20 Questions with Bishop Joseph Potocnak, SCJ

Favorite color? What makes you happy? What are you good at? What is your greatest fear… “Twenty Questions” is a regular feature in which SCJs and those with whom they minister and collaborate share a bit about themselves in an informal Q&A. Participants are given the same list of questions and are invited to answer as many as they would like.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Bishop Joseph Potocnak, SCJ, spent 36 years in South Africa, 17 as bishop of the Diocese of De Aar. He is now retired and is a member of the Sacred Heart Community in Pinellas Park, FL, where he serves as a volunteer chaplain at the local veterans center.


Q: Where were you born and raised? Describe your family.

Bishop Joe

BISHOP JOE: I was born in Berwick, PA, and when I was seven my family moved to Philadelphia; I was raised there.  I had two brothers and two sisters; I was the middle child. We had a wonderful family, my father and mother loved each other. My two brothers and I were close and proud of the success of each other; of course, we loved our sisters. I only realized how fortunate I was to be raised in such a loving, stable family, as I got older.

Q: What is your favorite book or movie?

BISHOP JOE: Casablanca.

Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world post-pandemic – without concern about the expense – where would you go and why?

BISHOP JOE: Nowhere, I am happy where I am.

Q: What are you good at?

BISHOP JOE: I like to listen to folks.

Q: What is your favorite color?


Q: Do you have any hobbies or pastimes? If so, what are they and how did you get interested in them?

BISHOP JOE: I like watching sports. I was a caddy in high school, and I like playing golf, as well as walking, and reading.

Q: What is your favorite food?


Q: What is your least favorite chore?

BISHOP JOE: Shaving.

Q: Who — living or deceased — do you most admire and why?

BISHOP JOE: My younger brother, Jimmy, who died last year.

Q: What would surprise people to learn about you?

Bishop Joseph Potocnak celebrating a home Mass in South Africa

BISHOP JOE: There are several things that I think are worth mentioning, things that people might not know about me. I served four years in the 1950s in the Air Force, 18 months on Kumejima Island in the East China Sea. I attended the University of Nevada, Reno, on the GI Bill.

When I became Bishop of De Aar, South Africa, there was the pandemic of HIV/AIDS and I was able to get a nurse, Sr. Cathy, a Sacred Heart Sister, to start hospices in our diocese. They were mostly home-care hospices. From the start in our diocese, approximately 40 towns in other dioceses began hospice programs and over 200 home caregivers were paid by the government because the government trusted the work of the Catholic Church. I became Liaison Bishop for the Catholic Health Institutions in South Africa.

When I first came to South Africa I took a course in development in Cape Town; part of it involved a three-day plunge in a poor area.  I met and stayed with Larry Henery, a priest. He later became the archbishop of Cape Town and I was the first bishop he ordained.

When Bishop Tutu retired, I attended the celebration of him in Kimberley with all the Anglican bishops, I was the only Catholic bishop there.

I was stabbed once, and once hit on the head, rendered unconscious, and robbed. Thankfully, I have no lasting health issues from this.

I have ordained priests in South Africa, Poland, Ireland, and the United States.

After I retired, I took a parish in the Port Elizabeth Diocese; the bishop of the diocese passed away while I was there so I did the diocesan Holy Week services. Also while there my good friend Bishop Evert Baay, SCJ, passed away, and in his will he asked that I bury him. I did.

A few more trivia answers: I taught senior math at the Black Government High School in De Aar and  I started and coached basketball teams in Noupoort and De Aar. With my altar boys in Noupoort, I made the trip on foot between Noupoort and Middleburg, about 25 miles.

I once ran marathon in South Africa, and I came in last in street run in De Aar. I was last but they still gave me a silver medal for my age group.

Q: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

BISHOP JOE: I thought about the priesthood, but also about a steady union job.

Q: What makes you happy?

BISHOP JOE: Being a priest, interacting with the poor and the sick who have touched my life deeply.

Q: What trait or habit do you dislike in yourself?

BISHOP JOE: Tendency to be a coward.

Q: What trait or habit do you dislike in others?

BISHOP JOE: Being a hypocrite.

Q: List three words that describe you.

BISHOP JOE: Grateful, kind, loyal.

Q: How did you come to know of the Priests of the Sacred Heart (Dehonians) and what interested you about them?

BISHOP JOE: I read an add in a Catholic magazine about our adult seminary in Great Barrington, MA.  I just wanted to be a priest, I knew nothing about SCJs.

Q: Do you consider yourself a Dehonian? If so, what does that mean to you?

BISHOP JOE: I do consider myself a son of Fr. Dehon. His community has given meaning and harmony and joy to me.

Q: What changes, adaptations or insights do you expect to stay with you from the pandemic? In other words, how do you expect to be changed by COVID-19?

BISHOP JOE: That who I am is more important than what I do; I miss visiting and bringing Holy Communion to the men at the VA living center.