Monday two former St. Louis archbishops, Cardinal Raymond Burke and Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, lost their posts on the Congregation for Bishops. This powerful Vatican committee nominates priests to be bishops worldwide. It meets on alternate Thursdays in Rome.
While Rigali's removal is not unexpected since he is retired with the title Philadelphia archbishop emeritus, the Burke move is dramatic.
Burke is a Vatican cardinal "in full" and head of the tribunal of last resort, which can countermand bishops when they want to remove priests from the clerical state, for example.
In 2008 when he had been St. Louis archbishop for less than five years, Burke became the first American appointed to the Vatican post of prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. He was named cardinal and to the Congregation for Bishops as a result of this tribunal post. Vatican insiders say that he has been behind the naming of several U.S. bishops.
The Congregation for Bishops shapes the worldwide church by giving the pope a list of three priests for each opening of a bishop's chair. The pope then picks from the three, though he can, and sometimes does, name another man. When Rigali was named to St. Louis, he was not on the congregation's list of three, but John Paul II named him.
Burke and Rigali are among half of the current members whose tenure the pope ended in Monday's shake up. The changes could affect not just the naming of new bishops but the way bishops already leading dioceses and archdioceses shepherd the Catholics in the pews.
Since he was elected pope last March, Francis has repeatedly called for all bishops to listen to their people. His survey to prepare for next October's Synod on the Family is just one example of that. Others might note how the pope conducts himself as bishop of Rome: mingling with the people, telephoning those in need, riding around in a used old car and living in a modest guest house suite.
Most of the new bishops Francis has named since March have strong experience as pastors and in other posts that deal pastorally with the people in the pews. Desk men are not getting promotions to bishop.
Burke and Rigali, as with many U.S. bishops assigned to important posts under the second half of Pope John Paul II's tenure, had careers working at Vatican "desks" before becoming St. Louis archbishop. Rigali had an unusually strong career in the Vatican for an American. His parish work was limited to the summer after he became a priest until he came to St. Louis in 1994. Rigali has long influenced bishops’ appointments especially in English-speaking countries. Even since his retirement from Philadelphia he dutifully goes to Rome every couple weeks for the Thursday bishops' congregation meetings. He knew the tasks and the research needed to appoint bishops because as a younger priest – from 1989-84 -- he served in the powerful post of Congregation's secretary.
Among the new appointments to the bishop-nominating congregation, there is some irony in that the only U.S. resident bishop will be newly appointed Cardinal Donald Wuerl, 73, of Washington. His history with Burke has not always been smooth.
In 1990, Burke was a canon lawyer in the Vatican's Signatura tribunal and defended a Pittsburgh diocesan priest who was accused of sexually abusing a minor. Wuerl was then Pittsburgh's bishop. The tribunal ruled that the offending priest could remain a priest.
As he has told the story, including to this reporter, Wuerl quickly threw his files on the priest he was trying to have removed from the clerical state into a suitcases and dashed to Rome. There, with much effort, he had the decision reversed and his call for the priest to be removed was honored.
Wuerl also has spoken out against bishops publicly stating that they would not give communion to elected officials because of their voting records. Burke famously told this reporter in 2004 that he would not give then Democratic candidate John Kerry communion when he was in St. Louis campaigning before the Missouri Democratic primary.
Burke's "effectiveness at the bishops' table has long stoked discontent among many of his confreres," said Rocco Palmo, writer of the news blog Whispers in the Loggia.