The Reluctant Archbishop

The aloof style of Justin Rigali served him well at the Vatican but distances him from the faithful of St. Louis

Halfway through the opening reflection, two Roman-collared priests slipped into the back of the auditorium and took seats in the last row, awkward as the parishioners they scold for sitting in the back pews.

The priests wanted to be part of this urgent, unconventional gathering. They were as shaken by the sex-abuse crisis as the laypeople and nuns who had poured into Harris-Stowe College that Saturday morning, looking for a way to keep their faith. Nearly 300 St. Louisans had come to "claim the promises of Vatican II," opening a window to fresh ideas, healthy reforms, shared and humbled power.

The priests wanted to be present. But they knew their archbishop was miles away, breathing the conditioned, odorless air of his office at the Lindell chancery, preserving tradition at any cost. Even if a serene official silence troubled local Catholics' faith, devotion would shore it up again.

Archbishop Justin Rigali had been informed of the September 21 "Faithful St. Louis" gathering, but he had not been invited. "It felt presumptuous, inviting a bishop to a gathering of his own people," committee member Paige Byrne Shortal explained, "and we didn't want to put him in the difficult position of having to approve or disapprove an unknown."

As the day unfolded, she regretted that decision's necessity. People were hungering for some sense of who Rigali was, some moment of connection: "One woman had tears in her eyes when she spoke of her longing to talk to him."

Rigali is a devoted servant of the church, loyal to the pope and schooled in the ways of Rome. He has headed the largest office in the Vatican Secretariat of State, traveled with two popes as their English translator, overseen the daily operations of the Congregation for Bishops and the College of Cardinals. He was on the cursus honorum, the fast track to Roman power.

Then he was sent to St. Louis.

For eight years, his new flock speculated about his exile from Rome, worried that they were a punishment, wondered whether John Paul II had bigger plans for his future. Then, early this year, the sex-abuse scandal tore through the country like flash fire in a brittle forest. Even in conservative St. Louis, Catholics cried out for radical reform. They wanted church officials who spoke openly and compassionately, admitted the church's failings and rushed to do the right thing, even when it meant unpleasant publicity.

That is neither the Vatican's way nor Rigali's.

As tension mounts between the U.S. church and Rome, it plays out locally in bewildered reaction to Rigali. In his approach, many St. Louisans see the secrecy, clericalism and authoritarianism they blame for the current crisis. They feel as if he's slamming heavy church doors in their faces, and they pronounce him cold and rigid, a prim cleric convinced of his superiority.

Interviews with Vatican observers, church scholars, Roman journalists, diocesan priests, members of various religious orders and lay diocesan staff members suggest a different truth: What drives Rigali is not selfish ambition or arrogance but training, temperament and fear. He seems remote for good reason: He belongs heart and soul to another place -- one as alien to most St. Louisans as the sultanate of Zanzibar -- and he was formed by another time.

Rigali spent three decades inside the walls of the Vatican, and he mastered the art of Romanita, the deferential Italian way of dealing in subtleties, layers and secrets. He never showed a single spark of rebellion; after all, he'd grown up in an era when people trusted the church the way they trusted God. The arrangement suited him.

To St. Louis Catholics who miss the unquestioning devotion of the 1940s and '50s, Rigali's presence here is a comfort. To those eager for reform, it is a source of frustration. They long to have him as an ally, yet he resists every overture. He knows, with Roman subtlety, that no matter how gently they put it, what they want is to change the very structure of the church.

That structure has held Rigali's life together -- and the prospect of changing it terrifies him.


The Rigali name traces back to the late 1600s, to the patriarch Giovanni Rigali in Lucca, a tiny town in Tuscany. Surrounded by thick walls and ruled by a handful of wealthy families, Lucca blossomed during the Italian Renaissance, its sun-baked buildings filling with art that glorified God and Christianity.

Little Justin Rigali wanted to do the same.

The youngest of seven children, he was the fourth to enter religious life. At age fourteen, he enrolled in a seminary high school in Los Angeles; from that moment, the church guided every decision. Ordained in 1961, Rigali, 26, spent one summer doing parish work, then left for Rome to study canon law. His meticulous legal analyses, loyalty to the church and facility for languages signaled a future in the Curia, the administrative offices of the Vatican.

Rigali was sent to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the world's oldest training school for diplomats, where he studied the laws and protocol governing Vatican relations with other countries. Then, after a four-year stint in Madagascar, he was brought back to Vatican City to head the English-language section of the Secretariat of State.

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