The Reluctant Archbishop

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

"The one thing the Vatican never wants is a public fracas," explains an insider.

The next winter, the pope applied balm to Rigali's stung pride: On his way home from Mexico, in frail health, he stopped in St. Louis. It was the only papal visit to a single diocese in his 21-year pontificate. "For the next two years, everything Rigali said began with 'We recall during the Holy Father's visit,'" quips a priest. "He's still talking about it, and there are pictures of the pope all over his house and office."

For most St. Louis Catholics, the pope is a mythic figure, holy and stubborn and bound to die one of these days. But for Rigali, the pope is flesh and blood and grace, closest to God on the hierarchical ladder, the supreme authority in the teaching magisterium of the church.

SNAP national director David Clohessy faults Rigali for listening to lawyers and PR folks, not his heart.
Jennifer Silverberg
SNAP national director David Clohessy faults Rigali for listening to lawyers and PR folks, not his heart.

Challenge that authority, and the world falls apart.

The Faithful St. Louis meeting stirred up a lot of pain and anger, just as Rigali feared it would. People poured out their fears for the church and their sense of betrayal by the hierarchy. As they spoke, old hurts and frustrations, long starved for air, shot to the surface. The issue of sexual abuse touched off every other controversy -- women's ordination, sexuality, unchecked power, powerless laity. Again and again, people said -- some in soft wondering voices, some with crisp resolve -- "We are finally waking up." They felt responsible for understanding what went wrong and finding a way to heal it. They realized their church would never be the same again.

The day raised more questions than it answered, but the discussions were cathartic, and they ended in communion, both literal and figurative. In his homily at the closing Mass, Monsignor James Telthorst said, "A study some years ago suggested that many of my brothers hate and avoid conflict, striving to be nice people, polite clergy. We have seen, however, that such politeness can mask the brokenness inside or be converted to control so as to keep things manageable." If the church is to heal from this crisis, continued Telthorst, it must do so together. He praised the group's courage: "You have dared to come out and dared to meet with those who may not agree with you."

Back at the chancery, Rigali issued a statement acknowledging that Faithful St. Louis could yield valuable insights: "This presupposes, however, that there are not any unstated agendas that would be inconsistent with the teachings of the church. The Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself."

For Rigali, church teachings are an article of unquestioning faith, not a human invention meant to bend with the times. "He seems brilliant because he speaks all those languages," says a local Catholic, "but he's not an intellectual. He can't open his mind. Someone like [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger [who leads the doctrinal office of the church] welcomes disagreement: He knows both sides of every argument. Rigali only knows his own side."

Someone well acquainted with the archbishop describes him as "sharp and insightful but a black-and-white thinker. He's got everything divided into compartments in his mind, and if you come up with something he can't agree with right away, well, that's the other camp."

One laywoman notices that "Rigali will be extremely quiet in a meeting people have set up with him, not even necessarily to challenge him, just to request more involvement. He's visibly uncomfortable. He always seems to be in a hurry to get someplace else."

He is infinitely patient, however, when he works behind the scenes to silence or soften disagreement. Ignoring emotion -- it can be disruptive -- he brings up church teachings, interprets them narrowly and invokes the calming influence of obedience.

"Romanita," says a scholar, nodding. "You do not raise your voice; you do not bluster. Rigali knows how to deal with things quietly, both by temperament and by training. In his mind, change should come incrementally and in no way touch the fundamentals."

One Sunday, Rigali visited a parish and prayed, as he always does, for vocations to the priesthood. Afterward, a woman stood in line to talk to him.

"My pastor went pale," she says with a grin. "But I just asked the archbishop if, each time he asked for prayers for vocations, he could remember all the people who feel called to priesthood but cannot answer because they are female or married. He said if he were a chaplain talking with someone who was dying, it would be wrong to give that person hope that he might live, and it was the same with this, because he would be giving people hope in something that was not possible."

She presses her lips tightly together: "He said the Holy Spirit had spoken."

Rigali quelled discussion in the archdiocesan Human Rights Office, too. Under Archbishop May, it had built a reputation as one of the five strongest diocesan human-rights offices in the country, studying global labor injustices and human-rights violations. Rigali appointed a new director, a conservative 28-year-old he'd met in Rome, and muted position statements on social justice. The HRO's new mandate: Focus on local issues. Leave the international stuff to the Vatican.

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