The Reluctant Archbishop

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

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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.

"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."

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

Today, the HRO, one-fourth its former size, works to end abortion, racial bigotry and the death penalty. Members of the diocesan Human Rights Commission no longer issue statements independent of the archbishop. And no one raises his voice.

Romanita has taken hold.

Many people approached the archbishop about dismantled human-rights projects, but he chose not to meet with them. Nor did he meet with Catholic schoolteachers when they organized to fight for their rights, or with parishioners at St. Cronan when they wrote after their pastor was removed for alleged sexual abuse. Former priest Bob Schutzius wrote Rigali several times about a support group for priests who left to marry; he received no reply. Margaret Gilleo wrote about inclusive language and did receive a reply: "He said he'd pray for me." Her husband, Charles Guenther Jr., wrote with qualms of conscience about the archdiocese's stock portfolio and received no reply. Teacher Barb Dorris wrote about an abusive priest and received no reply. Catholics wrote expressing hopes for Faithful St. Louis and received no reply.

"They've got those little guys who carry their hats for them -- can't one at least write a form letter?" snaps one woman.

"It's not arrogance," says a priest who knows Rigali well. "He's just not comfortable unless he knows the agenda. He wants to be prepared, and that fear of responding too quickly keeps him from engaging with people instantly on a topic."

He is also, a local Catholic observes, "either afraid to reveal a personal side of himself or incapable of it." Not only does Rigali keep personal experience out of his homilies and columns, he strains it from most conversations. "I think he sees it as a weakness," says the layman with a shrug.

Rigali's parents taught all their children a self-effacing humility. But Rome sealed his reticence.

"When you spend that much time in the Vatican, you become a supporter of the church," notes the Reverend Gerry Kleba, the new pastor at St. Cronan. "You're like one of the Bernini columns, just one of many holding up the place. You don't want to draw attention to yourself. Right now, Justin Rigali wouldn't have enough inner authority to say in a homily, 'Love your neighbor.' He would say, 'As the pope said when he was in Toronto, "Love your neighbor."'"

Kleba sighs: "He is such a good man. But when you live in the shadow of the world's biggest organization and you feel like the organization is the embodiment of Jesus, somehow you don't remember anymore how you have to be the embodiment of Jesus. The Gospel says, 'Love others as you love yourself.' If you don't have a self to love, you have nothing to share. You're just going through the motions."

Rigali glides from table to table at formal functions, greeting everyone individually, remembering every name.

"He doesn't seem relaxed or happy about it," observes one priest, "but he is always affable. He is professionally gracious."

The archbishop's priority, always, is the priests of the diocese. He cares deeply for them, handwriting personal notes on their birthdays and visiting them in the hospital.

Yet few feel at ease with him.

"It's hard for him to connect that way," continues the priest. "He may just be afraid to ask the questions -- afraid to hear the answers."

When members of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (a.k.a. SNAP) showed up in the marble lobby of the chancery, a nervous receptionist called up to the archbishop. Until then, he had not responded to their requests to meet. But he came down to the lobby, and they hand-delivered a list of three points they'd just made at their national press conference.

"He said over and over, in this soft confused voice, 'Where is the cover letter? When things come into my office. they generally have a cover letter,'" recalls SNAP member Steve Pona. "I went home and drafted one that afternoon. That's when I knew we were in trouble. He wasn't confused about why we were there -- he just couldn't understand why we'd been remiss in handing him a serious document without a cover letter."

Seven years ago, Lynn Woolfolk told the Riverfront Times he'd been abused by a parish priest for six years, starting when he was twelve ["Sanctuary for Their Sins," March 8, 1995]. As an adult, Woolfolk felt the need to confront the priest, who was still working in a parish. The priest refused to acknowledge the harm he'd done, so Woolfolk met with the archbishop. Afterward, he said Rigali told him, "Anger will get us nowhere. Let's say the Our Father."

Since then, Rigali has stopped meeting with victims altogether.

Once again, he is only following what's become a procedural norm: delegating abuse cases to an auxiliary bishop. "One could argue that Rigali has been no worse than many of his colleagues," says David Clohessy, national director of SNAP and founder of the local chapter. "In my most charitable moments, I think what happens is that Rigali is fearful, and he listens to the advice of his attorneys and PR folks and does nothing."

Clohessy knows what he'd do if he wore a bishop's miter: "First I'd contract with an independent social-service agency to provide 'safe touch' training in all the schools and to be a referral for counseling. Then I would call all the priests together and say two things: 'If you have this problem, if you are sexually drawn to kids, come to me now. I will give you the best help we can find, and I will stand by you forever. And if you don't have this problem but you suspect one of your brother priests does and you cover it up, I will hang you out to dry.'

"In terms of this issue, Rigali has been very disappointing," adds Clohessy. "Given that he came from Rome, our expectations were never high; historically the Vatican has been very reluctant in dealing with this issue. They believe it's a problem created by salacious media, greedy lawyers and inept bishops who can't keep a lid on what bishops in other countries keep a lid on. But in this country, the comparison to Rigali is right across the river in Belleville: detailed accounting of the money they spent, public removals and Bishop [Wilton] Gregory has gone to parishes and said, 'Here's what we did and why.'"

At the U.S. bishops' meeting in Dallas this June, Gregory told the other bishops, "We are the ones who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them.... We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests ... [and who] responded to victims and their families as adversaries."

Gregory's openness, and his willingness to own and apologize for the bishops' actions, softened the hearts of many Catholics.

Rigali's silence only hardened their resolve.

Last March, Rigali called a meeting of all priests. Speaking from a prepared text, he wielded his usual precision, calling the sexual-abuse crisis "the most difficult time in my sixteen-and-a-half years as a bishop." He went on to remind them that "even the church's power of remitting temporal punishment through the great gift of indulgences cannot authorize us to prescind from the legal and community consequences of substantiated sexual abuse of minors."

The priests sat, glazed, patient. Hoping for more. When Rigali finished, the president of the priests' council rose and did something that may have set historic precedent. He stood at the microphone and said: "I am angry at the archdiocese, and I am angry at you, Archbishop Rigali."

Rigali's expression didn't change. But the other priests were nodding in agreement. They hadn't enjoyed learning about accusations and removals of their brethren from the daily paper. They wanted communication, and they wanted solutions.

When they lined up at the microphone to offer ideas, Rigali said, "I'm not prepared to handle those." He'd come with three suggestions of his own: Priests should go to confession more often, show more devotion to the Blessed Virgin and avail themselves of more opportunities for Eucharistic adoration.

"He had confessors lined up along the sides of the room," recalls one priest. "A few priests did go to confession, but 90 percent just left. They felt sold out. Afterward, I almost went up to him and said, 'We really missed the boat here. We needed something else.'"

On March 31, Rigali did his famous "media blitz," granting extensive interviews for the first time since his installation in the hope of forestalling ambushes during Holy Week. St. Louis Catholics watched like nervous family members, holding their breath when he hesitated, worrying because he seemed so alone. When he entered the Cathedral Basilica that Holy Thursday, more than 1,000 laypeople and priests applauded.

On Easter Sunday, people slid into the same pews and crowded close together, waiting to hear their archbishop make sense of suffering and sin and salvation.

"God the Father," he said in his homily, "by raising Christ from the dead, ratifies the value of Christ's redeeming death [italics Rigali's]." Blank-faced, people filed out again.

The next month, Fleishman-Hillard donated a senior vice president, James Orso, to handle communications for the archdiocese. Local Catholics took the announcement as yet another wedge between the world and their archbishop.

"Rigali's columns and homilies were always pretty stilted," says one woman, "but at least we did not have a packaged leader. We don't want the sense that we have a PR guy speaking for our archbishop."

What people want -- but don't believe they have a snowball's chance in hell of getting -- is real conversation. Other bishops held "listening sessions" with the laity. But when Rigali met with parish representatives, it wasn't to solicit their opinions; he was simply trying, in Orso's words, "to reach out to all the constituents."

At an April meeting of diocesan leaders, the Reverend Steve Robeson asked the archbishop, "Is there something about the clerical culture, not the fact of celibacy or authority but the way we practice those, that lends itself to dysfunction and, worst-case, to sexual abuse?" Robeson maintains that "it is a scandal that we don't know the answer to that question, because we are now designing the reform without sufficient knowledge of the causes."

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?"


"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."

Some wonder whether the pope is "saving" Rigali for another important diocese, such as Philadelphia. But such thinking is increasingly frowned upon. In 1999, Rigali's old boss at the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, gave a blazing critique of careerist bishops who approach him saying, "Eminence, I have been in this diocese already two or three years, and I have done everything that was asked of me...."

Gantin suggested that the rank of cardinal not be associated with particular archdioceses but awarded only for individual merit, thwarting bishops who jockey for certain placements in the hope of a red hat. He also said that, except in rare cases, bishops should remain in their dioceses for life.

Rigali is here. And since the crisis, he seems to be opening up a little, struggling to find a more collegial way to communicate. Among the other U.S. bishops, though, he remains a translator for Romanita.

"When he says how he thinks Rome will react, they listen closely," says an observer. "They know he has good contacts in the Vatican. He is very Roman in his thinking."

But he's not in Rome.

"If St. Louis was a punishment, he would accept it with grace," notes a local priest. "He is very selfless; he does not count the cost. He just has a very limited vision. The church will never be the same, and that's OK. But he's not there yet.

"If I could change one thing about him?

"I'd want him not to be afraid."

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