COVINGTON – Monsignor John Iffert thought a friend might be playing a joke on him when he got the call two weeks ago asking if he'd like to be the new bishop of the Diocese of Covington.
He'd been a parish priest for most of his adult life in the church and had settled recently into his role of vicar general in a small parish in Caseyville, Illinois. Now, he was being asked to replace the retiring Bishop Roger Foys as the leader of the church in Northern Kentucky.
"I had no reason to expect this phone call," Iffert said Tuesday. "No reason whatsoever."
But when the call came, the 53-year-old priest who said he never had any ambition to become a bishop agreed to take the job.
"I feel astounded," he said.
Soon, Iffert said, he expects the shock to wear off and the hard work to begin. There will be much to do.
Iffert inherits a diocese that spans 14 counties in Northern Kentucky and is home to more than a half million people, including almost 100,000 Catholics. It faces many of the same challenges other American dioceses face today, from a shortage of priests to declining Mass attendance to fallout from the decades-long clergy abuse scandal.
The Diocese of Covington, which has paid more than $80 million to abuse victims as part of a legal settlement, last year released a report that found 59 Catholic priests and 31 others had abused children since the 1950s.
Iffert said repairing the damage done by clergy abuse will be a task he and other church leaders must continue for years.
"We can't apologize enough," he said. "We have to acknowledge that harm has been done."
When asked about his other priorities after his introductory press conference Tuesday, Iffert said his first job will be getting to know the diocese and its people. He said he wants to visit parishes, listen to churchgoers, attend sporting events and share meals with the people he's been asked to serve.
"I'm new at this," he said, standing before a bank of microphones and TV cameras in a room filled with priests and diocesan staff. "I've been doing this for about 12 minutes."
Though he was short on details on his first day on the job Tuesday, Iffert made clear he intends to make the recruitment of priests an important part of his ministry. The number of priests in the United States has fallen from almost 60,000 to about 37,000 in the past 50 years, and that decline has been felt locally both in the Diocese of Covington and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
That, in turn, has contributed to the closure or consolidation of schools and parishes throughout Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky.
"I'd like to invite every active, prayerful, Catholic young man to spend time learning about the life of a priest," Iffert said. "Do something to ask God if this is the life for you. You do not want to miss this. It is an adventure and a joy."
Foys, the outgoing bishop who has served 19 years in the diocese, said he has no doubt Iffert is the right man for the job.
"I'm confident he'll be a wonderful shepherd," Foys said.
Iffert's appointment became official Tuesday when the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had accepted Foys' resignation. Iffert had been serving as a parish priest for St. Stephen parish in Caseyville and as the vicar general for the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois.
As vicar general, Iffert was essentially the top assistant to the bishop. He handled personnel, financial and other administrative matters in Belleville.
Foys resigned last July when he turned the mandatory retirement age of 75. He continued to serve as bishop until the pontiff could name a replacement and accept the resignation. He had been bishop for 19 years.
Iffert was born in Du Quoin, Illinois, about 85 miles southeast of St. Louis. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in political sciences at Illinois State University in 1988. He carried out his ecclesiastical studies at the Mundelein Seminary in the metropolitan Archdiocese of Chicago, obtaining a master's degree in divinity in 1997.
"He is known to have great pastoral heat as well as excellent pastoral experience in his more than two decades of service" in Belleville, the Archbishop of Louisville, Joseph Kurtz, said in a statement.
Iffert was ordained a priest in 1997 for the diocese of Belleville. He also currently is serving as the parish priest of St. Stephen's church, an Illinois suburb of St. Louis.
The Diocese of Covington has 90 priests, 57 of whom are active. The diocese also has 28 diocesan and parochial primary schools, seven high schools and one university with nearly 15,000 students.
When Iffert was named vice general in Belleville in 2020, Bishop Michael McGovern wrote in a letter, “Father John is an excellent priest and a dedicated pastor, and he is widely respected in our diocese.
“With his strong faith and many talents, I believe he will be an excellent servant leader, and bring a pastor’s heart to the work of administration," the letter said.
The Belleville diocese's newspaper, The Messenger, highlighted Iffert's role in working with community and church leaders in Mount Vernon, Illinois to found Lifeboat Alliance Family Shelter, where they “help people who are homeless weather life’s storms.” In 2013, the ecumenical ministry received the Governor’s Cup Award as an exemplary service project to the local community.
On Tuesday, Iffert said his work with parishioners is the work that always has mattered most to him.
"I am a priest who loves being a priest," he said. "I am a pastor who loves being a pastor."
Iffert first served as parish vicar of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville from 1997-2000 and parish priest of the Immaculate Conception parish in Columbia from 2000-2003. In 2003, he entered the Order of Preachers, giving his first vows in 2004. In religious life, he has served as parish vicar of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center in the Purdue University of West Lafayette, Indiana.
After his experience in religious life, he held the following offices in the diocese of Belleville: administrator of the St. Mary Immaculate Conception parish in Mount Vernon from 2008-2010, of the St. Theresa of Avila parish in Salem, and of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Kinmundy from 2009-2010, parish priest of the St. Mary Immaculate Conception parish in Mount Vernon from 2010-2020; parish priest of the St. Barbara parish in Scheller from 2014-2020; vicar forane or rural supervisor of the North Central Vicariate from 2013-2020; and co-vicar for the clergy from 2014-2020.
From 2020 to the present he has served as vicar general and moderator of the Curia and since 2021, parish priest of the St. Stephen parish in Caseyville.
Originally from Chicago, Foys took over the diocese after serving as the diocesan vicar general in Steubenville, Ohio, for more than a decade. He was the 10th bishop of the Diocese of Covington.
In an interview with The Enquirer in April 2018, Foys said he was stunned to be told he was going to be a bishop and never really aspired for the position.
“After the bishop retired in Steubenville and I knew I wasn’t going to replace him, I was looking forward to going back to living out my days as a parish priest,” Foys said. “But then I got a message to call the Vatican in Rome. And after I finished a funeral, I called them back and they said the Holy Father wanted me to go to Covington.
“I was struck dumb. But now I feel blessed and privileged to have worked with these wonderful people in a place I now call home.”
Ordained a priest in 1973, Foys was well known for his wry humor and unscripted homilies from the pulpit.
That’s where he often professed his love for the Pittsburgh Steelers – earning laughs and moans from his congregations. He became a fan living in Steubenville near Pittsburgh for more than 30 years. He also was a huge Chicago Cubs fan, having grown up in Chicago, but said he also pulled for the hometown Reds.
Cincinnati.com will update this story.