The Reluctant Archbishop

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

"That put him at the center of everything," remarks a church observer. "Everything going in to the pope and out from the pope goes through the language desks, and the English section spans most of the globe."

Rigali learned the world through the texts of its church documents. He lived in a walled city-state so ancient it was timeless, sufficient unto itself. He worked, talked, ate and traveled with the other priests of the Curia; poverty, mess, fracas and desperation stayed outside the walls. If a woman figured in daily life, she was likely a nun ironing vestments. Rigali focused all his energy on the church, letting duty's burdens order his life.

Honors accumulated. He moved from papal chamberlain to prelate of honor of His Holiness; he was named, alongside descendants of Europe's noblest families, to the Knights of Malta and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1985, he was ordained a bishop by the pope himself, who praised his "ready availability, great industriousness [and] unceasing solicitude for the church."

The late Archbishop John May
RFT file photo
The late Archbishop John May
Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meets with Pope John Paul II.
Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meets with Pope John Paul II.

Rigali became president of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. He served on powerful commissions, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- formerly the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office for the Inquisition into and the Rooting Out of Heretical Depravity, or, simply, the Inquisition. He absorbed Romanita -- the urbane, elaborately nuanced, tightly codified culture of the Curia-- into every pore.

In 1989, he was named secretary of the Congregation for Bishops -- the second most important position in the second most important congregation in the Vatican. Its task? To recommend, in utmost secrecy, candidates for bishop: in other words, to set the tone of church governance and orchestrate the distribution of power.

Two years later, he also became secretary of the College of Cardinals. Had John Paul II died, Rigali would have organized the conclave to elect his successor. Then, once the new pope was elected, the cardinals would have thrown open the door and the new pope would have removed his red biretta and placed it on Rigali's head, a sign that, as a show of gratitude, he would now be made a cardinal.

"Even if the pope hadn't died, he would've been made cardinal," suggests the observer. "He was on his way. Then -- put it this way -- something happened. And instead of becoming a cardinal in the Curia, he became archbishop of St. Louis."

The pope announced the appointment on January 25, 1994. Justin Rigali, whose only pastoral work had been a few summertime stints and a chaplaincy for cloistered nuns in Rome, would now shepherd a flock of more than half-a-million. Steeped for three decades in the oblique ways of Vatican City, he would live in the blunt, friendly Midwest, his quiet eighteen-hour workdays spent amid beer kegs, sweaty handshakes and the roar of the stadium.

He stayed in Rome until the last minute, arriving in St. Louis just in time for his March 16 installation. He asked for a simple repeat of his predecessor's ceremony, nothing particular to him. Still, it was special: Cardinals and Swiss Guards and bishops from all over the world flew in for the occasion, and St. Louis Catholics whispered that it was obvious Rigali would soon be made a cardinal.

"No, no," says the observer. "They didn't realize: That is just the gracious Roman way of saying goodbye."

It's said the Vatican rejected the entire terna, the secret list of three candidates proposed for archbishop of St. Louis. Months later, the pope sent Rigali instead. Speculation about that choice still burbles. According to one theory, Rigali was made the scapegoat for a series of disastrous appointments -- Bishop (now Archbishop) Wolfgang Haas, for example, who had to step over the prostrate bodies of furious local Catholics to climb the cathedral steps of Chur in Switzerland. A related theory says Rigali pushed only the most conservative candidates for bishop, influencing the ternas with a bias so obvious it disturbed even conservative cardinals.

Rigali could have made enemies in the Curia simply by being one of "Benelli's widows" -- a handful of young men who rose through the Secretariat of State under the patronage of Cardinal Giovanni Benelli. A papal near-miss, Benelli was then sostituto, a sort of undersecretary with a direct line to the pope. Another observer remembers him as "the H.R. Haldeman of the Vatican. If the pope wanted something, Benelli made it happen. If you got a call from Benelli, you stood up while you were taking it.

"Clearly there were some people in Rome who did not like Rigali," this observer continues, "but I could never get my finger on whom. It could have been simple jealousy because Rigali was close to the pope. Rigali's life there was a roller coaster: He went up as head of the English section; then he got moved to the academy. A few years later, he was up again as secretary for the bishops. So all these people who told me, 'Ha! Rigali's out!' didn't get the last laugh."

Rigali, who dreads surprises, can surprise people.

One would expect his friends to be rare-book librarians, yet he seeks out just the opposite. His trusted vicar general here in St. Louis is Monsignor Richard Stika, a gregarious chap better known for his love of sports than for his rarefied cerebral powers. In Rome, Rigali befriended soldiers of the Swiss Guard, sturdy laymen charged with protecting the pope and pretty much ignored by the rest of the Curia. Rigali acted as their unofficial chaplain, performing weddings and baptisms and even, it's said, drinking an occasional beer with them in the pubs.

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