'Rock solid' St. Louis impacts Vatican communicator
New Vatican senior communications adviser Greg Burke likes a phrase used by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York -- "meat and potatoes Catholics" -- because it describes Burke's family and fellow parishioners growing up in St. Gabriel Parish in south St. Louis.
Burke said the term is defined as people whose Catholic roots are solid, "really a part of your life."
The middle child of six, he grew up in a neighborhood, he said, "where the parish was just a huge part of everybody's life. It was the most natural thing in the world. Parents would send their kids to the Catholic school. A lot of the boys would be altar boys. People would think seriously about vocations. They would go to daily Mass."
Looking back, he said, "it was the best neighborhood in the world to grow up in. There were so many kids running around and we all liked sports. I grew up on Devonshire. My memories are of St. Gabriel, school picnics, running home for lunch in the 26 minutes we had because we lived so close to the school and lots of sports -- tennis and soccer in Francis Park. Soccer was a huge thing -- a huge Catholic sport."
Some of the traits of the neighborhood could be expected in the 1950s, he said, but he graduated from grade school in 1974. He's sure that his father, a pediatrician, bought the house because it was a close walk to the Catholic church and school.
People in St. Louis would identify the neighborhood with the parish, "and I hope it hasn't changed too much," Burke said.
The 52-year-old attended St. Louis University High School where "I had Latin teachers who were gentlemen, scholars and maybe saints ... The Jesuit influence was very strong."
A lay member of Opus Dei, he attended Columbia University's school of journalism and has spent the past 24 years based in Rome as a journalist with the National Catholic Register, Time magazine and, for the past 10 years, Fox News network.
His newly created position, announced in June, requires him to assist the Vatican with communications issues, working with the Holy See Press office, other Vatican communications departments and the Vatican secretariat of state.
In the United States, he said, a fair number of laypeople still go to daily Mass, especially in a place like St. Louis, which he called "very impressive. I love Italy, and I don't want to slam it, but even on Sunday it's old folks (at church) to a large degree, though not totally. In Europe the parish is a little less important per se -- people who are very involved in the Church tend to be involved with some of the new movements or some of the old movements. Franciscan, Salesian have huge groups of lay helpers," for example, Burke said.
Growing up in St. Louis, it was normal "to have a healthy piety," he said, recalling block Rosaries recited in the neighborhood. "That kind of thing was very much accepted, not just for Holy Joes or someone who might think they have a vocation but for moms and dads and kids." The Church, he said, "can and still does have that effect."
His role in communications is a key. "We're at a point where the Church has to stake its claim. In the past ... there was lots of allegiance to the Church. That was good, and I don't think it was blind allegiance. Now there is much more ... of a free marketplace of ideas, and the Church has to go out and make its case on a lot of issues."
The Church has much to contribute, especially to a wide variety of life issues as well as family issues, Burke said. "The more the Church, Church leaders and ordinary Catholics can articulate that well, the better things are going to be out there in the world of public opinion."
Communications today is "sort of in a free-for-all," he noted, with citizen journalists with blogs making good and bad contributions. On the good side, "you can call institutional places on their errors and you're no longer left defenseless if they do a hatchet job on you. You can get your message out."
On the other hand, he said, with so many sources, it's hard to separate fact from fiction.
Burke didn't want to leave his job at Fox, calling it "a wonderful gig." But, he said, he always would have wondered if he could have made a difference if he hadn't taken the Vatican job. He at first declined it but went with a gut feeling to leave his comfort zone.
Greater openness and accountability is a positive step for any institution, organization and business, not just the Vatican, he said. Saying nothing leads to distortion and misunderstanding, he noted.
Some information for this story was provided by Catholic News Service and CNA/EWTN News.
- Communication campaign May 19-20 helps spread the Good News
- Archdiocese establishes communications excellence award
- Executive director for communications named
- Rock-solid faith builds a university
- Archbishop Carlson to address LCWR assembly in St. Louis next week; sisters to discern Vatican assessment
- News »
- Papal News
- Religious Liberty
- Living Our Faith »
- Church Teaching »
- Opinion »
- Year of Faith
- Special Sections »