Bishop Michael Burbidge learned he would become the bishop of Arlington, Va., through an unexpected phone call that lasted about three minutes.
It was a Sunday evening, and Burbidge had turned off his phone so he wouldn’t be disturbed as he watched his beloved Philadelphia Eagles play the Pittsburgh Steelers. Buoyed by an Eagles victory, he turned on his phone to find a message from a monsignor on behalf of the pope’s ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C.
“When you get the phone call, it begins by, ‘The Holy Father has appointed you…” Burbidge said Thursday. “And the only thing at that point to say is ‘Yes,’ because that’s what I promised. That’s what I promised the day I was ordained a priest. And that’s what I promised when I was ordained a bishop. Wherever you need me, Lord, whatever you want me to do, the answer is always yes.”
After yes, Burbidge said he noted that the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, the 2,000-seat mother church for the diocese that Burbidge initiated, is now taking shape off Western Boulevard but won’t be completed until late next spring.
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“And he said, ‘But you have done your work – you’ve done your work – and God and the good people will bring it to fruition,’ ” Burbidge said. “And in all honesty all the major decisions are done.”
As is standard in the Catholic Church, Burbidge, 59, did not seek his new position in Virginia, nor did he know he was being considered for it, until he got the call. In an instant, he said, your life is changed.
“Your heart’s pounding, actually. Because you’re stunned,” he said. “It’s not like you’ve been part of this discussion.”
When Burbidge becomes bishop of Arlington on Dec. 6, he will lead a diocese with nearly 452,000 registered Catholics, more than twice as many as the Raleigh diocese. He says the two dioceses are similar in that they’re both relatively young and growing. He says several priests in the Arlington diocese were his classmates and students at seminary whom he counts as dear friends.
After Dec. 6, a group of priests from the Raleigh diocese will appoint an interim administrator to serve until the pope appoints a new bishop, something that could take a year or more. Burbidge says he will have a say in his successor, but that he’ll be just one of many voices in a process that ends with Pope Francis in Rome.
Burbidge said he will recommend that his successor have the good health and stamina to travel the far-flung Raleigh diocese, which covers 54 counties in the eastern half of the state. He also hopes the church hierarchy will recognize the large Hispanic population in the diocese, which contains an estimated 225,000 unregistered Hispanic Catholics. Burbidge said the new bishop should be “more fluent in Spanish than I have been, though I’ve been trying.”