30 years of 'engaging the culture'

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org

When Archbishop Robert J. Carlson reflects on serving the Church as a bishop for 30 years, he first gives thanks to God, "as I know every good thing that happened was a gift from Him."

Through the years, he said, he has "been privileged to work with outstanding priests and deacons who have actually helped me to be a better person and a better bishop."

This month Archbishop Carlson celebrates three decades as a bishop. In that time, he said, he has tried to stay focused on the roots of his priesthood, parish ministry.

"I always have felt that I am basically a parish priest," he said. "And I am happy that over the years I have been able to serve the people in the parishes in the dioceses where I have been assigned."

Archbishop Carlson was ordained to the priesthood in 1970 in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where he served in various capacities. He was consecrated bishop in that archdiocese on Jan. 11, 1984, by Archbishop John Roach and served 10 years as an auxiliary there before being named coadjutor of and eventually bishop of Sioux Falls, S.D. He was appointed Bishop of Saginaw, Mich, in 2004, the Archbishop of St. Louis in 2009.

When Archbishop Carlson was introduced to staff members of agencies and offices of the archdiocese during a press conference in 2009, he noted that St. Louis would be the fourth diocese he has served in since becoming a bishop.

"I've had a really hard time keeping a job, so thank you for taking me in," he quipped.

Throughout his episcopacy, he has spoken out on life issues and more, including religious freedom, explaining that as a moral leader in a secular world the Church is more and more in conflict with what the culture believes.

As bishop of Sioux Falls and later in Saginaw, then as archbishop of St. Louis, he established special funds to support women who face crisis pregnancies.

He is remembered statewide for an impassioned speech at a rally for religious liberty in Jefferson City in March of 2012. On the national stage, he led the U.S. bishops in writing a document on preaching that same year.

Since arriving in St. Louis, Archbishop Carlson has followed through on his promise to listen to people, extend bridges to those who have left the faith and become active in the community with other faith leaders. Each year since 2010, he has hosted an annual pstoral assembly as a forum of communication for leaders in archdiocesan parishes.

Commitment to seminarians

Archbishop Carlson said that among of the joys of his ministry has been accompanying seminarians as they discern the priesthood.

"This takes a person who is generous and open to the Lord working in his life. The majority of the men went on to the priesthood, but several discerned vocations to marriage and religious life. I felt blessed by the small part I had in their discernment process," he stated.

As he led the Church in Saginaw, bishop Carlson made vocations to the priesthood and religious life a priority. He took on on the role of the diocese's vocations director himself, and the number of seminarians for Saginaw increased. When he started in 2005, there were two seminarians for the diocese. In his last two years there, more than 20 entered the seminary. He ordained 11 priests in that same time frame.

Since arriving in St. Louis, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary has seen increases in enrollment. With 37 men entering Kenrick-Glennon Seminary this school year, there were 125 seminarians in the college, pre-theology and theology programs, the highest enrollment the seminary has experienced in the past 15 years. The seminary includes men for several dioceses, including St. Louis, which has 44 seminarians.

Soon after he arrived in St. Louis, Archbishop Carlson announced the "Faith for the Future" capital campaign for renovating Kenrick-Glennon, a project that began with planning under his predecessor, Cardinal Raymond Burke. Archbishop Carlson wrote that he was fully committed to the campaign.

"We cannot allow the challenging economic situation to sway us from the critical mission of providing priests to make Christ present to the faithful," Archbishop Carlson wrote. "The world may tell us that we should forgo this mission and seek an easier path, but we instead will place our faith in Christ."

The campaign received pledges of more than $60 million, an amount that was $10 million more than the target.

Education a priority

The archbishop has proclaimed Catholic schools as a top priority. He announced Alive in Christ, a multi-year mission advancement initiative focused on increasing awareness of the importance of Catholic schools and helping schools increase enrollment and financial resources.

"My vision for Catholic schools has two key concepts," the archbishop said. "Evangelization and social justice. I believe Catholic schools are one of our most powerful tools for evangelization," working hand in hand with the family and the parish to hand on the faith to children. "And Catholic schools are our most effective tool to help poor children escape poverty," to help build leaders for the Church and introduce people to Christ.

In its second year, the Alive in Christ Scholarship Program, which grew out of Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Mission Advancement Initiative, is bearing much fruit. Parents, pastors and principals are expressing their gratitude for the program, which has awarded approximately $5.4 million in scholarship assistance over two years. For the 2013-14 school year alone, more than 2,500 scholarships have been given to students.

'Engage the culture'

In his homily at his installation Mass here in 2009, he said "we must not only 'preach to the choir.' The Church must also be willing to engage the culture."

When Church teaching often conflicts with the values of contemporary culture, he said, "it is our duty to be a moral voice in the community. ... The Gospel invites us to choose life; the culture tells us that death is an equally legitimate choice."

Archbishop Carlson said, "I believe that our witness to faith, in word and in deed, can win the day. And it is why I pray so often, 'May the Holy Spirit get the last word.'"

Archbishop Carlson has called for an outreach to parents of recently baptized infants, including sending them cards starting on the first anniversary of their baptism and similar dates, reminding them that they are the primary teachers of the faith.

He has used his weekly column in the St. Louis Review, Before the Cross, to invite Catholics to participate in the Sacrament of Penance, to state that an immigrant Church welcomes the stranger, to explain suffering and aging, to remind people that marriage is the foundation of society, to cite the qualities of a vibrant parish, to call people to help the poor and homeless and even to highlight laughter as medicine for the soul. Columns have focused on the commandments, the Beatitudes, the Precepts of the Church and the spiritual works of mercy.

In Saginaw, he wrote pastoral letters on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, peace and the vocation of marriage. In 2008, he also wrote a pastoral letter on evangelization, in which he encouraged all Catholics to embrace it as a way of life.

He has built on that in St. Louis with a pastoral letter on evangelization, "Go and Announce the Gospel of the Lord," noting how "our relationship with the Lord calls us to share the Good News with all we meet." And he recently issued a pastoral letter on spiritual formation, "Partakers of the Divine Nature," encouraging people to remain faithful to their call to holiness through intentional discipleship.

"I believe both our healing and growth as a Church depends on our being more fully assumed into the life of the Trinity," he wrote.

Here to serve

When he left Saginaw for St. Louis, he said that he's always followed a principle -- "I'm happy to stay, I'm happy to go -- and "that has served me well in my parish assignments and my work. Sometimes I'm surprised when they ask me to go, but that's why I became a priest. You go to a place, the Lord calls you someplace else."

Wherever he goes, he said, "I can do two things: I can pray for people and I can bring the faith to them. If those talents are needed, it's a good match. I don't pretend to be anything more."

Anniversary Mass

WHAT: Archbishop Robert J. Carlson will celebrate a Mass marking the 30th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop.WHEN: 10 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 12

WHERE: Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, Lindell Blvd. and Newstead Ave. in the Central West End of St. Louis. A reception, open to all, will immediately follow the Mass, with light refreshments in Boland Hall next to the cathedral basilica.

FOR INFORMATION: Contact the cathedral basilica at (314) 373-8200. 

Your rating: None Average: 3.5 (4 votes)