1994-2000: A New Springtime of Faith

In the fall of 1994, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter outlining the Church’s program of preparations for the coming third millennium. In it he explained the significance of the Great Jubilee for the Church, and also acknowledged that its preparation and celebration was the key to understanding his whole pontificate. The words spoken to him by Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski at the time of his election had remained always on his mind, "If the Lord has called you, you must lead the Church into the third millennium."

Earlier in 1994, on January 25th, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the Holy Father had given to the Archdiocese of St. Louis one of his own trusted aides as its new archbishop. Justin Francis Rigali, a priest of Los Angeles who had worked in Rome for several popes, an archbishop who had himself been involved with the work of selecting bishops, was chosen to lead the faithful of St. Louis into the new Christian era signaled by the Great Jubilee.

Archbishop Rigali, by means of his own faithful presentations of the Catholic faith, and his close personal affiliation with the great Pontiff, would bring to his pastoral duties a keen understanding of the Universal Church. In January of 1999 he would bring the Pope himself to St. Louis.

The archbishop would gather around himself a loyal and competent staff, particularly in the persons of his Vicars General: Bishops Edward Braxton, Joseph Naumann and Michael Sheridan, and Monsignor Richard Stika. He would ordain these three bishops as auxiliaries for St. Louis. Two former staff members, John Gaydos and George Lucas, would be named ordinaries of the surrounding dioceses of Jefferson City and Springfield in Illinois. His active auxiliaries upon arrival, Bishops Edward O’Donnell and Paul Zipfel, assisted in the transition of leadership, and soon would be named to the Dioceses of Lafayette (Louisiana) and Bismarck (North Dakota). Several years later Bishop Braxton was appointed to the Diocese of Lake Charles (Louisiana).

Serene Leadership

Pope John Paul II 
Pope John Paul II with Archbishop Rigali at the "Light of the World Youth Gathering" in St. Louis, January 1999.

Archbishop Rigali exercises a calm but fervent spiritual leadership in his role as archbishop. In public gatherings he exudes confidence and competence. Smaller scaled encounters with the archbishop immediately reveal an authentic cordiality and thoughtful care for detail. In his zeal for pastoral ministry, Rigali uses every opportunity to visit parishes and schools, often participating in two or more events a day. In the Jubilee year he visited all 29 Catholic high schools, celebrated Mass, and in each case met with the faculty as well as the student leadership. He seldom left any gathering before spending a considerable part of his time greeting individuals personally, or at dinners, going table to table.

His naturally gracious demeanor and, perhaps, the years of ‘Mediterranean’ inculturation, produced in him a comfortable blend of enthusiasm for speaking the truth precisely, and serenity in awaiting the inevitable victory of the Gospel. He listened carefully–thoughtfully questioned–and then gently moved the proceedings in the right direction. A priest who had wanted to retire at a time the archbishop worried was premature, afterward acknowledged with a grin and a grimace, "He actually convinced me how valuable I was. I’m not even sure how it happened!"

When the 1997 controversy over the sale of the Catholic hospital by Saint Louis University surfaced in the secular media there was national and international interest. It eventually became clear that the archbishop had been at work for months behind the scenes earnestly trying to secure the sale to another Catholic health care interest. Once the unfavorable outcome was irreversibly set he took pains to put in place as many ethical safeguards as possible and move on.

Another time, an aide was lamenting a change in personnel that threatened to weaken the Catholic identity of a Church institution. The archbishop calmly reminded, "non praevalebunt," "they shall not prevail."

A Clear Vision, a Collaborative Plan

 There were the obligatory press conferences when Archbishop Justin Rigali first arrived in St. Louis and the usual questions were posed about the new archbishop’s vision for the archdiocese. He was full of admiration for his predecessors and the significant accomplishments of the people of St. Louis.

Within the first 500 days he had begun a collaborative effort to map out the priorities that would focus the attention and energies of clergy, religious and laity for the next several years.

The strategic planning initiative widely surveyed the "state of the Church," and encouraged the archdiocese’s half-million Catholics to express their hopes, concerns and aspirations for the future. From the mass of data came an admission of some areas of weakness and the determination that we wanted to be a more efficient Church. The archbishop would write, "…although we certainly want to be that, we also want to be a holier Church: a more vital Church, a more authentic Church." Authenticity would be assured through sensitivity to the legitimate needs of the flock and fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium. Holiness would deepen to the extent that all participants were willing to subordinate their own version or image of the Church to that of Christ. As the archbishop pointed out, responsible planning hinges on Christ’s mandate to Peter, "On this rock, I will build my Church." This was about Christ’s Church, and our work as His stewards.

Five Goals

The vision that Rigali gave in the first promulgation of the Pastoral Plan in early 1997, clearly set forth five goals that would guide the journey of the Church in St. Louis. They were: 1) To Foster Conversion Through Prayer and the Sacraments; 2) To Proclaim Jesus Christ in Word and in Action; 3) To Renew Our Commitment to Catholic Education in All Its Forms; 4) To Serve Those in Need; 5) To Be Responsible Stewards of God’s Gifts to Us. Their implementation would ‘give flesh’ in a broad-based way to issues that he had already begun to highlight in his weekly column, his homilies and in the course of his pastoral activities.

Eucharistic Renewal

Waiting for the Pope 
Children line the motrocade route to greet the Pope.

An early theme expressed in one of Archbishop Rigali’s first Advent messages illustrated the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church and at the same time indicated something of the Blessed Sacrament’s importance in his own spiritual life. He had already been inviting small groups of priests to lunch at his residence, beginning their visit with a full hour of quiet prayer before the Real Presence in his chapel. The primary focus was based on the Pope’s letter, Dies Domini, on keeping holy the "Lord’s Day." Enhancing Sunday worship and intensifying the faithful’s participation in Holy Mass was a priority he shared with every pastor in the parishes. But the archbishop was also intent on encouraging worship of the Holy Eucharist outside of Mass, particularly for the intention of priestly and religious vocations. Throughout the archdiocese Rigali encouraged periods of exposition and benediction, and sound catechesis on the connection between Eucharistic devotion and the Sacrifice of the Mass. His first major goal was to change hearts through prayer and the Sacraments.

Priests, Religious, Deacons

The archbishop had expressed his esteem for his chief collaborators, the priests, in the homily of his installation Mass, March 16, 1994. "You mean everything to me," he said, "Without you my ministry cannot exist, because Jesus has willed it so." He would initiate an annual Day of Prayer for Priests, and start a similar annual gathering with consecrated religious, and a Deacon Day for deacons and their wives. He sought out a variety of venues to express his appreciation to these special co-workers, and also to encourage vocations. At the center of these celebrations was the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Eucharistic Congress

As a centennial of the first formal National Eucharistic Congress in the United States, held in St. Louis in 1901, the archdiocese made plans to convene an Archdiocesan Eucharistic Congress on Corpus Christi Weekend, 2001. Cardinal Jan Schotte, the Vatican Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops would address the gathering. The event would culminate with Mass at the TransWorld Dome, followed by a procession to the St. Louis Riverfront and Benediction.


This goal of conversion necessarily included a strong emphasis on the Sacrament of Penance. In November of 1999, Reconciliation Weekend engaged 300 priests in service to nearly 40,000 faithful, at 62 sites throughout the archdiocese. In commenting on the weekend the archbishop said that this extraordinary moment of reconciliation would help "to heighten the appreciation of still greater numbers of our people for the immense value of regular and frequent celebration of the Sacrament of Penance."

Evangelization, Renew

The Church anticipated the millennium as a time of "new evangelization." Small faith communities would be given a boost through Renew 2000, a program which was strengthened, at Rigali’s insistence, with supplemental materials that drew participants into more frequent contact with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The new archdiocesan Office for Evangelization enhanced the work of the Office of Communications and the Millennium Jubilee Committee through some creative media blitzing. These initiatives, particularly in the wake of the Pope’s visit, sparked an increase in inquiries about the faith. ‘Hits’ on the new archdiocesan website were increasing, and there was a flowering of the numbers of candidates for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.

Youth, Seminary, Vocations, Diaconate

The Office of Youth Ministry expanded the efforts of the CYC to engage youth in evangelizing each other and the Life Teen program boosted Sunday Mass attendance among teens. Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, which, in the fall of 1996 came under diocesan administration after years of capable leadership by the Vincentian Fathers, was frequently involved in the programs with youth. The seminary and the vocation office would co-sponsor many initiatives for middle-school students, teens and young adults, and the contact slowly began to pay off. A cautious hope was developing that priestly and religious vocations would increase. Some orders of religious women, notably the Franciscan Sisters of the Martyr St. George, the Missionaries of Charity, and the Carmelites–were attracting good numbers of young women.

The permanent Diaconate also grew during these years, even while the length and demands of the formation program increased.

Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue

Rigali created and accepted a variety of invitations to gather with representatives of the ecumenical and interfaith communities. He was genuinely pleased to secure the participation of the local religious leaders in the historic celebration of Evening Prayer at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis on the occasion of the Pope’s visit, and asked Rabbi Robert Jacobs to proclaim the reading from Isaiah. Rabbi Jacobs did this in Hebrew and English from the high pulpit.

He Began to Teach Them

In early meetings with educators, Rigali made allusions to the Gospel narratives that explained that when Christ encountered the faithful in need, he not only fed them and cured their diseases, he began to teach them.

The new archbishop took his episcopal charge as teacher seriously, and devoted the largest portion of his weekly column to a systematic treatment of Catholic doctrine. After all, the new Catechism made its way into the U.S. in 1994, at almost the same time Rigali came to St. Louis. He was convinced of its value and zealous that it be used, particularly for adult education. Expositions on the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism, the encyclicals, the synod exhortations: these figured strongly in his writings and preaching.

Catholic Education

The strong system of Catholic schools continued to flourish in these years. Enrollments increased in the elementary and high schools. Just concerns about adequate salary and benefits–particularly for elementary school teachers–arose in early 1996, just as the archdiocese was beginning to get itself back on a sound financial footing. The type and structure of organization preferred by an outspoken association of Catholic elementary educators threatened to undermine the autonomy of the parish-based schools in St. Louis, a system long recognized nationwide for its strength and success. Rigali first established a commission that held hearings throughout the archdiocese, and subsequently announced the "New Partnership," calling for the creation of the Parish Teacher Compensation Committee. Made up of representatives of the teachers’ group, pastors, and other lay leaders, the committee helped to assure the teachers of the intentions of the archdiocese to shore up the educators’ short and long-range security. The Parish School Assistance Fund, which received significant funding from the Archdiocesan Development Appeal, helped make it possible to increase teachers’ salaries while keeping Catholic education affordable. Still, the increasing costs of education would cause more families to look to legislative relief in the form of vouchers and tuition tax credits.

Universities, Paul VI

Saint Louis University’s midtown facility was becoming more recognizable as its campus was significantly expanded and enhanced. In 2000, the United States bishops would finally settle on an approved national application of "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," and the implementation would help to solidify the link between the teaching ministry of the bishop and the mission of the Catholic university.

The archdiocese’s Paul VI Catechetical and Pastoral Institute, now accredited through the Congregation for the Clergy, continued to progress in its mission of adult religious education and as part of the deacons’ academic formation.

To Serve Those in Need

Strong leadership in Catholic agencies continued to build on the foundation of their predecessors. Curia meetings–parallel to the work of the Pastoral Council–would provide a supportive interaction within the network of pastoral and administrative ministries. A dynamic pro-life effort intensified to oppose the passage of legislation continually more antagonistic to life. Archbishop Rigali would lead the St. Louis’ contingent in the annual January March in Washington, D.C. Breakthroughs in gene research, cloning and experimentation on stem cells required clear elaboration of the Church’s moral principles. While the area continued to have the service of many fine health care facilities, increasing mergers and partnering of major area hospitals made it all the more imperative that a full Catholic identity be retained in our health centers. The Church’s solicitude for the sick had always been very evident, and the protection of life until natural death would receive renewed emphasis.

In many different parish ministries opportunities for disabled persons to serve were opening up. Rigali would ordain a young priest who had been partially paralyzed during his seminary years for service in the archdiocese.

Guidance for families, children and couples preparing for marriage responded to the higher incidence of divorce, abuse and cohabitation. Instruction and encouragement in natural family planning were given a high priority. A large share of the Archdiocesan Development Appeal, as well as local parish collections, food programs and direct service projects, continued to be directed to those in need.

Dynamic Presence in the City

The archdiocese gave significantly increasing support to St. Patrick Center and other refuges for the Catholic and non-Catholic poor and homeless. Successful clustering in north city parishes, homesteading incentives instituted by the south city parishes–all these Church-based initiatives promoted the stability of the city. The annual Martin Luther King Day celebrations continued to provide an opportunity to draw attention to the core contributions of St. Louis African-American Catholics in the Church. The annual Revival attracted participants from throughout the archdiocese, and gave a spirit-filled expression of Catholic identity on the north side. Business and civic leaders–Catholic and non-Catholic–answered Archbishop Rigali’s invitation to match the Church’s investment in an inner-city high school that, by some peoples’ logic, should be abandoned. The track record of the students and alumni of Cardinal Ritter College Prep convinced everyone that their hopes and financial support were not misplaced, and plans for the new school still within the city’s boundaries moved forward.

Responsible Stewardship

The challenges facing the new archbishop on his arrival called for a hard look at the assets and liabilities of the local Church. Successful stewardship meant enlisting the expertise of apt managers as well as communicating back and forth with parishes and agencies about the needs of the Church for carrying out her mission. A task force was set up to determine criteria for vital and viable parishes, schools, agencies, and the best distribution of personnel. In a series of convocations of parish and agency representatives, the needed cooperation was asked of the faithful, who responded with trust and generosity. In the years to follow, the minimal, but always painful, consolidations and closings of parishes and schools would occur. At the same time, the Church’s evident commitment to keep parishes and schools in all areas of the archdiocese served as an anchor for endangered neighborhoods, as well as a necessary element of spiritual sustenance in the burgeoning suburban counties. In the Jubilee year alone, there were more than 30 building projects underway in areas representative of almost every deanery.

Returning God’s Gifts, Archdiocesan Development Appeal

This renewal of good stewardship would go far beyond the paying off of archdiocesan debts. A formidable endowment campaign would be mounted to build a fund that would exist in perpetuity and care for a variety of needs. Pastors and parishioners responded overwhelmingly to ‘Returning God’s Gifts,’ and the goal of $55 million was surpassed. Strong lay leadership and Rigali’s own persuasiveness and credibility as a Churchman tipped the scales to provide a long-term financial underpinning for the Church’s work. All the while, the annual Archdiocesan Development Appeal never missed a beat. An ever-increasing percentage of the faithful supported this largest annual project devoted to Catholic education, charitable outreach, pro-life efforts and a host of other ‘people projects.’

Preparations for the Great Jubilee

With the promulgation of the Pope’s blueprint for preparing for the Great Jubilee, the archbishop established the Millennium Jubilee Committee. The Trinitarian themes of the Jubilee preparation provided an occasion for emphasizing the centrality of the sacraments and the theological virtues that underlie Catholic faith. In 1997, the local Church of St. Louis celebrated the 150-year anniversary of its status as an archdiocese. Because of St. Louis’ great significance in the history of the United States the beautiful "New Cathedral" was elevated to the rank of Basilica.

The Pastoral Visit of Pope John Paul II

Papal Mass 
The largest indoor gathering ever held in the United States—Papal Mass, TransWorld Dome, America's Center, 1999

The Universal Church was preparing for the Holy Year through a series of continental synods ‘for the sake of the new evangelization,’ and Archbishop Rigali was selected as a member of the 1997 Synod for America. In the course of the meetings with bishops and observers from North, South, and Central America, and the Caribbean, Rigali’s interventions treated the universal call to holiness and the centrality of the Eucharist.

When the time came for the promulgation of the post-synodal exhortation, it was customary for the Pope to travel to the respective area of the world to formally announce the findings of the Synod Fathers. On January 22, 1999, the Holy Father went to Mexico City and the shrine of the patroness of America, Our Lady of Guadalupe, to give the world the document on "The Church in America." But at the invitation of his long-time collaborator, he would complete his passage to America with a Pastoral Visit to St. Louis. The 32-hour visit to the archdiocese was arguably the singular most significant historical event in the life of the local Church since its founding in 1826. On January 26 and 27, 1999, St. Louis was the heart of the Church. In the person of Pope John Paul II, ‘Peter,’ the Vicar of Christ was in our midst.

Final Epilogue: A Project of Hope

In his weekly column, Archbishop Rigali reflected on the pilgrimages and celebrations that were so much a part of the Holy Year. Echoing the words of the Pope, he said, "The Jubilee is a commemoration, but it is also a project for the future."

Here we commemorate and give thanks for 300 years of the action of Christ in the midst of the Church of St. Louis. As we look towards the future, to what the new millennium of Christianity will offer, and what it will require us to do in Christ’s name, we continue the pilgrimage as a project of hope.

Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us!