The Reluctant Archbishop

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

Rigali ducked the question.

This September, at a convocation of all diocesan priests, Robeson tried again:

"I asked when bishops were going to get to the unfinished business of the sex-abuse crisis, look at the root causes. He went on at length about how Vatican II is unfinished business, and he cast this priest crisis on the larger spectrum of everything in the church that needs reform. I checked with some of the veteran priests afterward, and they said, 'Oh yeah, he absolutely sidestepped the question.'"

A youngish pastor in love with the gritty challenges of his North Side parish, St. Simon of Cyrene, Robeson would be cast in a flash for one of those inspirational movies about priests in the 'hood. He wants to see this crisis bring the priests together, unite their voices. So he's begun driving over to Gregory's Belleville diocese to see how a lively, thoroughly engaged and outspoken priests' association works.

"Every issue's on the table," he says, elated by the notion. "Here, we are still in this in-between moment. Some guys are afraid; some have made themselves too busy. Some say, 'What would be the point? The archbishop won't go along with it.' We continue to create our own discouragement."

As Robeson sat fuming over the archbishop's vague response, Kleba rose.

"You once said you have buried 85 priests since you came to this diocese," he reminded Rigali. "So you probably remember how many you have ordained?"

"Thirty."

"So let's say you add in the ones who resigned or retired -- is it safe to say you have seen 120 priests go out of active ministry and you are replacing them with 30?" asked Kleba. "Do you think we are doing sufficient planning?"

Rigali replied that they should trust the Holy Spirit. God would strengthen priests to bear the additional burden.

To some, he sounds like a CEO indifferent to the health of overworked employees. Others aren't surprised that he gives short shrift to their burdens; he never even mentions his own.


On his way to the pulpit at May's funeral, Rigali bent over a pew to console the bereaved family. "He knocked over someone's four-pronged walker," a woman recalls, "and as he reached to pick it up, his miter slipped. It was a very human, touching moment. I still cherish that image."

Rigali works himself to the bone to be the most proper archbishop he can be, yet what people cherish are the moments when his miter slips. They don't want perfection -- they want connection.

"It is clear to me that our archdiocese has been deteriorating, little by little," says a layperson. "Good priests and lay ministers feel isolated in their own parishes. We have an archbishop who is not loved by many, not articulate, not charismatic. In person, he is lovable in a kind of bumbling-old-uncle way, and he may even be holy. But as an archbishop, he's a CEO, and not a very accessible one."

Staunch Catholics who've come to know Rigali, such as Tony Sansone Sr., disagree sharply. They admire his piety and compassion and insist he is delighted to be here.

"He has fallen in love with the people of St. Louis," says Sansone.

Yet former staffers say these years have been painful for him, and one priest calls Rigali's time here "a crucifixion."

His is a temperament easily misperceived outside its milieu, especially in a time of crisis. The Vatican's checklist for bishop qualities includes serenity of judgment and obedience to the magisterium, but it also asks for aggiornamento, the "spirit of openness to the modern world" made famous during Vatican II. Pope John XXIII believed the gospel could find fresh forms in every age, and he welcomed any change that smoothed the way.

Rigali was a young priest in Rome when Vatican II opened, but he'd been formed in an earlier time. During the council, he worked as an assistant, running errands for the bishops, and he heard every word of the sessions. But afterward, the seeds of change fell on Rome's ancient paving stones, and many have yet to sprout. Theologians say that under Pope John Paul II, the momentum of reform ground to a halt.

The huge question in the Roman Catholic Church now is who will succeed him: someone equally conservative or someone who will restore that momentum? Over his long pontificate, John Paul II has chosen 108 of the current 114 "elector" cardinals -- those who are younger than 80 and therefore eligible to vote in the next papal election. Why has he not chosen Rigali, whose devotion is absolute?

In the eight years since Rigali's arrival in St. Louis, the pope has held three consistories to name new cardinals. The bitter joke among local Catholics is that the first time, Rigali was disappointed. The second time, he unpacked.

All the other diplomats who were regarded as "Benelli's widows" have now risen to cardinal. The third consistory, February 2001, named the largest class yet, 44 new cardinals in one swoop and Rigali not among them.

"I wouldn't rule it out yet for Rigali," shrugs a longtime church watcher, pulling out a list of the elector cardinals. "There are now 114, average age 72. The maximum number of electors is 120. And this pope breaks the rules all the time."

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