The Bishop, the Wonky Diocese, the Cathedral and the People

I live in the Diocese of Raleigh. Just this past Tuesday we received word that our current Bishop, Bishop Michael Burbidge, has been reassigned by Pope Francis to the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia. This news is shocking. To the point I have friends who do not know how to react.

In many corners, the Bishop is beloved. He set about to personally confirm every single young person in our diocese. That means he’s traveled long distances tirelessly and been in communities that are almost opulantly rich and devastatingly poor. He’s been in suburban “oasis” parishes, rural simple parishes and inner-city poverty parishes.

For years upon years Catholics were a paltry 2% of the entire state population in its two diocese. (Yes, you read that right, there are only two diocese in the entire state.) We now measure closer to 10% thanks to retiring Northerners and Mid-Westerners and Hispanic immigrants. We are not a glamorous diocese. We are not a prized assignment. The sister diocese (The Diocese of Charlotte) is becoming a jewel but we struggle.

If Bishop Burbidge had any misgivings or grumblings about being assigned here, he didn’t let us know. Instead he embraced the challenges and diversity of the diocese. He saw what many on the outside (and quite a few of us on the inside) failed to see: potential. He believed we could be great and he set about to prove it to us.

He became actively involved in as many parish happenings at as many parishes as he could. He embraced social media to spread the Gospel. He worked to get a parish designated a shrine to the Blessed Mother and later, a Basilica (the first in the entire Diocese). He worked tirelessly to support vocations. He didn’t just make appearances in Catholic schools but embraced the families who chose to homeschool. He supported our youth in many ways including helping create the pro-life “Love My Life” rally in the state capital. I know many priests came and went when I was a kid growing up. Never was the official installation of a new pastor as big a deal as it became during Bishop Burbidge’s tenure. And he increased the presence of the TLM throughout the diocese. It still has a long way to go, but it’s getting there.

And then he decided we could be more and do more. And he launched the campaign for the currently under construction Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh. This was no small undertaking as huge swaths of the diocese are in rural or urban poverty. But there are also some very deep pockets. And it would be this undertaking that would show a not unsignificant faction of the diocese who were not Bishop Burbidge fans. There was one parish, a parish with pretty deep pockets, where an anti-Cathedral campaign was launched to great success. The argument being used was that this money would be better used to feed the poor, home the homeless, etc. It’s an argument that, on its face, seems to carry a lot of weight. My parents made a substantial donation to the Cathedral but many of their friends were not on board (we once upon a time belonged to this parish and still have many friends from that time).

When my mom shared the rumblings from this parish, I was floored. So many people had so much they could give, why did they close their fists tightly when it came to their fellow Catholics? (It is worth noting this parish has been vocal about chafing under Diocesan policy sometimes with good reason and other times with questionable judgment.)  When my mother presented me with the argument about other uses for the money, immediately I thought of Matthew 4:4:

It is written, one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Surely we are to physically feed the hungry with food but what about those whose souls are hungry for truth? This cathedral is not being built to glorify the wealth of a few in the diocese, but to glorify God and to feed the souls of the faithful and those who are still searching.

But Kristen, St Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary…use words.” I have heard some claims that we might attribute that quote incorrectly, but besides that, it’s important to note that in all cases and situations at some point it will be necessary to use words. Any atheist can fill plates at the soup kitchen and do it with dignity for the person on the other side of the plate, but we have more to heaven. We have physical bread, but we also have the “bread come down from heaven.”

That was the Bishop’s goal in the cathedral. And it was during this “anti-Cathedral” campaign that I began actively praying for the Bishop as I felt the over-whelming sense that he was under attack spiritually as well as in the court of opinion. I don’t claim that my prayers have helped him specifically but I was heartened to see him presiding over the blessing of the animals at the parish where the anti-Cathedral campaign originated last week.

I am so excited for my friends in the Diocese of Arlington like Elizabeth, Mary and Ginny. I am overjoyed for them especially because Bishop Burbidge was the joy our diocese needed for the last ten years. The joy that said, “Yes you can. You are God’s chosen one. You were made for this.” (HT to St Joan of Arc there). But I would be lying if I didn’t say I was sad too. My faith-formation class is learning the Rosary this month and we’ve entrusted both diocese involved in this transfer as well as Bishop Burbidge to the Blessed Mother and are offering our prayers for those intentions. Here in eastern NC, we have no idea what the future holds but we hope and pray and know we are worthy. Thank you God, for sending us Bishop Burbidge to teach us that.