My wife and I sat at Mass one Christmas season at St. Peter’s Church in St. Charles, Missouri. The celebrant read a letter from the local archbishop. As he did, a lady sitting near us shook her head violently. It was only a Christmas greeting, but it brought this woman to public disapproval.
The letter was from the then Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, now Cardinal Burke and head of the Apostolic Signatura, the supreme court of the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Burke had a rocky time in St. Louis. When it was announced he was leaving St. Louis, dissenting Catholics chortled at what they thought was his comeuppance – though the chortling turned to sorrow and even anger when his promotion to the Signatura was subsequently announced.
In his short time in St. Louis, Burke faced what all bishops have faced in recent years. He closed schools and combined parishes. Contracepting Catholics always blame the bishop, of course, when there are not enough Catholics to keep schools and parishes open.
He also had to pay from Church coffers for the sometimes criminal sexual buccaneering of homosexual priests. But the thing that seemed most to rile at least some St. Louisans was his dispute with a Polish Catholic Church.
A hundred years before, the parish had been granted a kind of independent status from the Church. It had an independent board and owned the parish property. Burke’s predecessor, Archbishop Justin Rigali tried to rein them in and then Burke tried. He removed the diocesan priests assigned to the parish, which promptly got a new priest without permission from another diocese, who ended up being excommunicated by his bishop.
That parish became a lightening rod for dissenting Catholics from St. Louis and around the country, after all here was a parish that was actually sticking it to the man and getting away with it. Burke excommunicated the parish board.
Burke also made the dissenters angry when – following the lead of Ratzinger – he excommunicated some ladies who were “ordained” priests – one even claimed to be a bishop. His letter of excommunication is exquisite, a masterpiece of canon law and reads like a document from another age. You can practically hear the long candles being smashed to the floor as the schismatics are cast from the Church.
Canonist Edward Peters put it best:
I would like to say that Abp. Raymond Burke’s excommunication of three women who recently participated in a pseudo-ordination in Saint Louis is a “text-book illustration” of how (non-judicial) excommunication is supposed to be applied in the Church today, but I can’t say that: Why not? Because Abp. Burke’s attention to juridic details and his provisions for the pastoral care of the people entrusted to his care so exceed what the textbooks teach, that it is the textbooks that must copy from him, not him from the textbooks.
Not everyone disliked Archbishop Burke, not by a long shot. Most of the faithful in St. Louis revered him and miss him to this day. The ones who loved him most and likely miss him most of all are the seminarians.
The seminary in St. Louis was packed with aspirants from across the country who wanted to be near Burke and he wanted to be near them. It is said he spent an inordinate amount of time with his seminarians and even spent one-on-one time with each of them on a regular basis.
A high-ranking Vatican official told me that, when he was a student at the North American College in Rome, then Bishop Burke went out of his way to take care of the students from small dioceses who may have been at the NAC by themselves. He regularly took them out to dinner and otherwise ministered to them.
My wife and I know him in the same way, as a soft-spoken, generous and gentle pastor.
In our first year of marriage my wife suffered through three miscarriages. Because I am from St. Louis and my wife and I do pro-life work, Archbishop Burke knew of our work and of our plight. He invited us to visit him over Christmas that year. He said he wanted to bless us with a piece of St. Gianna Molla’s wedding dress.
We met him at the bishop’s residence in the Central West End of St. Louis not far from the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, easily the most beautiful Church in America. He greeted us warmly and we spoke for a while about our marriage, our desire to have children, and our difficulties. He said he had a deep devotion to St. Gianna who was the last saint raised to the altars by John Paul the Great – and that she could help us.
Molla was a medical doctor who died after childbirth in 1962 after refusing an abortion or medical treatment that would have killed the unborn child. She repeatedly told her doctors to choose child’s life over her own.
Archbishop Burke had us kneel down and he blessed us with a piece of St. Gianna‘s wedding dress. Then he grinned and said, “I have done this eight times and it has worked eight times,” beaming with an intensity that only came from deep within. He wanted us to borrow the relic and venerate it in our home and then return it. Alas, though, it was his last one, all the others were already loaned out.
It turns out that at that moment Cathy was two-weeks pregnant with our first daughter Lucy. No more miscarriages. Lucy was the first of our two Gianna Molla babies. Our second daughter is named Gianna-Marie.
The next Christmas we took six-month-old Lucy to meet Archbishop Burke and we have the most wonderful picture of our tiny baby in the burly and loving arms of a true pastor and a man who has all the gifts – ecclesial, spiritual, and temporal – to be Bishop of Rome. Oremus.