Introduction: Reflections from Archbishop Rigali

Archbishop Justin Rigali offers his reflections on the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of St. Louis froArchbishop Justin Rigalim the earliest pioneers to the Pastoral Visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II in 1999. The authors prepared questions to which the archbishop has given his responses that follow here.

Q. The pioneers and missionaries to St. Louis found new freedoms as well as hardships in the new world. Often they came to escape persecution. What inspiration do you draw from them?

A. The civic foundation of St. Louis is indeed fascinating. The pioneers were people of creativity and adventure. The religious foundation of St. Louis and of the vast territory that was once part of the Diocese of St. Louis is even more fascinating.

When we go back to the first missionaries, we are impressed by their tremendous energy and their dedication

to proclaiming the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The missionaries are extremely inspiring, because they exemplified in their lives what years later the Second Vatican Council would proclaim so clearly, namely that the Church is, by her very nature, missionary.

Missionaries were captivated by zeal for the Gospel. They came from afar in order to proclaim in fidelity to the command of Christ the Gospel and to build up the Church. The missionaries came from different countries and backgrounds, but all of them showed an immense generosity in their dedication to communicating Christ to the peoples of what was then the new world. The Church in St. Louis was inaugurated by missionary bishops: Bishop DuBourg, who laid the groundwork, and Bishop Rosati, who was the first Bishop of St. Louis, were thoroughly missionary. A whole group of priests and religious shared the missionary ideals of the Church and gave their lives in order to fulfill their missionary vocation. Our own great Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne exemplifies the pinnacle of missionary zeal and service.

The origins of St. Louis are blessed in its missionary past. These ideals not only were the ideals of the nascent Church, but they have been worthily perpetuated in the life of our local Church over the years. Missionary zeal is seen in the generosity of our missionaries in Bolivia, Belize and Siberia, as well as in the generosity of our people in sustaining the missionary cause of the Church. We are very proud of our missionary heritage, our missionary past and we ask God to give us a missionary future.

Q. Archbishops Kenrick and Glennon served as bishops in St. Louis for almost 100 years. They led the Church in St. Louis through massive new waves of immigration, Civil War, economic depression and two World Wars. While these events seem cataclysmic to us today, what challenge does a bishop face in the year 2000?

A. The combined episcopates of Archbishop Kenrick and Cardinal Glennon were indeed astounding; they served for 98 years. Both of these bishops endeavored to meet the challenges of the Church in their day. This involved tremendous challenges and the need to proclaim the faith to so many different immigrants that came to St. Louis and became part of the life of our community.

The names of our pioneers indicate the countries where they came from. Today, looking back into history, we are so deeply grateful for their contributions to the building up of our community and to the building up of our local Church. The challenges of a bishop in the new millennium involve dealing with different circumstances and different people. What is constant between our history and our present is the great challenge of the Church to evangelize, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all those in our midst and, as she proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to emphasize, according to the teaching she has received from the Lord, the great dignity of all peoples. The message of human dignity, combined with the need to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, is part of the great and enduring task of evangelization.

A bishop today, together with the entire Church which he serves, is called to do everything possible in the cause of evangelization and in its different aspects. We know, for example, that catechesis is a particular dimension of evangelization. It is what Pope John Paul II has called "a special moment of evangelization," and what a challenge this is to provide for all the people of our local Church an adequate and systematic teaching of the faith! The pioneering bishops had exactly the same challenge to proclaim the Gospel and at the same time to make sure that, through a systematic presentation of Christian doctrine, the word of God would take hold in the lives of people and bring forth fruits worthy of Christianity. To evangelize, to catechize, to proclaim human dignity–all of these are great challenges that we share in common with our forebears in the faith.

Newsweek, September 29, 1947

Q. The Archdiocese of St. Louis opened a high school for black students in the 1930s. Cardinal Ritter integrated schools seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended public school segregation. How can Catholics in St. Louis revitalize this legacy and what can they do "to put an end to every form of racism"?

A. The Archdiocese of St. Louis is immensely proud of the prophetic action taken by Cardinal Ritter in 1947 when he adamantly affirmed the teaching of the Church and proceeded to the integration of schools in the archdiocese. This action of Cardinal Ritter does indeed constitute a legacy for our local Church and is remembered as an important pastoral decision in the history of the United States. We likewise recall how our CYC sports program was integrated earlier than others.

The goal of putting an end to every form of racism, as we proclaim in our strategic pastoral plan, is extremely important. To achieve this goal completely, our people need to understand fully God’s plan of creation where all individuals are created equal in human dignity. This plan of God is further enhanced by the elevation of all humanity through the Incarnation. When we realize that the Son of God took humanity, we begin to understand that everyone who shares humanity with the Son of God has an equal right to respect and love.

Finally, creation and the Incarnation as titles of human dignity are further enhanced by God’s plan of redemption. The Church teaches that Christ died for all. This is the final motivation in the Church’s teaching for showing that all racism and discrimination against groups of people is repugnant to God’s plan for the human race. The Church, therefore, will continue to present the doctrine of faith as the basis for building a society that is just toward all.

We are confident that as people reflect on God’s plan, they will accept one another more and more, and work together with one another in building up a civilization of justice, peace and love.

Q. One of the great achievements of the Archdiocese of St. Louis is the system of Catholic grade schools and high schools that has been a model to the Church in America. These schools were built literally from nothing more than the faith and hard work of the priests, brothers, nuns and parishioners of the early 20th century. What is expected of us today with regard to the education of our children?

A. The whole network of Catholic schools that exists in the Archdiocese of St. Louis is truly an expression of the faith of those who have gone before us. It is important that we understand the zeal that led so many priests, religious sisters and brothers and laity to build and maintain so many Catholic schools. I believe it is important for us to understand the commitment of our predecessors in the faith in order to recommit ourselves to the ideals that they endeavored to actuate through Catholic education.

At the very center of Catholic education is the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary. Through Catholic education the Church intends to bring the principles of the Gospel to bear upon the lives and conduct of the new generations. Catholic education is linked to the mission of the Church, which is to communicate the Word of God and the human values that this Word of God inculcates. To engage in Catholic education requires great effort. It is an arduous pursuit, but at the same time it is a great privilege to be able to assist parents in their primary responsibility for their children. The Archdiocese is conscious of the responsibility that is incumbent on the whole Church and on all her members to collaborate in this important mission. Catholic education aims at presenting the content of our faith in an environment where young people may absorb it and apply it to their lives. Catholic education aims, therefore, at building up the kingdom of God.

Pope John Paul II 
Pope John Paul II

Q. During your time in Rome you worked closely with Pope John Paul II. He is Polish. He was elected at the age of 58. He easily "connects" with young people. His worldwide travels are unprecedented for a pope. Why has the Holy Spirit sent such a different pope at this time in the history of the Church?

A. Yes, I did have the privilege of working closely with Pope John Paul II. He is an extraordinary man and he does easily "connect with young people." I also had the privilege of being in Rome with Pope John XXIII and of working closely with Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I during the 33 days of his pontificate.

What is so evident is that the Holy Spirit does raise up leaders in the Church and he raises up Popes according to the need of each age. For this reason, the present Holy Father is indeed different from the others and yet there is a marvelous continuity in the way they govern the Church. I remember how Pope John Paul II referred so affectionately to Pope Paul VI as "my spiritual father" and I am sure that today he considers his pontificate in organic continuity with that of Pope Paul VI, John Paul I and all those who have gone before them.

Q. The pope’s biographer, George Weigel, reports that after the assassination attempt in May of 1981, the pope had little interest in discovering if there was a plot on his life. "There is evil in the world and ‘the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.’" This was the only explanation the pope needed for the shooting. What wisdom do you see in this?

A. The Holy Father certainly knows that the assassination attempt on his life was an expression of the great evil in the world. He is further convinced that the devil does indeed prowl around "like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour."

The Pope knows that Christian life is a great paschal conflict. In our Easter liturgy we have those beautiful words: mors et vita duello conflixere mirando (death and life have struggled in a great contest). Certainly the Holy Father has witnessed–in the assassination attempt, but also in so many others ways such as war, hatred and violence–the forces of evil. But he also knows with St. Paul that "where sin abounded grace does more abound."

The victory of Christ over sin and death is definitive. We know that in God’s plan His kingdom will triumph and life will be victorious. The Holy Father frequently reminds us that through the vicissitudes of life we arrive at the glory of Christ’s resurrection.

Q. As bishop your motto is "The Word Became flesh." This mysterious Word of God–flesh and blood–lived, breathed, loved, suffered and died as each of us will. Why did you choose this scripture to mark your service to the Church as bishop?

A. My principal reason for choosing my episcopal motto: "The Word Became Flesh" is that these words from St. John’s Gospel represent such a profound insight into God’s plan for humanity. The fact that the Word of God took on our humanity and assumed our flesh shows us the strongest foundation of human dignity. The dignity of the human person is linked initially with God’s act of creation, but, once the word of God becomes flesh in order to redeem the world, then all persons share humanity with the Son of God. This signifies the summit of the dignity of human life at every stage and the importance of our human activity in the world.

Every human being shares humanity with the Word of God and this dignity can never be overestimated. God’s Word is one with us and we are one with Him.

Q. Over the decades, many Catholics for many reasons have become separated from the practice of their faith. How do you invite them back to the community of faith?

A. It is important for all of us to be mindful of the many Catholics who, for various reasons, have become separated from the practice of their faith. Great outreach is constantly needed in the Church.

In November 1999 the Archdiocese of St. Louis organized such an outreach. It was one of many positive results of Pope John Paul II’s Pastoral Visit to St. Louis. Invitations were sent out to all. Each person was invited to receive the Sacrament of Penance and to experience God’s pardon and forgiveness. It was a wonderful event. Judging from the 35,000 to 40,000 people who accepted the invitation on a single weekend, we know that the outreach was successful and that people experienced God’s mercy and refreshing pardon.

In the parishes where I go, I speak so often about the mystery of God’s love as it is revealed in forgiveness and pardon. This is indeed what mercy is. It is God’s love for us in the face of our sins, in the face of our needs, in the face of our weaknesses. God’s love plus our misery equals divine mercy. In the Letter to the Hebrews we are urged to draw near to the throne of grace to obtain mercy.

Q. The human heart holds many things. The many blessings of family, the many graces of peace and the economic good times so many now enjoy. But it also is haunted by personal failings, brokenness and pain. How does one seek the grace and mercy of Jesus in the year 2000?

A. It is true that there is much brokenness and sin in the world. Sin and brokenness weigh heavily on the hearts of so many people. What is so exhilarating is that divine mercy is ours for the asking. To look at Jesus on the Cross is to understand His immense love for us. When this love comes into contact with our needs, our weaknesses and our sins, it becomes, as I said, mercy. And, mercy is God’s greatest attribute.

During one of his pastoral visits to the United States, the Holy Father said that he had come to our country to tell again the story of God’s love. That story is the wonderful revelation of mercy and we must always remember that if God is merciful to us we must show compassion and kindness to others.

Q. The powerful influence of popular culture is pervasive in the lives of our young people. What do you say to parents who see the values and morals of this culture at odds with what they try to give to their children at home in their family life?

A. Parents today have a very difficult mission. It is important for them to realize that the whole Church supports them and prays with them and for them that they may never be discouraged in their lofty mission. When their role as parents becomes particularly difficult and parents think that they have been ineffective with their children, they must still make every effort to continue to exercise the power of example. The example of their upright Christian living that expresses their faith in Jesus Christ is something extremely powerful.

The example of their prayer and their patience so often brings about extraordinary effects. Parents model in the world the great patience that God has with all of us–His people.

Centuries ago St. Monica prayed for 30 years for the conversion of her son Augustine. Today for the entire Church he is a luminous example of holiness and greatness. His mother’s prayers were rewarded.

Q. Jesus Christ was born 2,000 years ago. People in the region that is now St. Louis celebrated Mass for the first time 300 years ago. As America has grown during that time, and as the Church in America has matured, the Catholic Church worldwide has become ever more suddenly universal. How will the Church in St. Louis and in America participate in this growing Body of Christ?

A. In every age the Church of Jesus Christ matures in faith, hope and charity. We are so fortunate and proud that missionaries before us brought us the Gospel and the Sacraments.

It was over 300 years ago that the first Eucharist was celebrated on the banks of the Mississippi in what is now the City of St. Louis. During these years, different ethnic groups–many ethnic groups–have been part of our history as one people in Christ. It is necessary for us to grow in our understanding of the Church as one body in Christ–many different members, yet all of these are one–equal in human and Christian dignity. Generous missionaries, men and women, have brought us the Gospel, leaving us powerful examples of Christian discipleship.

Now it is time for us to help the missionary cause of the Church. As Christian people we are committed to spread the Gospel to those who freely choose to listen to us. It is our role to help other local Churches–dioceses in other lands–in their challenge to evangelize and to catechize.

We are called to accept the great challenge of showing solidarity in the family of humanity and in the family of the Church. We belong to a universal Church made up of people from every tribe and nation and background. All of us have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. All of us are committed to building up the kingdom of God in justice, love and truth.