Interview with Fr. Brad Held, S.J.

Father Brad Held’s first experience on the Pine Ridge Reservation, as a teacher at Red Cloud Indian School, opened his heart to serving the Lakota people. When he was called back to serve as the Pastor of Holy Rosary Mission just five years later, his initial surprise was overwhelmed by a sense that the time was right to engage with the Lakota Catholic community in a new way. As Pastor, Fr. Held will work to build community among the Catholic churches across the reservation, and to infuse new life and energy into the parishes by reaching out to the younger generation of Catholics on the reservation.

Father Brad Held, S.J.

Thank you so much for speaking with us today. To begin, can you talk about where you grew up and the path that ultimately led you to the Jesuits?

I was born and raised in Wisconsin, in a small town called Slinger, about 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee, WI. After high school, I went to Marquette University in Milwaukee and studied political science. It was really at Marquette that I got to know the Jesuits and started thinking about discerning priesthood. I watched the Jesuits that worked around me as professors and campus ministers and began to see them as examples of what it might be like to follow this call to priesthood. I graduated from Marquette in 2006 and I entered the Jesuits the fall of that same year. There is a long formation process of about 11 years from entering the Jesuits to ordination into priesthood. During that time, I studied in two graduate programs, first at Fordham University, and then later at Boston College.

Your position as Pastor of Holy Rosary Mission will not be your first time serving on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. During your Jesuit formation process, you were a teacher and campus minister at Red Cloud Indian School, from 2011 to 2014. Can you tell us how that assignment came about and describe your impressions of the reservation during that first experience?

Part of the process of assigning missions within the Jesuits is that our names and information about us are put out to different schools within the province. Red Cloud seemed like a good fit when I visited because there was a need in the high school for someone to teach spiritual formation, which really interested me. As Jesuits, we certainly get input into things, but it’s ultimately the provincial who decides where a Jesuit will go and be missioned. My first impression of the reservation was a sense of the vastness of the place. I remember being impressed by what was going on at Red Cloud Indian School, the efforts of the faculty and staff, and the students’ willingness to give themselves to the education they were receiving. I was also certainly aware of the challenges of it too, knowing that a lot of students had a goal of continuing on to higher education, but that there were a lot of challenges to the transition for them. As I developed as a teacher over those years, I tried to figure out how to help students build up skills and resiliency to take those hopes and dreams of higher education and make them a reality.

Did you always have a desire to return to the reservation in some capacity?

In the back of my head, returning to Pine Ridge was something I thought was a possibility, but it was not something that I knew would happen. So, in 2014 I went off to Boston for my second graduate program. Once that was complete, I moved back to Milwaukee to teach at Marquette University High School and am just completing my my second year here. I haven’t been here that long, so I expected that I’d be here a bit longer. When I was approached about the need for a pastor in Pine Ridge, I was surprised, but definitely open to it and drawn by my connection to Pine Ridge. My past experience really sparked a passion for teaching in me, and also a passion for serving the Lakota people. This seems to be the right moment where that’s being called upon again, but in a different way.

Can you explain your new role as Pastor of Holy Rosary Mission?

In some ways, the scope of the role is a work in progress. There are six churches on Pine Ridge where there is mass every Sunday, and a few other churches beyond that have masses some Sundays of the month. The idea is that Pastor of Holy Rosary Mission is going to lead those churches and the pastoral team that serves those churches. There are two Jesuit priests presently working as pastors for some of the churches, along with Sr. Barb who works at Our Lady of the Sioux in Oglala. Part of my role will be to work with this team of Jesuits, sisters, and laypeople, who are primarily, if not all, local Lakota people, and to give some leadership to that team. The hope is to work with this team on looking at what we are presently doing across the reservation within the churches. We will also dream and envision what we would like to do. Are there needs that we are not presently being attentive to or addressing? Where are the places that we are doing things well, and where are the places for growth and opportunities? The hope is to develop a pastoral plan or vision for the parish ministry on the Pine Ridge Reservation, mainly focused on connecting to the people that the parishes serve.

What do you see as the biggest challenges to our parishes on the reservation?

I think the challenge is answering the question, “What does the future of the Catholic church look like on the reservation?” Part of the reality is that the community in the parishes on the reservation are of an older crowd. I’ve been a part of parish communities elsewhere, particularly up in Boston as a transitional deacon, who were engaged in the same questions, but in their own context. Who are the people who are baptized, but are not around? What are they interested in? What are they doing? What are points of connection? That was really interesting and I learned a lot through that experience. Pine Ridge is different in both context and culture, but I think I can bring a lens to look at things from that other context, to ask these questions and do some similar kind of thinking for the parishes of Holy Rosary Mission. It’s a challenge, but that’s the part that excites me about it.

As an indigenous community with a strong Lakota spiritual and cultural heritage, the Pine Ridge Reservation is a unique place for working within the Catholic faith. How do you think about the relationship between these two traditions?

It is important. The Catholic Church very much values enculturation to the culture that exists among a people, and considers that valuable. The belief is that God is there and Christ is present in the culture. The question is how to incorporate the culture and make that real and present. It’s important to engage the people in that conversation and see what arises from the community. We will look to the people for the answers on the movements of the spirit around enculturation and language. That is what will ultimately determine what it will look like in our worship and in our communication of the faith. I don’t see my role as coming in with all the answers. In a way, from my perspective, to have those answers is just a different kind of colonization. So, it’s a question of how to empower and give people in the community the opportunities, time, and space to raise answers, and then help to do it.

What are your greatest hopes for your new role as pastor?

My greatest hope would be for new life and new energy with the presence of young people in the parishes. I also hope for the parishes across the reservation to see themselves as a community of faith together, not just Sacred Heart in Pine Ridge, or St. Ignatius in Wanblee, or St. Agnes in Manderson. These small communities of faith are spread out, but together this is a community of faith of Catholics on Pine Ridge. I think the sense of community is there, but to see that grow even more is my hope.

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School



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