Pets of all kinds fill the lawn at All Saints Catholic School in Davenport on Monday as Msg. Robert Gruss leads a blessing of the animals service. (Jeff Cook/QUAD-CITY TIMES) JEFF COOK

RAPID CITY, S.D.— The next bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City is a 55-year-old former professional pilot who chose the priesthood over getting engaged to a woman he had been dating for two years.

Monsignor Robert Gruss, pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, was introduced Thursday as the bishop-elect at a news conference. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Davenport in 1994, and has held a variety of positions in the diocese.

After the news conference, he said in an interview that he was in his early 30s when a process of spiritual searching and discovery led him toward the seminary and away from his aviation career and his soon-to-be fiancee.

Gruss said he flirted with the idea of the priesthood during his first year in college, but dismissed it quickly.

“I kind of put it out of my mind at that time,” he said.

But a calling he couldn’t reject began to work its way back into his life a few years later, following the death of his mother when he was “struggling with life as a 25-year-old.”

That was the beginning of a process that would take years but finally lead him back to that fleeting college notion of a life in the priesthood.

“I went on a search for God,” Gruss said. “I had a strong prayer life, and the notion of the priesthood kept coming back to me. I got to the point where it was on my mind all the time.”

Gruss finally broke up with his girlfriend, a strongly spiritual Baptist who was hurt by the news but also understood and supported his desire to make a life-long commitment to the priesthood.

“We had a really good relationship, and the Lord was at the center of it,” Gruss said. “It was hard. But she was happy for me. She came to my ordination.”

Gruss said he will be ordained as bishop on July 28 in Rapid City.

Bishop Martin Amos of Davenport said, “As a bishop when I install a new pastor for a parish, one of the final things I say to him is ‘My brother, be a loving father, a gentle shepherd and a wise teacher.’ I pray that Bishop-designate Gruss will be that for the people of the Diocese of Rapid City ... a loving father, a gently shepherd and a wise teacher. I join my prayers to the people of the Diocese of Davenport and the people of the Diocese of Rapid City for God’s blessings upon him as he begins this new ministry.”

The Diocese of Rapid City has only about 25,000 Catholics, but it is a sprawling landscape mostly made up of parishes in small towns and rural areas and larger parishes in Rapid City.

“Across 43,000 square miles, that’s a lot of territory,” Gruss said, joking that his mostly dormant pilot skills could be useful in moving from parish to parish. “But I look forward to it.”

Gruss said he also looks forward to connecting with people of the diocese, including the substantial Native American and Hispanic populations that add cultural diversity to the church. He said he isn’t knowledgeable in the Native American and Hispanic cultures but looks forward to being educated by them.

About a quarter of the Sacred Heart parish in Davenport is Vietnamese, and Gruss said they enriched his experience there.

“They bring so much life to the church and so much joy to me as I minster to them,” he said.

Gruss said he is an outdoor lover who enjoys hiking and nature photography and used to camp, hunt and fish often. He stopped in Rapid City last summer and was charmed by its outdoor beauty.

“I really love the outdoors,” he said.

Gruss follows a bishop in Cupich who was considered moderate in a church with a political conscience and variations — according to individual priests and bishops — in the way it is mixed with church doctrine and presented to parishioners. Bishop Charles Chaput, who served the Diocese of Rapid City prior to Cupich, was considered more conservative.

Asked where he fell on the conservative-to-liberal spectrum, Gruss said he prefers to avoid labels as much as possible but would consider himself somewhere in the middle.

“I see myself as kind of middle of the road,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider myself conservative.”

Gruss said the people he has served in his 17 years as a priest shaped him into the person who will now lead the Rapid City Diocese.

“In many ways, they have taught me how to be a priest,” he said.

(The Rapid City Journal is a Lee Enterprises newspaper.)