RALEIGH, N.C. — A new bishop has to learn how to shepherd his flock without a handbook to guide him. But years of episcopal experience does not prepare him for one of the hardest tasks: saying goodbye to the diocese he has called home.
After 10 years in the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, Bishop Michael Burbidge received the phone call from Rome — Pope Francis was assigning him to the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia. But getting the call involves a degree of heartbreak for a bishop, who, even as he says “Yes” to the Holy Father, undergoes the human suffering of leaving behind something he loves: a people and place he has called his family and his home.
“I came here as a stranger. Now, I’m leaving a place that I call home,” Bishop Burbidge reflected, while speaking to the Register.
Bishop Burbidge is one of three U.S. bishops recently tapped by Pope Francis to leave their home dioceses for new assignments. In addition to Bishop Burbidge, the Holy Father has assigned Archbishop-elect Paul Etienne to leave the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming, to shepherd the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska. He has also appointed Auxiliary Bishop David Talley, from the Archdiocese of Atlanta, to become coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana.
Life in Raleigh
Bishop Burbidge said he “learned a lot and gained a lot” from the Church in Raleigh. He discovered a “strong sense of community” in the diocese and its parishes, where people enjoy each other’s company after Mass. Seeing the parishes act as a “home and family” for people inspired him as a bishop.
“I love that here,” he said, adding that he plans to foster that same spirit in Arlington.
But even as he looks forward to getting to know his new flock, and tackling the issues that a bishop living in full view of the Washington Monument will have to address, leaving Raleigh is difficult. The bishop has overseen the planning of a beautiful new cathedral, a project that consumed several years of his life as a bishop, and is now leaving it behind at the beginning of its construction.
“I said ‘Yes’ right away,” the bishop said of his new post, noting he recognized that the Lord was telling him his work was done in Raleigh, and the Holy Father has new work for him.
The bishop said a person can “let go if you never cling” to this life and recognize that everything comes from God and goes back to God.
Southern Baptist to Southern Bishop
As Bishop Talley packed his bags for the move from Atlanta to Alexandria, he told the Register that he learned how to be a shepherd under Archbishop Wilton Gregory and benefited greatly from his “extraordinary breadth of experience.” For three and a half years, he learned how to listen to parishioners, asking about their lives and discipleship, and worked closely with the archdiocese’s priests.
But he also has his background as a Southern Baptist convert, which will help him as he assists Bishop Ronald Herzog until Bishop Herzog retires at age 75 in April, whereupon Bishop Talley will become the sole bishop of Alexandria. Southern Baptists make up the largest Protestant contingent in Louisiana, while Catholics amount for more than a quarter of the state’s population.
Bishop Talley said there is “great faithfulness” among Southern Baptists. While the bishop has met great examples of faithfulness, including working with Mother Teresa in Rome, he credited his parents for teaching him to love Jesus of Nazareth.
“I know there is more that unites us than separates us,” he said of Christian denominations.
Much of his episcopal ministry, he said, has dovetailed with Pope Francis’ focus on renewing in people the call to proclaim the faith (kerygma). As Bishop Talley put it: “That Jesus of Nazareth is Lord, and he has offered us a plan of life and made it possible to see the Father face-to-face.”
A Wilderness Shepherd
For the past seven years, Archbishop-elect Paul Etienne has led a diocese covering all 97,000 square miles of the state of Wyoming. Now, the outgoing bishop of Cheyenne will go to the Archdiocese of Anchorage, which covers 138,000 square miles — thankfully, the Dioceses of Juneau and Fairbanks care for the parishes scattered over the other 500,000 square miles of Alaska.
But this fisher of men (and avid fish and wildlife sportsman) told the Register that being uprooted makes a person feel vulnerable, but the biggest lesson he has learned as a bishop has been “trust in the Lord.”
“He provides the grace, the vision, and he ultimately provides for any of the success,” he said.
Besides getting to know the people of Anchorage, the archbishop said he is looking forward to seeing the Northern Lights. And he has “confidence to go forth in unchartered waters,” because he sees with gratitude what the Lord helped him accomplish in Cheyenne and how he was blessed with a chancery, priests and laity who embraced the Church’s mission as “a ministry of love.”
“Just like the Lord sent me here, an area unknown to me, and blessed my labors, he’s going to do the same thing in Anchorage,” Archbishop-elect Etienne said. “That gives me a lot of hope and confidence.”
Pope Francis’ Men
While no two dioceses are the same, and each have their own strengths and challenges, all three bishops are the kinds of pastors Pope Francis wants for the Church, according to Rocco Palmo, a veteran Church analyst who reports from the Whispers in the Loggia website.
Palmo told the Register that Pope Francis has been “very keen” to appoint bishops who will truly be shepherds close to their flocks, adding that each of this trio of bishops are pastors well-matched for their new assignments.
Archbishop Etienne’s experience driving up to eight hours between parishes in the Cheyenne Diocese, Palmo added, will serve him well in Anchorage, where his predecessor, Archbishop Roger Schweitz, piloted his own plane to reach his far-flung parishes.
“He energizes people by showing up and uses social media to bridge the gaps,” Palmo noted of Archbishop-elect Etienne.
Archbishop Etienne will also have a capacity to connect with young men considering a vocation to the priesthood in the Alaskan wilderness. Palmo said having an archbishop who is an outdoorsman, skilled with a hunting rifle and fishing rod, and who has preached on the challenges of celibate life, will help Anchorage recruit seminarians.
In addition, Bishop Burbidge, Palmo said, is both “uncompromisingly orthodox” and pastorally sensitive — a bishop who is known to “listen and learn from the people” and can get everyone on the same page.
For example, Palmo pointed out that when the faithful in Raleigh criticized certain design features in the new cathedral, Bishop Burbidge took them seriously and incorporated those concerns into the final design: He did not double down on design features that he recognized were more in keeping with a Northeastern diocese from another era.
“That’s significant. That’s what a pastor does,” Palmo said.
Palmo explained that the Arlington Diocese has a “great identity and vitality.” He said Bishop Burbidge has the doctrinal and liturgical bona fides to energize the diocese’s clergy and laity alike.
At the same time, Palmo indicated the bishop will have to get to parishes by navigating the “daily traffic jams on the Beltway” and the hustle and bustle of life near Capitol Hill.
Protestant Convert Work Ethic
Bishop Talley, Palmo noted, was an auxiliary bishop in demand for other sees. The bishop has an intense work ethic and ability to oversee many activities at once, which led his staff to nickname him the “Tasmanian Devil,” according to Palmo.
Bishop Talley comes from the background of a Southern Baptist social worker, who left his church over its history of racism. He joined the Catholic Church in his late 20s, joined the seminary and moved up rapidly through the ranks of the clergy. At the same time, Palmo said, Bishop Talley has exhibited a collaborative approach with the laity, and is known for including women in Church matters.
Bishop Talley the convert is a good match for the Diocese of Alexandria, where Catholics can often feel alone in the Bible Belt: His background and experience will not only strengthen interfaith relations, but also boost the diocese’s morale, according to Palmo.
“He’s still kept the heart of the convert,” Palmo said. “This is what the Holy Father wants — he’s not a bureaucrat … he’s good at setting people on fire [for the faith].”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.