It’s transition time in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh. On Dec. 6, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, who has led the church in the eastern half of North Carolina for the past 10 years, was installed as bishop of Arlington, Va. His transfer to a new jurisdiction is an opportunity to contrast the “Catholic Way” of choosing leaders with the “American Way.”
As Americans, we have just undergone a protracted, expensive and rancorous political campaign. The private lives, health records, tax returns and past statements and actions of candidates have been examined, analyzed and often distorted in our no-holds-barred political arena.
On the other hand, the leader of a quarter of a million Catholics was abruptly moved from his post with no local consultation or warning. Just as important, his successor will be appointed in the same fashion. When making the announcement about his appointment, Burbidge joked about the surprise phone call he received early on the morning of Oct. 4. Like a voice descending from on high, a representative of the Apostolic Delegate in Washington, D.C., informed the startled prelate: “Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has appointed you bishop of Arlington.”
It was basically: “Wrap up business there in North Carolina; clean out your desk; pack your bags and move.” Whether good or bad, it’s the Catholic way. The church operates like an army with the pope as the general who appoints and transfers his subordinates at will. The troops are expected to comply – and usually do. The process is undemocratic but efficient.
From the pews there are sporadic pleas for a voice if not a vote in the process. So far, Rome has been deaf to such entreaties.
Of course, considering the agonizing ordeal the country has just experienced, the centuries-old Catholic method might be appealing! No campaigning; no super-PACs; no media blitz. No hurling insults back and forth. Unrepresentative, of course, especially since neither women nor married men are eligible for consideration but superbly efficient. A few “wise elders” recommend someone to the pope. And then that early morning phone call.
Not only does the process of selecting bishops take place behind a veil of secrecy, but there are no term limits. A man appointed to a post is likely to be around for quite a while, impacting the shape and tenor of the flock for decades. As such things go, Burbidge’s 10 years here was a short reign. His two immediate predecessors each served for 30 years. Whoever comes next – Raleigh’s sixth bishop – is likely to be around in 2024 for the 100th anniversary of the diocese.
The massive Holy Name of Jesus cathedral now soaring over the city of Raleigh will stand as the signature achievement of Burbidge. It is also witness to the growth of the Catholic presence in the area. This 2,000-seat worship site will replace one that holds about 300 as the location of the bishop’s throne. Yes, in this day of democracy and leaders who wear baseball caps, the bishop sits upon a throne, holding a golden crosier, wearing an ornate miter upon his head. Some of the faithful will kneel to kiss his ring.
However, externals can be deceptive. Whether it’s the work of the Holy Spirit, skillful vetting at headquarters, or sheer luck, the selection process used by the church has been quite successful. Despite the vile instances of bishops covering up pedophile priests, most church leaders have been competent; some have been outstanding. Burbidge, if not outstanding, has been solidly competent. As he moves to a jurisdiction twice the size of Raleigh, he hands his successor a healthy, growing church.
Nevertheless, the Catholic population is not monolithic. There are “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics. In the recent election, substantial segments of “the Catholic vote” went to each presidential contender. Hot button issues such as abortion, gay marriage and immigration divide the men and women in the pews just as they do other demographics. An effective bishop is one who can navigate the Bark of Peter without unduly alienating either side. He has to proclaim church teaching without appearing partisan. To a large extent, Burbidge did that.
Although clearly a conservative by conviction himself, the bishop was diplomatic, warm and kindly. He was approachable. I saw him after Confirmation ceremonies, dressed in hot, heavy liturgical vestments, pose patiently for photos with scores of delighted families. He accepted invitations to every event he could possibly schedule in the far-flung limits of the 54-county diocese. Although certainly disappointed, he dealt graciously with the fact that the faithful did not pledge all the money he wanted for the cathedral and had to scale back the plans.
Of course, no one in a position of leadership escapes complaints and criticisms. When asked, a former diocesan employee faulted his boss for dressing up too often in his episcopal finery and for being too socially conservative. On the other hand, such criticism was more than counterbalanced by those who admired the energy and patience of the man as well as his skill as preacher. Arlington is gaining an experienced, competent administrator, or as Catholics might say, shepherd.
What comes next for the Raleigh diocese? On Friday, the diocesan College of Consultors, consisting of seven senior priests, were to select an administrator who will serve until the new bishop is installed. When that might be, no one knows. There is speculation that it may take as long as a year. In any case, we can be sure that in the office of the Apostolic Delegate the process is underway. Bishops are being consulted, lists are being drawn up, and potential candidates are being vetted. Some morning in the months ahead, the phone will ring and a startled churchman will hear: “The Holy Father has appointed you the bishop of Raleigh.”
William Powers, the author of Tar Heel Catholics, lives in Chapel Hill.