Hardworking Wisconsin bishop follows Vatican policies precisely
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 02 2003
The Wisconsin bishop who will become the archbishop of St. Louis next month is
a staunch conservative who is expected to carry out most of the initiatives
Cardinal Justin F. Rigali introduced during the past nine years.
Archbishop-elect Raymond L. Burke, 55, has been the bishop of La Crosse, Wis.,
for the last nine years. The Vatican announced Tuesday that Burke will succeed
Rigali, who moved to Philadelphia in October as its archbishop and a cardinal.
On Jan. 26, the former Vatican church lawyer will be installed as the St. Louis
archdiocese's ninth bishop and eighth archbishop at the St. Louis Cathedral
St. Louisans will get a hardworking bishop who follows the finest points on all
Vatican directions precisely, from major policies to revisions for bows and
nods at Mass.
"He is a humble man who takes his responsibilities very seriously," said Thomas
A. Szyszkiewicz, former editor of the Catholic Times of La Crosse.
"With the liturgy, he is very concerned about reverence and order. And you can
expect that, on the moral issues, he will be teaching and affirming the church
on such things as abortion and contraception."
A staunch conservative
Burke displayed his religious conservatism in the fall of 2002. His diocese was
one of two U.S. dioceses to pull out of the annual Crop Walks fund-raisers,
sponsored by the ecumenical Church World Services. He told Catholics not to
walk because the agency finances family-planning services and gives out condoms
in developing nations.
A few years ago, Burke took the unusual step of publicly disagreeing with
another bishop, then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, over the idea of
married men being ordained. Weakland suggested it be discussed. Burke said it
was a bad idea.
Burke drew attention last year when he criticized the popular novels featuring
the English schoolboy-magician Harry Potter. He sent all the schools and the
seminaries in his diocese a letter saying that Potter "may not be suitable for
young Catholic readers."
Burke said Tuesday that he will bring to St. Louis his open-door policy in
dealing with alleged victims of sexual abuse. He promised to personally sit
down face-to-face with each person who accuses a priest of sexual abuse —
something Rigali had delegated to others and been criticized for by victims'
In La Crosse, Burke spoke face-to-face with about 30 victims, he said. During
that time, he removed one priest from active ministry. When allegations of
abuse by two retired priests were brought to him, he removed their right to say
Burke said he had never met with any of the groups representing victims. David
Clohessy, national spokesman for the Survivors Network for Those Abused by
Priests, said his group has no chapter in La Crosse but at least one member.
Barbara Dorris, leader of SNAP in St. Louis, will ask Burke for a face-to-face
"so that a genuine dialog can begin."
"His first focus, we believe, should be to encourage victims to contact
therapists, police, prosecutors and our support group so that dangerous
predators can be arrested and children can be kept safe," she said.
Meets with seminarians
Beyond meeting with abuse victims, Burke said his primary duty is to "provide
priests" to lead parishes and to recruit young men for the seminary. On
Tuesday, he had lunch with the seminarians at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in
At a time when most dioceses around the nation have closed high school
seminaries, Burke opened a residence house in La Crosse for boys who are
considering the priesthood. They attend a Catholic coed high school but live in
the seminary-like dorm.
Mater Redemptoris Convent offers a similar program for high school girls
considering to become nuns.
A friend of Rigali
Burke's name had been mentioned in St. Louis as the top candidate to replace
Rigali as early as August. But he was mentioned less frequently inside the
Vatican and by U.S. bishops.
A few other cardinals were pushing for other candidates. Bishop J. Terry Stieb
of Memphis, Bishop George Murry of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, Bishop
John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford,
Ill., and Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville were mentioned.
For months some bishops said that as the elected head of the bishops
conference, Gregory was never a contender. His duties will be particularly
heavy during the coming months as the audits and academic studies on sex abuse
by priests are completed and made public.
Burke is a longtime friend of Rigali's.
Rigali attended Burke's ordination to the priesthood at St. Peter's Basilica in
Rome in 1975. The two Americans knew each other when both worked in different
offices at the Vatican.
As recently as this fall Rigali had Burke to dinner at the archbishop's
residence on Lindell Boulevard, where some other guests were teasing Burke by
calling him "St. Louis Archbishop-elect."
Rigali said in a telephone interview Tuesday from his Philadelphia office that
he has full confidence that Burke is what St. Louis needs and will administer
the archdiocese well.
"Each bishop has different gifts," Rigali said.
"A most lovable guy"
Burke on Tuesday compared his appointment to a sports swap. In June 2002,
Wisconsin got St. Louis native Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee and
Tuesday St. Louis got Burke.
"I hope that you will not be disappointed with the exchange," Burke told a
group of priests and other archdiocesan workers at the Cardinal Justin Francis
Rigali Pastoral Center in Shrewsbury.
"Ray's a most lovable guy, with a big heart, a ready smile, a balanced man with
great common sense and with a towering intellect," said Dolan, in a phone
interview from Philadelphia, where he is leading a retreat for Rigali's
priests. "When (Burke) speaks of prayer you can tell it comes from a deep well
of personal experience. It's not showy piety."
"Keen on rural life"
Burke said his preaching style is more like Rigali's than Dolan, a dynamic and
He's also an activist. "I'm keen on rural life," he said Tuesday, wearing a
green ribbon that promotes family farming. The Wisconsin, farm-bred,
Irish-American, is former chairman of the National Catholic Rural Life
Conference, which promotes ethical treatment of the environment and farm
La Crosse's mostly rural diocese on the east side of the Mississippi River has
209,400 Catholics spread over seven small cities and mostly farmland in 19
counties across 15,078 miles. The St. Louis Archdiocese has 555,600 Catholics
in the city of St. Louis and 10 counties spread over 5,968 square miles.
Burke is expected to have a long tenure here. At 55, he may well stay here
until at the age of 75, a bishop must give his resignation to the pope.
"We'll miss him"
In La Crosse, there was a sense of loss as the news of Burke's appointment
"We knew we wouldn't keep him long, because he has such qualifications," said
the Rev. Robert S. Hegenbarth, pastor of St. Leo the Great in West Salem, Wis.
"He was a great listener always concerned with the needs of the diocese, very
traditional, very conservative. We'll miss him."
Archbishop-elect Raymond L. Burke
Born June 30, 1948, in southwestern Wisconsin.
Enters seminary high school in La Crosse, Wis., in 1962 and later attends the
seminary college there and Catholic University of America in Washington.
Attends Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, 1971.
Ordained by Pope Paul VI on June 29, 1975.
Returns to La Crosse in 1975 as associate rector of the Cathedral of St. Joseph
the Workman and to teach at a high school.
Studies canon law at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1980.
Named vice-chancellor of the La Crosse diocese in 1984 and, later, its judicial
Assigned as a lawyer at the church's highest court at the Vatican in 1989.
Installed as bishop of La Crosse on Feb. 22, 1995.
Named archbishop of St. Louis, Dec. 2.
Reporter Patricia Rice
Wasn't Weakland the one who was disagreeing with existing practice?