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From Philly to Arlington: Bishop Burbidge shares episcopal journey, pastoral priorities

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Catholic Herald Editor Michael F. Flach recently sat down with Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and asked him about growing up in Philadelphia and the legacy he leaves behind in Raleigh.

Growing up in Philly

"The incredible growth and vibrancy of both the Diocese of Raleigh and certainly here in Arlington is a tremendous blessing. But as we know, with growth comes pastoral needs and spiritual needs."

What was it like growing up near Philadelphia in an Irish-Catholic family?

Growing up in Philadelphia was a wonderful experience. It had what we referred to as neighborhoods. Everyone knew each other. The homes were closely connected. They were called row homes. You could actually go to the railing and be at your next-door neighbors. It was a very strong Catholic community. Everyone walked to church. Everyone walked to school. It was very close-knit. I feel very blessed with the upbringing I received.

Describe a typical Sunday at your home.Were you or your brother, Fran, altar boys?

I was never an altar server. You could not serve back then until you were in fifth grade. In fifth grade we actually moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia and we were now, for the first time ever, not able to walk to church. My dad traveled and my mother did not drive, so there was no way I could get to the 6:30 Mass. But a typical Sunday in my family growing up, we went to Mass back then with our class, with our school, and every Sunday we went to my grandparents’ house for a 2 p.m. dinner —  every single Sunday —  my parents, my brother and me. That was such a wonderful tradition.

Let’s talk about sports. Did you play on any teams? What teams did you root for?

My favorite sport growing up was baseball. I didn’t have the strongest arm, so I was a second baseman. I also casually played tennis, which is a sport I continued to play throughout seminary. My connection to baseball led me to be an umpire for many years. In fact, up until the year I was ordained a deacon, I was an umpire for American Legion and similar groups. I always enjoyed that.

My loyalty, because I grew up for 45 years of my life rooting for Philadelphia teams, I’m still a big Eagles fan, but I’ll get on the Nationals bandwagon.

You and your father had season tickets to the Philadelphia Eagles. How did that tradition get started?

One of my dad’s friends was actually selling season tickets to the Eagles games and he purchased them with the idea of using them for our family. My brother (Fran), who is the great athlete, did not appreciate the opportunity to go to the games. He enjoyed it much more being at home, watching it, not fighting the traffic and the crowd. So I benefited from that. So for all of those years it was mostly my dad and I who would go to the games. It wasn’t so much about the games, it was about that time being with my dad. That was our time together.

St. Charles Seminary

Your coat of arms includes a reference to St. Charles Borromeo. Did your devotion to the saint begin before your time at the seminary?

No, it began at the seminary. I did not know much about St. Charles Borromeo until then. I learned about what a great reformer, great preacher and lover of God he was. It feels like I spent half my life at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary as a student and administrator, thus my devotion.

What was it like to return to the seminary as a rector? Had much changed?

I left the seminary with such beautiful memories. I loved every year that I spent in the seminary. I have a great affection for the institution. When I went back to the seminary, so many things were in place — some of the same professors, some of the same staff were there, so there was some continuity. There was a change in the candidates, I thought. As rector, I first tried to give them my experience because it was so good, but I realized this is a different generation. They are coming from different backgrounds and different realities, so we had to adjust accordingly.

Several of the seminarians you mentored at St. Charles now serve in the Arlington Diocese. Are you looking forward to working with them?

I really am. The Diocese of Arlington always had a very sound reputation, a sterling reputation, as far as the quality of candidates. They were great seminarians and I’m sure they are great priests. But I said at my press conference, this is a new beginning for all of us. I’m not the same person I was back then. They are not the same … We allow this to be a new beginning.

The Latino community

When did your work with the Latino community begin — in Philadelphia or in Raleigh?

I really had no experience working with Hispanic ministry until I went to Raleigh. I was overwhelmed by the large population, and some would say about half the population in Raleigh. It’s very new to me. I did not know the language. I did not know the culture. Thank God the beautiful people, faithful people, especially in our Hispanic ministry, were extremely patient with me. I did my best to be present for them, as I did for our various communities throughout the diocese. My Spanish is average, at best. I always say to our seminarians you have to learn it now. It’s too hard to start learning a new language when you’re 45. I don’t know why I took French in high school.

What are some of your accomplishments with the growing Latino population in Raleigh?

With the Hispanic community, the pastoral and spiritual needs are enormous. I think we did a good job in welcoming priests into the diocese from outside the diocese who came to serve as missionaries to provide the spiritual care that our Hispanic community so much deserves. Also, we’ve started a couple of initiatives that would support missions and churches and centers to accommodate the growing Hispanic population.

What are your goals for working with Hispanics in the Arlington Diocese?

My major priority, no matter what ministry or what community we’re speaking about, is to listen and to learn. I’m sure the pastoral and spiritual needs of the Hispanic community in Arlington may be different than what I experienced in Raleigh. So the first thing is to be present, to be visible and to listen.

Catholic education

You attended Catholic schools throughout your education, including being taught by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. What did you enjoy most about being taught by the sisters and what did they bring to your faith life?

I was very blessed from kindergarten through college to have the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary as my educators. Their major charism is Catholic education. They’re teachers, gifted teachers, passionate about that ministry. The beautiful example of the sisters has been a great gift in my life and I hold them very dear. I was very happy to see so many Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary present here in Arlington.

crop burbidge press conference

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge (left) speaks at the Oct. 4 press conference announcing his appointment as the fourth bishop of the Arlington Diocese with Bishop Paul S. Loverde seated nearby. 


In addition to the new cathedral, which is obviously a priority for the Raleigh Diocese, what is one of the initiatives in your pastoral plan that you are most excited about?

The cathedral is a project that’s been going on for five years. We never built a cathedral in the Diocese of Raleigh and the current one only seats 300 people. There was a great need for a mother church and it’s nearing completion. I think it’s going to be a source of great inspiration to the entire community and it’s a sign of unity in our diocese.

Recently, I initiated a new secretariat, in light of our Holy Father’s priorities, called Laity, Marriage and Family Life, which is in recognition of what our Holy Father is asking us to do —  much more effective work in supporting the vocation of married love, especially the ongoing formation of married couples and to help families. More than ever we need holy families. I think the church can become more present in the lives of families in our outreach. I’m very proud of that initiative. I also created an Office of Human Life and Dignity, highlighting the unique responsibility we have to protect all human life.

When the diocese was established, they picked a parish church and they wanted it near the Capitol. Sacred Heart Cathedral is very near the state Capitol. The win-win situation is that the church is going to stay there (after the new cathedral is built) and it will have weekday Masses and small weddings and funerals. So we’ll still have that visible presence near the state Capitol. The new cathedral is only two miles away.

With the similarities in tremendous growth between the Raleigh Diocese and the Arlington Diocese, what challenges and opportunities does that present?

The incredible growth and vibrancy of both the Diocese of Raleigh and certainly here in Arlington is a tremendous blessing. But as we know, with growth comes pastoral needs and spiritual needs. The biggest challenge —  but it’s not a bad challenge to have —  we don’t have unlimited resources, both in finances and personnel. How do you best use those resources as good stewards to meet the increasing needs? So that’s where you have to get great counsel of many collaborative parties.


At the press conference Oct. 4 you mentioned your respect and admiration for Bishop Paul Loverde. When did this friendship start and how would you describe it?

It began when I was rector of the seminary. In 1999, when he was sending seminarians from Arlington, he was very attentive to the seminarians, very hands-on; he wanted to know everything. So as rector, he had no problem contacting me. He wanted to hear the truth as it was. He always told me that. I had great respect for him from the beginning.

I think our friendship really grew in 2002 when I became a bishop. He recognized that this new bishop was walking into a world that can be a bit intimidating. I’ll never forget my first bishops’ meeting in 2002. I remember walking into this room filled with hundreds of bishops. I’m sure he recognized me as being lost. He was the first bishop to come over to me and say, “Let me show you the ropes here and let’s go out to lunch.” Then a friendship was born and it has continued throughout the years. I consider Bishop Loverde a dear friend, a treasured friend, a brother. I’ve invited him to the Diocese of Raleigh. He was a big hit when he came down to preach at our Red Mass recently. It’s not uncommon for us throughout the years to be on the phone frequently just checking in with each other. I can’t tell you how honored I am to build upon his great work here.

What are your goals and vision for the Arlington Diocese?

One priority has to be that I have to begin quickly in getting to know the priests and spend time with them. They are my closest collaborators in ministry and I trust them with the care of parishes and souls. That’s a high priority, to get to know my brother priests. Of course I’ll be working collaboratively with deacons, religious, lay faithful and seminarians, but there’s a special bond that bishops and priests must have, so I’ll make that a priority.

What will you miss about Raleigh?

In 10 years it’s become my home. There is the human emotion of leaving behind something that you’ve come to love. That’s certainly my experience now even though I’m certainly excited about this new opportunity. I will miss the real warmth of the community. Many people are there whose families are elsewhere, so the church and the parishes become family. I’ve never seen such a sense of community. North Carolina is very gentle. People are very welcoming and very gracious. I’m sure they are here. But there’s that Southern hospitality that I thought was a cliché, but I’ve learned it’s not.

Could you extend a blessing to our readers across the diocese?

I ask God’s blessing on all the faithful here in this local church, this beautiful Diocese of Arlington, especially at this time of transition, that we will be renewed in our trust in God’s promise that He will be with us always to lead us and to guide us. I ask God’s blessing upon all those in the diocese and all those they love, that He will bring them peace and joy, the gifts that only Christ can give. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016