Memories of My Friendship With Bishop Morlino

Bishop Robert C. Morlino was a courageous crusader for all that is good, true and beautiful

Bishop Robert Morlino
Bishop Robert Morlino (photo: Diocese of Madison)

The Church in the United States has lost one of its most courageous leaders. Bishop Robert C. Morlino, late of the Diocese of Madison, who died suddenly and unexpectedly last week, was someone whom I admired greatly for his sanity and sanctity and someone whom I had the privilege to serve.

Several years ago I was invited by Bishop Morlino to lead a retreat for the priests of his diocese. I was honored to receive the introduction and excited at the prospect of meeting the bishop himself in person. He asked if I might speak on the evangelizing power of beauty and what might be called cultural apologetics. He was keen that the priests of his diocese should understand the importance of beauty in the struggle to win souls for Christ in an age of ugliness and relativism.

At his behest, I spoke of the good, the true and the beautiful as being a reflection of the Trinity, inseparable, coequal and yet mystically distinct. The good was the way of virtue or love; the true was the way of reason; the beautiful was the way of creation. In an age which had corrupted the meaning of love, removing its rational and self-sacrificial heart and replacing it with narcissistic feeling, and in an age which had corrupted reason to something merely relative and devoid of objectivity, the power of beauty to evangelize was more important than ever. I spoke of the power of a sunrise to raise the heart and the mind to God, echoing the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. I spoke also of the power of human creativity to partake of the creative power of God in the making of great works of art, such as St. Peter’s Basilica or Michelangelo’s pieta, which also raised the heart and mind to God. Such beauty could reach the most hardened of hearts.

Bishop Morlino was delighted with my presentation but I was a little disturbed by the reaction of some of his priests. Although all the priests of the diocese were expected to attend, about half of them failed to show. Some of these absentees might have had very good reasons for their non-attendance; others, however, had simply treated the bishop’s invitation and his expectation with indifference or resistance. Equally disturbing was the relative indifference or even sullen resistance of half of those in attendance. In all my years of giving talks to Catholic audiences, at parishes, conferences, colleges, high schools and other venues, I had never met with such negativity. I was not heckled, of course, but the lack of enthusiasm was palpable. About half of those in attendance were clearly there against their will, dragging their cognitive heels, and waiting for the ordeal to be over. These beat a hasty retreat as soon as the formal part of the proceedings were over, failing to attend the reception and convivium that followed. It was only then that I had the great pleasure of speaking with the happy remnant who were on fire with the faith and shared their bishop’s fervor. I couldn’t help but notice that these were the younger priests of the diocese, signaling that the future was in good hands.

As I returned home, I felt deeply for Bishop Morlino and the thankless task that he and other courageous bishops faced. He and his faithful confreres had spoken out against modernism, against the culture of corruption that had manifested itself so sickeningly in the sex abuse scandal, and against the culture of active homosexuality which spurns the very concept of chastity. In return, they are met with indifference, resentment and even open hostility and rebellion. Bishop Morlino was one of those few, those happy few, those band of brothers, who fought the good fight when so many of his brother bishops were doing nothing or in some cases worse than nothing.

Before I left, the bishop gave me his personal phone number, telling me to phone him whenever I liked. A friendship was born, albeit one which would never again bring us together in the flesh. It was, however, good to know that the Diocese of Madison was in such good and vigilant hands and that there was a corner of God’s vineyard that was being well-tended. How shocked I was to hear of his sudden death, and how I grieved for his flock. A good and holy shepherd had been lost. A true and courageous soldier of Christ had fallen in the midst of battle. And yet — and here’s the good news that vanquishes all shadows of grief — a good and worthy servant had gone to receive his heavenly reward.

In truth, we have not lost Bishop Morlino. He is not lost to us. He is in a better position than ever to help us and to help the beleaguered Church that he served so faithfully. He is in the company of the saints and in the Presence of God. He can hear us. He can help us. He can intercede for us.

Bishop Morlino, courageous crusader for all that is good, true and beautiful, pray for us that we might be given the courage to fight as you fought in this life that we may be happy with you forever in the glories of the life to come. Amen!