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Archbishop-elect Carlson shows down-to-earth style in St. Louis debut

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 21, 2009 - With a smile as wide as his face and a twinkle in his eye, St. Louis Archbishop-elect Robert Carlson used humor as he met hundreds of St. Louis Catholics Tuesday in a whirlwind visit to the city on the day the pope announced the Saginaw bishop's appointment to St. Louis.

On his many stops, Carlson retained his down-to-earth style, a page that might have come right of New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan's real folks book. He thanked St. Louisans for "taking him in." Carlson teased that since this is the fourth diocese where he has served as bishop, that he must have "a hard time holding a job." He is the 10th bishop of St. Louis and ninth archbishop of St. Louis.

No date for the installation Mass has been set. Carlson said he hoped to set the date soon.

He visited the 400 young women students at the Rosati-Kain gym, prayed at the St. Louis Cathedral altar, stood about a half hour in a receiving line for archdiocesan employees at the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury, took a spin through his new offices on Lindell and held a news conference. Always he was introduced by a buoyant Bishop Robert Hermann, who has been the archdiocesan administrator for St. Louis since last June.

About two weeks ago, Carlson got a official phone call from Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio ro ambassador to the U.S., asking him if he would accept the St. Louis post, he said. Carlson immediately thought of a generous gift he once got from the late Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, he said.

In 1987, as a young auxiliary bishop in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Carlson tried to get tickets to any World Series game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Minnesota Twins. He had no luck., Not even his own Minneapolis archdiocese could help, Carlson said at a news conference at the Cardinal Rigali Pastoral Center in Shrewsbury.

May pulled a pair out of his mitre, so to speak, and Carlson has wonderful memories of the series, which the Twins won.

Tickets were more of a problem 10 years ago this winter, when Carlson brought a youth group from his then-Sioux Falls diocese to St. Louis to see Pope John Paul II. No tickets were available, even for the bishop. So he and his group stood on Lindell Boulevard, a couple blocks from the St. Louis Cathedral and watched the pope sail by in his white pope mobile, Carlson said. He first saw the St. Louis Cathedral in 1979 when Cardinal John Joseph Carberry, then the St. Louis archbishop, enrolled Carlson in the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem at a Mass. Carlson also visited St. Louis when he served on the board of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in the 1990s when Bishop George Lucas was its rector, he said.

In a packed auditorium, filled with cheering archdiocesan employees, he got cheers for saying he would support Catholic education and that he himself is the product of Catholic education from kindergarten through 11 years of college and graduate school. He likes to work with parents to help them understand their responsibilities as the first religious teachers of their children and has had his parishes mail parents cards about that on the first anniversary of the child's baptism.

He also wants to learn more about adult faith educational opportunities in St. Louis and hopes to support the St. Louis Review, the archdiocese's weekly newspaper, in its efforts to educate adult Catholics. In Saginaw, he published six pamphlets for adults on faith issues, he said. A quarterly magazine he published in Michigan is another way for adults to learn about their faith, he said. In Saginaw he met monthly with its civic leadership and frequently with ecumenical leaders and hopes to do that in St. Louis, too, he said.

When asked about his conflicts with Catholic elected officials who do not follow church teaching on issues in their public statements and votes on abortion and stem cell he said that he deals privately, face-to face with those individual whether they are "Mrs. McGillicutty in the back pew of the church" or a high visibility official "with awesome responsibility." While acknowledging that other bishops have acted differently, Carlson said "I have to be who I am." In the long run he thinks his style of dealing face-to-face is at least as effective as others who speak out publicly.

Like every U.S. bishop, Carlson strongly opposes using fetal embryonic stem cells for medical experimentation as a moral issue. He said that he was pleased that 76 percent of Catholics in his former Saginaw, Mich., diocese last fall voted against their state allowing such research. The measure passed.

"You don't take on moral issue to win or loose but to prick the conscience," he said.

He said that experts in the field tell him that embryonic stem cell research may be a short-lived debate, eventually a moot question, because adult stem cells use has been shown in many cases to be effective.

Bishop Hermann, 74, who has known Carlson for many years, called it "truly a joyous day."

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has written extensively for years about religion. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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