St. Louis Catholics want pastoral archbishop

ST. LOUIS -- It's anyone's guess who will succeed Archbishop Justin Rigali as leader of the St. Louis archdiocese, though Roman Catholics here already are hoping the next prelate is more pastoral, accessible and close to the people.

Rigali, 68, on Tuesday was named to succeed Philadelphia Archbishop Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua in October. And within hours of the Vatican announcement, Roman Catholic laity -- having had no say in tapping their spiritual leader since the church's early days -- were weighing in here on who should take Rigali's place.

"It would be great to get a local priest ... a bishop like Joseph Sullivan from New York, a man of the people," said the Rev. John Kavanaugh, a Jesuit who teaches philosophy at Saint Louis University, where Ron Modras is a professor of theological studies.

To Modras, Rigali was a Vatican insider who "was very much a diplomat with very little or no pastoral experience," with little of the charismatic warmth of Chicago's late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

"People want someone who is more pastorally adept, better at pressing the flesh," Modras said, adding that Rigali seemed a bit standoffish and was measured in public comments. "He didn't ruffle feathers, he fit the papal mold, he did what he was told."

Rigali -- a friend of Pope John Paul II, whom he hosted here in 1999 -- held various Vatican positions over three decades before being sent to St. Louis in 1994. Rigali was widely regarded as the likely choice to succeed Bevilacqua, 80, as head of the nation's seventh-largest archdiocese, with some 1.5 million Catholics.

Rigali, a Los Angeles native, left America for Rome about six months after his ordination as a priest in 1961 and didn't return until 1994. He stays in touch with virtually all the key Vatican leaders and frequently goes to Rome.

Rigali's background is that of a diplomat and high-level administrator, and he got the St. Louis job without ever having headed a parish. Before his appointment, he had been serving as secretary of the College of Cardinals.

He headed the Vatican diplomatic school and served as the papal translator. When John Paul II talked to Mother Teresa, Rigali stood beside them translating.

David Clohessy of St. Louis, a leader of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, said Tuesday that Rigali's minimal experience as parish priest showed in his demeanor and actions. To Clohessy, Rigali was among the least open and compassionate church leaders in regards to the clergy abuse crisis, and that Rigali's news interviews were "carefully orchestrated."

"We need someone who is truly pastoral, who is open with victims, law enforcement and lay people, someone who is accessible and sympathetic in both word and deed," Clohessy said.

When the church's sexual abuse crisis broke last year, Rigali issued prepared statements and had other church officials to respond. He later gave interviews with St. Louis media, saying he wanted to purify the church of "this tremendous evil ... and to see that children are protected."

In his tenure here, Rigali has championed two of the pope's favorite causes -- publicly condemning abortion and the death penalty.

Missouri Right to Life President Pam Manning said Rigali's stances against abortion and euthanasia have made her group's work much easier.

Peter Meatte of St. Louis, grand knight of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, also gave Rigali strong approval ratings, though "I'm hoping for somebody who will be more gung-ho about bringing fallen-away Catholics back into the church. We do need them."

Women still serve only subservient roles in the church, Modras said, and may not be ordained. Gay and lesbian Catholics reject church teaching that homosexuality is a disorder and that their relationships are inherently evil.

"We want a bishop who will speak to the heart of spiritual needs of the individual, rather than enforcing obedience, exclusion and the authoritative approach," said Samuel Sinnett, national president-elect of Dignity USA, a national organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics.

"Jesus Christ was anti-authoritarian and pastoral, but very few bishops are known for that," added Sinnett, of St. Louis. "It's been the cause for all sorts of grief and weakness in our church."

The Vatican hasn't said when Rigali's successor might be named or who is being considered. One name is already circulating: Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Monsignor Richard Stika, chancellor of the St. Louis archdiocese, said Rigali accomplished much in nine years. He initiated planning for the future, appropriated $60 million in school improvements and scholarships, raised money, reorganized the seminary and archdiocesan finances, and refined the sexual abuse policy, balancing empathy both to victims and priests.

Stika said that at Rigali's behest, he has met with SNAP members and sexual abuse victims.

Personally, he described Rigali as gracious and hospitable, getting up himself to serve guests coffee and making them feel at home.