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SJU alum’s approach to Bible soars to top of podcast charts

Fr. Mike Schmitz had seen the format tried before, but he hadn’t yet found an approach he deemed easily accessible. So he and others got to work on developing their own version of reading the Bible in a year.

The result was the “Bible in a Year” podcast in which Schmitz – a 1997 Saint John’s University graduate who is now chaplain of Newman Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Minnesota-Duluth – guides listeners through the entire Bible over the course of 365 episodes.

It quickly became a national sensation, taking over the No. 1 position among all podcasts on the U.S. Apple Charts soon after its debut in January 2021. According to Ascension Press, the company that released it, the podcast totaled 170 million downloads in 2021, averaging 470,000 per day.

An official, Ascension-moderated Facebook group for listeners of the podcast now boasts over 97,500 members.

And it hasn’t lost any momentum, having already rocketed back to the No. 1 spot on the Apple chart at the start of 2022.

Those are heady numbers, and Schmitz said they have certainly come as a surprise to him.

“Broad reach is probably the best way to describe it, and that’s something I never would have expected,” he said. “But it’s great. I couldn’t be happier about it. I knew this was something I needed, and I figured it was something that might help other people. But I didn’t realize exactly how many.

“There was a precedent for this. I’d seen audio books and other things like that which used the format of reading the Bible in a year, so I knew it existed. I’d even tried some of them before and failed. But it stuck in my mind that this was a great way to divide it up.”

Since podcasts have only continued to rise in popularity, that seemed like the proper format. The reading plan was inspired by “The Great Adventure Bible Timeline,” an approach to the study of salvation history developed by Catholic Bible scholar Jeff Cavins.

Schmitz reads a portion of the Bible in each episode, as well as offering his own prayers and commentary.

“We don’t put a date on it,” he said. “We don’t say this is Jan. 1 or March 1. We just say it’s Day 1 or Day 60. That way, if you miss a day, or a week, or even a month, you can just find the day you left off on and that’s the day where you can start back up. We wanted to give people permission not to be perfect, and I think that’s part of what’s helped so much.

“We also wanted to provide guidance. I got a letter from a woman a couple of weeks ago, right at the turn of the year, who told me that years ago she’d purchased a version with (actor) James Earl Jones reading the Bible. And what a great voice that is – to have the voice of Darth Vader or Mustafa (from Disney’s “The Lion King”) reading you the Bible. I can’t compete with that.

“She said he read it beautifully, but she kept getting lost trying to figure out what she had just heard and what it meant. It’s easy for that to happen, especially when it comes to the prophets and it seems like a lot of them are saying the same things. Or it starts referring to different events that happened. So we wanted to have that voice at the end who can say that they’re talking about the invasion of the Babylonians, or about this or that other thing. And I think having that there has really helped too.”

The approach has certainly seemed to connect with listeners.

“It’s done so well,” said Sandee Kremers, the Pastoral Associate at St. Francis Xavier in Sartell, Minnesota. “Fr. Schmitz brings the Word to life. He is easy to listen to and his explanations and reflections of Scripture are easy to understand and digest. I learn something new every day.”

Kremers said she plans to begin using it in Bible Studies and other Small Group discussions among parishioners.

“I did it myself last year and am doing it again this year. I got so much out of it.” she said. “Ascension Press does such a great job. They have a ‘Bible in a Year’ companion that gives you the prayers used in the podcast. They also give you reflection questions for each podcast making it very easy to create a bible study or small group around it.”

Schmitz attended Brainerd (Minnesota) High School, and it was during his high school years when he said faith and religion really began to become an important part of his life.

That, in turn, helped lead him to Saint John’s.

“I was raised Catholic and I went to a Catholic elementary school,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I got into high school when God really started to matter to me. And I began reading everything I could.

“There is this letter from Peter where he says you have to be able to give a reason for the faith that’s within you,” Schmitz said. “And that struck me. I wanted to be able to give a reason for what I believed.

“So when I saw there was this school about an hour away where I could have discussions with monks, attend daily Mass and study theology, that seemed like a good place to go to formulate a reason for what I believed.”

While Schmitz said he enjoyed his time on campus, it was an experience that came after graduation that inspired him to enter the seminary.

“At that time, they were sending a number of Johnnies and Bennies down to do missionary work in Belize,” he said. “It was right on the border with Guatemala and I went down there and it changed my life. I’m so grateful to Saint John’s for giving me that opportunity. That was when it really became clear to me that I wanted to enter the seminary.”

These days, it is Schmitz providing others with inspiration. The success of the podcast prompted Ascension to take out a digital billboard in New York City’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve, allowing the nation to catch a glimpse of his image.

But he said personal attention hasn’t meant anywhere near as much as seeing the way the podcast has connected with listeners.

“One of the biggest things for me has been hearing from students on campus (at UMD) who’ve told me they’re halfway through the year,” Schmitz said. “I’ll ask them ‘Are you really doing it?’ and they’ll say of course they are.

“That’s been really gratifying. Doing these episodes took a lot of time, effort and energy. Of course, I was doing them at my house or my office. But it took me away from the students here somewhat. So there was a cost to it. 

“It’s been great to see things coming back in return.”

Fr. Mike

Fr. Mike Schmitz