The Reluctant Archbishop

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

Those who know him well say that at heart, Rigali is utterly egalitarian, glad to chat with telephone repairmen or gather up drippy paper plates after a backyard celebration. As the archbishop, however, he gives the impression of aloofness. A diplomat and a bureaucrat, he obsesses over protocol, and although he speaks graciously to everyone, he focuses his energy on the donors, priests and administrators who keep the archdiocese running. He avoids the rabble; he avoids gadflies and unpredictable strangers. Asked for an interview for this story, he sent word that for religious and private reasons, he does not like to talk about himself.

St. Louisans can't help comparing him to his predecessor, Archbishop John May, who answered his own phone, spiked his homilies with personal anecdotes, went on KMOX and took calls from the idiots of the world. He wasn't as polished as Rigali, whose formality can carry surprising warmth. But May rode his bike around Forest Park, drove himself everywhere in his Chevy Cavalier, spent half-an-hour at a Christmas party talking to a Black Muslim intern the staff had shunned. Nonchalant about money, May ran the archdiocese like a social-service agency, let budget categories blur, asked instead, "How's the work going?"

Under Rigali, the books make sense and the coffers brim. In the middle of the sex-abuse crisis, the archdiocesan development appeal raised the largest sum in its 53-year history, $12.1 million. Rigali is said to be "amazing with donors," although some priests wish he'd be as assiduous about disclosing archdiocesan investment practices, and Catholics who miss the old social-work tone don't pick up much concern about poverty issues. They see an archdiocese that's turned more corporate and more clerical, with priests and deacons firmly in charge of important functions.

Steve Pona, a member of SNAP, has been critical of Rigali.
Jennifer Silverberg
Steve Pona, a member of SNAP, has been critical of Rigali.
The Reverend Gerry Kleba says Rigali is "a good man" whose time in the Vatican turned him into a rigid supporter of the church.
Jennifer Silverberg
The Reverend Gerry Kleba says Rigali is "a good man" whose time in the Vatican turned him into a rigid supporter of the church.

Rigali concerns himself with form and appearance, devotion and law, procedure and propriety. In a memo to priests, he called preaching "a special expression of our pastoral charity" and urged them to keep their albs neat and clean. At the new archdiocesan pastoral center in Shrewsbury, he involved himself in the dress code (denim's been excommunicated), doorknobs (he reportedly likes the higher European placement), phone wires and thermostats (repositioned with sitcom frequency). Handed a draft of anything, he has a tough time prying his fingers from it. Invited to parishes, he instantly informs the pastor of any liturgical infraction.

"He has a horror of disorder," says a local priest. "One of his favorite words is 'serene.' And he takes his responsibility very seriously in terms of overseeing absolutely everything." Sympathy enters the priest's voice: "If you are into control, a hierarchical structure with clear lines of authority is very consoling."

The lines of authority run vertically, but the archbishop's world extends outward in concentric circles: the Vatican, like-minded bishops, diocesan priests, traditional nuns who still wear the habit, deacons (laymen ordained to certain kinds of ministry), faithful pillars of the church, nuns in street clothes, the rest of the laity, the rest of the world.

Rigali seldom reaches the outer circles.

"You get the feeling that for him to mingle is a great strain," says a woman whose work has brought her in touch with both archbishops. "My take is that he's interested in whipping everyone into line with the Vatican, and that is his sole standard for judgment."

What some see as "whipping everyone into line," Rigali sees as his sacred duty.

"He gets great satisfaction out of assuring continuity within the church," remarks the Reverend Charles Bouchard, a well-loved Dominican priest who is president of the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. "That really is the responsibility of the bishop, to teach and preserve tradition and pass it on faithfully. On the other hand, the tradition is living; it needs to grow. It's not a question of passing on something wrapped in plastic from one generation to another."

Following the pope's lead, Rigali has renewed the emphasis on traditional forms of reverence such as fasting, repenting one's sins, kneeling in silent adoration of Christ's presence. When conservative nuns broke from the worldwide leadership organization for women religious, he became the splinter group's advisor. When it was time to approve the language of the readings U.S. Catholics hear every Sunday, he was one of eleven men brought to Rome, and insiders say he was chosen because the Vatican could rely on him to resist inclusive language. He also resists changes to the rituals of worship and draws a clear line between the roles of the ordained and the laity, reversing the decades-long trend that has allowed lay ministers a greater role in the sacred rites of the church.

"Lay Eucharistic ministers are to be used only when enough priests or deacons are unavailable," he instructed. "Only the priest may take the cup from the altar."

He continues to think like a canon lawyer, and the diocesan priests are slowly learning how to present ideas that can be analyzed in those terms. Yet even canon law isn't as hard and fast as he'd like it to be. One of Rigali's boldest acts was to oppose St. Louis University's sale of its hospital, bringing in other bishops and citing canon law. Then the Vatican approved the sale, leaving Rigali looking a little silly.

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