Jim Pillen, Nebraska’s 41st governor, talks about his faith in a recent interview at his office in the State Capitol in Lincoln.


Gov. Pillen brings his Catholic faith – and some courage – to his public role

Pig statues in the office of Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen indicate to visitors that a hog farmer now occupies the office.

He proudly reminds his first-time guests that he’s the first farmer to re-occupy the post after a century-long absence.

More traditional works of art also grace the stately governor’s office on the second floor of the State Capitol in Lincoln – paintings that speak of Nebraska, its history and its values. Two particular paintings, in the office’s reception room, are ones that Pillen, as a Catholic, embraces: one depicting matrimony and the other motherhood.

They are institutions the state protects, and “they stand as a testament to who we are,” the governor said in a recent interview.

Matrimony is “something we ought to talk about a little more, right?” he said. And tied to marriage is motherhood, “most important of all.”

Pillen – one of 16 Catholic governors in the United States and a member of St. Isidore Parish in Columbus – doesn’t shy away from talking about his faith or bringing it into his job during his first eight months as governor.

The self-described “sinful slob” never strayed from the Catholic faith he grew up with. But it took some humbling, extraordinary and even miraculous moments of grace to enliven that faith as an adult. He felt God calling him to be governor, a job he initially didn’t want, he said. But now in office, Pillen says he loves the job, and he’s comfortable bringing his Catholic faith to bear as he leads the state.

At a Catholics at the Capitol event in April, organized by the Nebraska Catholic Conference, he did something a little unusual for any governor or elected official in 2023: He led people in prayer. 

“So you know what? This is home,” Pillen said about being with fellow Catholics. “Would you guys pray with me?”

He and the crowd went on to pray to the Holy Spirit, to “renew the face of the earth.” 

“And that’s what today’s about, right?” Pillen said, encouraging their activism. “Renewing the face of the earth, having a little more courage, a little more courage to stand up, talk about what we believe in.”

“It’s just really, really important that we have the courage to stand up for our values and get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Nebraska Gov. Jim PIllen is one of 16 Catholic governors in the United States.


Pillen’s faith has been on public display from the get-go.

As governor-elect he sent out a video Christmas message extolling “our greatest blessing of all, the gift of Jesus Christ.” Pillen challenged people to “show love to those around you. Volunteer at a local homeless shelter. Reach out to a single mom who’s struggling to buy a gift for her son or daughter, or help mentor a young student falling behind in reading.”

“Together we can lift each other up with the help of God and build a better and brighter future for Nebraska.”

Once in office, Pillen jumped into the fray of a tumultuous legislative session in which senators battled over abortion, school choice and protections for children from transgender medical procedures.

Yet Pillen was able to claim victory when the session ended, leading the implementation of what he called “once-in-a-generation conservative policies,” including policies backed by the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC). The governor continues to fight for those measures as challenges against them continue.

Tom Venzor, executive director of the NCC, said he is grateful for the governor’s advocacy and leadership through the legislative session and over the summer.

Having a Catholic governor is helpful, Venzor said, “because it allows you to work on so many common issues where not only do you share a common conviction on the outcome, but you share conviction on the core reasons why you’re behind issues,” basic values about the human person, faith and Christianity.

Pillen brings his faith to the public square at a time when Catholics on both ends of the political spectrum are scrutinized over their Catholicism. But Catholics and other Christians can no longer be silent, he said.

“We have to have more courage,” the governor said at Catholics at the Capitol, in a talk at St. Mary Church across the street from the statehouse. “We have to have more courage in our families. We have to have more courage in our communities. And we have to talk about things that none of us are comfortable talking about. … Sex can’t be as common as a handshake. We have to start talking about abstinence. We have to engage with our children better.”

Gov. Jim Pillen speaks to a crowd at an April Catholics at the Capitol event in Lincoln.

Being governor was never something he sought after, Pillen said. Instead it was a persistent calling from God, something he said he argued over with the Lord.

“I’ve been asked a million times: ‘When did you have the dream to be governor?’ I can assure you, never,” he said.

“I’m only here because of my family and because a lot of extraordinary people who have touched me along the way.”

Now that Pillen is in the office, he calls being governor a joy, not a job.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said during an interview at his office.  “I’m having a ball doing this. … It’s been extraordinary. Somebody says ‘How’s that job?’ And I say that this deal is not a job. Are you kidding me? It’s just an extraordinary privilege.”


Pillen has found financial success in his multigenerational family business, Pillen Family Farms and DNA Genetics. But he comes from humble beginnings. 

The youngest of three sons born to Dale and Dorothy Pillen, he grew up on a farm west of Platte Center.

“My folks were tenant farmers in the ‘60s,” the governor said in his talk at Catholics at the Capitol. “We had everything, but we had nothing, if that makes sense.”

“I think that the beauty of how we grew up is we learned about the faith, we learned about family, and we learned about hard work.

“So we grew up on the end of a pitchfork and a scoop shovel. And that was a great way to live, a great way to grow up. If every kid grew up the way I did, it’d be an incredible blessing.”

Pillen recently worshiped at a Mass celebrated by Father Joseph Miksch at St. Joseph Church in Platte Center.

“It just brought back great memories of First Communion and Confirmation,” the governor said. “I can remember as a kid when he (Father Miksch) had his first Mass in Platte Center.”

After attending Scotus Central Catholic and graduating from Lakeview High School in Columbus in 1974, Pillen went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in animal science and was a defensive back for the Cornhusker football team.

The faith instilled by his parents went with him to college, he said. 

Growing up, “we never missed Mass. We never missed a holy day. Those were great disciplines instilled by my parents.

“So when I went away to college, I never missed anything. When we’d play ball games, we’d have Mass before we’d have a ball game.”

Both Pillen and his wife, Suzanne Shreve, earned doctorate degrees in Veterinary Medicine from Kansas State University. 

They married in 1979.

“I got really, really lucky when I met my wife, Suzanne,” he said 44 years later. “She’s the rock of the house. She does so much for people that nobody ever knows about.” 

The couple joined St. Isidore Parish in Columbus in 1983 and raised four children.


“What’s really pretty humbling, for a long time in my life, I just took a ton of things for granted,” Pillen said at Catholics at the Capitol. “I took marrying a pretty girl for granted. I took having our kids for granted. I just thought that’s the way it was.

“So I was really, really fortunate that a couple friends cared about me. I’ve been a lifelong Catholic and got to do a CEC (Christians Encounter Christ) weekend (in Norfolk) in 2002, and a bunch of scales fell off my eyes.”

There a sanctification process started, he said. “I’m still a sinful slob, but thank God for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.”

He said he would encourage anyone to make the retreat.

“There’s so many people praying for you,” he said. “The power and the presence of the Holy Spirit on that weekend is just hard for anybody to comprehend until you live it.

“If anybody doesn’t think there’s a Holy Spirit, they need to go do a weekend. And just go with an open mind. Even if they’re hard-hearted, their heart will be pierced. Guaranteed. Yeah, I’ll bet the farm on it,” he said with a laugh.


Another leap in faith occurred when the Pillens welcomed their son Izic into the family.

“We kind of raised two families, right?” the governor explained at Catholics at the Capitol. “Our older kids and then Izic.”

Pillen described “an extraordinary moment” after he and his wife “became empty nesters for a short period of time.”

Suzanne had mentored young girls for a long time and was working with a pregnant teen. “And this little guy was born.”

One day his wife called and told him, ‘This young girl I was helping had a baby, and she relapsed (into drugs). The baby’s 4 weeks old. And if we can bring him home – we don’t have to be foster parents – but we can keep him out of the system.’

“And as I said, I was busy being important that day,” Pillen told the crowd.

“I said ‘Well, honey, if that’s what we need to do, I’m OK, but just don’t be asking me to take the little guy … to kindergarten.’”

When Izic was 3 months old, though, an encounter changed Pillen. It was “the most incredible moment in my life, quite honestly,” he said.

It started when his wife asked ‘Will you watch Izic this afternoon?’

“It was a Sunday, it was in August, and I had wanted to be in Colorado doing four-wheeling and stuff. So I have Izic there, and of course, what’s a baby do after mom leaves? … So I’m changing this diaper, and I’m saying ‘This is a bunch of crap’ – literally,” he laughed, and “figuratively.”

“This isn’t my plan. I shouldn’t be doing this,” he remembered thinking. 

“And then our eyes met. That was the first time his dimples hit. And that was the grace of God being born right there. I was so shallow. I always wondered how when somebody adopts a child, how can they love them like your own?”

That day, Pillen said, he discovered how, and he recognized Izic as a gift of grace. In May, that son graduated from Scotus Central Catholic High School in Columbus.

“He really is our living, breathing face of Christ,” a son who taught his parents to “love me with everything you got today, don’t worry about tomorrow. Today is what matters.

“So Izic’s our gift of appreciation,” the governor said. “I don’t take anything for granted anymore. I appreciate everything under the sun.”

Pillen said he and his wife live by the words “Love conquers all.” They are words for all pro-life Nebraskans, he said.  “So when we talk about the pro-life movement, love conquers all, right? We have to talk about love in every sentence.”


Pillen said he felt a call to run for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents. “That would’ve been the spring of 2012, and I had about two weeks to make a decision before the filing date,” he said.

That office “was rewarding … because you could make a difference for kids at the university and in education.”

“But I never had a desire to be governor,” he said. People began talking to him about the possibility after devastating floods in Nebraska, then again with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There were just different moments,” Pillen said. “People would say you need to be running for governor.”

He’d reply “You’ve got to be crazy. … There’s no way.”

“Then there were more people, and I probably said ‘no’ and ‘no.’ There were just a number of – I call them chronicity moments – that finally I was arguing, saying ‘God, why are you doing this to me? I have no interest.’

“I probably had six different Holy Spirit moments,” Pillen said, “when I would argue with God and say ‘Why are You doing this?’ 

“There’s no way it was a coincidence. It was – I’ve said over and over – only by God’s grace. It was a calling. It was, pure and simple, a calling.”

Those Holy Spirit moments involved people who “were so out of the realm of the things that took place, you just say ‘Oh boy – only, only, only that was part of God’s plan, only the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t just happenstance. There was no chance. After about the sixth or seventh one, I said I probably can’t keep arguing about it.”

The Pillen family at last made a definitive decision on the run for the governor on Palm Sunday 2021.

“Our family talked some, and we decided to answer the call,” Pillen said. “My dad was one who always taught us that there’s two kinds of people. There’s givers and takers. Be a giver.

“So as everything came about, we decided somebody needed to step up and make a difference in Nebraska, and instead of complaining about it, let’s go do it. So that’s what we did.”

“It’s the largest margin by a non-incumbent governor since 1945,” he said. “My point: it’s not about me. I won because I’m pro-life. We are pro-life. And I talked about that every step of the way.”



Pillen – who prays the Rosary at least once a day, has a devotion to Mother Teresa and whose favorite part of Scripture is the Epistle of St. James – said his Catholic faith is at the core of who he is. So it’s natural he takes that faith with him in his job as governor.

“I think that obviously your faith helps you develop your beliefs, right? Once you have beliefs, they are core with you, they are pillars that go down deep into the ground and no matter what, you don’t flinch.

“You know, I’m respectful,” he said. “I listen to everybody. But I am who I am, I believe what I believe, and my job as governor is to try to influence and have other people see it that way.”

“So yeah … I’m a sinful slob,” the governor said, “but I’m not afraid to talk about faith and family and love and life.”

“We’ve got to have more of those conversations so that our kids aren’t afraid to talk about it, and that those ideals are passed on from generation to generation.

“I think talking about it is important, but it’s what we do, right? It’s one of the things that makes Nebraska so special, why we are a pro-life state, because Nebraska’s about loving life. Nebraskans help each other. They don’t care where they’re from, what they look like, what language they speak. They just reach out and help each other everywhere.”


Pillen’s beliefs depart from the teaching of Church leaders when it comes to the death penalty. In recent years that teaching was revised in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and states: 

“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”

Pope Francis has said that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

The death penalty has been a contentious issue in Nebraska. In 2015 the Legislature repealed the death penalty, overriding the veto of another Catholic governor, the now U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts.

Ricketts backed a referendum to restore the death penalty, which Nebraska voters approved in 2016 by a margin of 61% to 39%.

Nebraska’s three bishops oppose the death penalty and had campaigned against the referendum.

Then in 2018 Ricketss oversaw the execution of convicted killer Carey Dean Moore. It was the first execution in the state in 21 years and the first by lethal injection.

Pillen said that if the right circumstances arise, he would sign on to an execution.

“As governor, it doesn’t really matter what I think,” he said. “My job is to uphold the Constitution. And the people have spoken by 60% for the death penalty. So when and if that time comes when a person who has committed an egregious act, that his time is up to be put to death, that’s my job, and I’ll do it.”

“I have faith that carrying out the people’s will for Nebraska is the right thing to do,” he said. “I haven’t really tried to take it any deeper than that.”

On the issue of abortion, though, Pillen has dependably upheld the sanctity of life.

In May he signed into law a measure that would protect most babies once they reach 12 weeks of gestation. That was after a more encompassing bill was narrowly defeated that would have restricted abortion once a fetal heartbeat was detected, typically around 6 weeks gestation.


Opposition to pro-life bills in the Legislature was extreme. State lawmakers had to overcome filibusters and disruptions inside the State Capitol, which led to heightened security.

Pillen has supported the pro-life cause in other ways, too. In approving a broad health package, he OK’d expanding Medicaid coverage for mothers from 60 days after birth to six months, allowing women who experience complications during childbirth to remain covered through their recovery; and laws that ensure robust access to the state’s SNAP, or food stamps program.

At Catholics at the Capitol, Pillen encouraged participants to help mothers in need.

“I’m a big-time believer that … we have to do everything we can to support moms. We can do more to reach out.”

Though he strives to be an optimist, Pillen said, he’s also a realist. “We have challenges in every one of our communities. … Hopefully we could be inspired to look a little closer. Every one of our communities, unfortunately, has drug problems. We have poverty problems.” 

“Let’s look around and say ‘I can reach out. I can help this kid. I can help this family.’ Because it makes a difference. … Our ripple is endless.”



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