As the people of the Diocese of Austin say farewell to our longtime friend, we express our congratulations, best wishes, love and prayers of support to the new Bishop of San Angelo, Bishop Michael J. Sis!” Bishop Vásquez said.