The Most Reverend Michael F. Burbidge, 60, has served as Bishop of Arlington, Virginia, for just over a year after serving as Bishop of Raleigh, North Carolina, for 10 years. He was born in Philadelphia, and grew up in a Catholic home, the son of a banker; he has an older brother. He attended Catholic schools in Philadelphia before heading to the seminary; he was ordained a priest for Philadelphia in 1984. In the years since, he served as a parochial vicar, high school teacher, seminary rector, and auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia.
Arlington is home to 465,000 Catholics, 70 parishes and five missions. It does well for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, with 266 priests and 44 seminarians. It is also located in close proximity to the nation’s capital in Washington, DC; in fact, Bishop Burbidge has a view of the Capitol building from his office. He spoke to CWR this morning as he was preparing to participate in various events for the annual March for Life, which promotes the pro-life cause in conjunction with the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision striking down the nation’s anti-abortion laws.
CWR: Philadelphia is a city with a great Catholic history. What was it like growing up Catholic there, and how the city has changed since you were a boy?
Bishop Michael F. Burbidge: Yes, it has been a very Catholic city, with the Catholic identity so strong and present in so many ways. It has a great tradition of Catholic schools, of which I’m a product, including elementary, high schools and colleges and universities, as well as nursing homes and cemeteries. There has been a tremendous Catholic presence.
It was something I took for granted. When I became Bishop of Raleigh and arrived there in 2006, it was the first difference I noticed [North Carolina’s Catholic population is under 10% of the population].
As a boy, I attended Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in southwest Philadelphia, which had 3,000 children in the grade school. A lot of the Catholic population has moved out since to the suburbs [Blessed Sacrament closed in 2007].
We were a close-knit community, living in row houses and freely going in and out of one another’s homes. We were a connected parish with a real sense of community.
Although I had a small family—I had one older brother who was four years older—we had extended family nearby. There wasn’t a weekend when we weren’t together.
My parents provided me with a great example, and were very supportive of my vocation. We prayed before meals, had night prayers, and said the rosary.
CWR: Can you tell us about your early days as a young priest in Philadelphia, and some of the experiences you had?
Bishop Burbidge: There were eight of us ordained in 1984, the smallest class in the archdiocese since 1880. We like to say that it’s about quality, not quantity. We had a strong sense of fraternity; every priest studied at the same seminary, St. Charles Borromeo, and we were formed in the same way. I remain very close to them today.
I was assigned to St. Bernard in northeast Philadelphia, which was a large parish with five priests and 3,000 children in the school. It was similar to the parish I grew up in, and would turn out to be the only assignment I had that went the way I hoped it would go.
I was asked if I wanted to teach high school, and I said no, that’s not what I’d desire. Three months later I received a letter saying I was assigned to teach theology in high school. But, it turned out that I loved it, and I taught at my alma mater, Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield. I was the first priest-graduate to return and serve on the faculty.
CWR: What lessons did you learn as a young priest?
Bishop Burbidge: The first is that you can’t give to the people all that you wish to offer unless you’re rooted in a deep spiritual life. I was on fire as a young priest, and wanted to conquer the world, which was good, because the priesthood is about service. However, I learned quickly that that enthusiasm must be rooted in a deep prayer life, or it can’t be sustained. It was a great lesson to learn early in my priesthood.
I also learned I needed to stay in touch with my priest friends. It’s important to have family and lay friends, but you also need contact with your brother priests, who understand from firsthand experience the challenges you face and can help you to become better.
And finally, you can’t underestimate how God uses your presence to help others. You always want to say the right words, but sometimes what people will remember more is that you were there, visiting them in the hospital, or bringing communion to their grandmother who is homebound.
CWR: You spent a decade as Bishop of Raleigh, North Carolina. In 2015, you participated in groundbreaking ceremonies for the diocese’s Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral. What challenges did you face in launching construction for the cathedral, and what are your thoughts on its completion and dedication?
Bishop Burbidge: Raleigh never had a cathedral. When it was named a diocese, a parish, Sacred Heart, was named as the cathedral. It was considered a large church at the time. It seats just over 300, making it the smallest cathedral in the country, other than the one in Juneau, Alaska.
In recent years, many people have been migrating into the Diocese of Raleigh, including immigrants, Hispanics, and many people from the northeast coming in search of better weather and a lower cost of living. The growth there has been incredible. I dedicated 11 churches in the 10 years I was there.
But, we never had a place to gather as a diocese for a Chrism Mass, ordinations, wedding anniversaries and the like. The need for a larger cathedral was apparent.
When I first presented the idea to the people, I began by explaining what a cathedral is. I said that it was the seat of the bishop, and that it belongs to all of us. That was a bit of a challenge. I also had to assure people that a new building would not take away from our service and care of the poor.
In fact, I made two promises about the new cathedral. First, that our care of the poor and needy would not be diminished in any way, but would probably increase. And second, we will only build a cathedral with the funds that the people gave us. We wouldn’t put the diocese at risk by taking on debt. I wanted people to understand that building the cathedral was not an either-or proposition; that we could build it and serve the poor at the same time.
I’m glad to say I kept both promises.
The completion of the cathedral was culmination of a seven-year process. It was surprising to me to be transferred before the dedication. But the people were so kind and generous in allowing me to return and dedicate the cathedral [on July 26, 2017]. It was one of the happiest and most joyful days of my priesthood. By God’s grace and goodness, and the sacrifices and generosity of the people, it became a reality. It was a tremendous privilege to be part of the dedication.
CWR: The Raleigh cathedral was built on land originally purchased by Servant of God Fr. Thomas Price (1860-1919) for an orphanage. He went on to found the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, which became the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. The diocesan phase for his Cause for Beautification and Canonization began in 2012. What impresses you about his story?
Bishop Burbidge: He was a true missionary, and a man of bold vision and courage. He was the first native born North Carolinian to become a priest, and he wanted to share his faith with everyone he met. He had a love for the poor and a vision to purchase the Nazareth property [on which the cathedral was built]. At the dedication of the cathedral, we were blessed to have present family members of those who once lived in the orphanage. We are blessed to have the example of Fr. Price.
CWR: You wrote a pastoral letter encouraging devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. Why is this devotion important?
Bishop Burbidge: Holy Name was the name of the chapel that Fr. Price established at the orphanage. It’s a devotion we should regain as a Church; in our day and age we can be careless with the use of God’s name. But, the second commandment is “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
I don’t think most people deliberately take God’s name in vain, but it’s a bad habit of which we must become aware. We want to use God’s name, but with reverence and praise. We need to return to the devotion of the Holy Name of Jesus.
CWR: Some traditional religious bow their heads when they say or hear the name of Jesus.
Bishop Burbidge: That was what I was taught to do as a kid, and I still do that. “…every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” [Rom 14:11]
CWR: What has it been like for you in the Diocese of Arlington?
Bishop Burbidge: I’ve been here for a year, and I thank God for sending me. It’s a growing diocese, young, faithful and vibrant. Our needs don’t require us to merge or close parishes, but to build to accommodate our pastoral needs.
I’m grateful to my predecessor, Bishop Paul Loverde, that I was able to walk into a diocese that was stable, in sound financial condition and with a great team of people. Now it is my job to build on that.
Where we’re located is significant. I look out the window of my office and see the Capitol, which is a reminder that I work in a place where people live who are influential in the world. As a church and diocese, we must bring our faith and voice into this environment. I’ve known Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, for many years. I have great respect and admiration for him. We’ve had discussions about where our voices can be brought together to face issues of our time.
Also, many people who work in Washington, DC live in our diocese and attend our parishes. It’s our job to equip them with the resources they need so that they may bring their faith into the workplace.
CWR: You are a former rector of Philadelphia’s St Charles Borromeo Seminary. What do you think makes for a successful vocations program in a diocese?
Bishop Burbidge: That was my greatest assignment. I loved working with our future priests. A successful vocations program must have several components, including:
- We need a culture of prayer for vocations. As a diocese, we must pray that we will be blessed with an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. In this diocese, we regularly pray for priests and religious.
- We need the example of good priests, who show their joy in living out their priesthood and invite others to this life. We also need parents who give a faithful example of their call, so that their sons and daughters seek what God is asking of them.
- We need programs to introduce our young people to the priesthood and religious life. This includes retreats, days of recollections and week-long summer programs. In our diocese, we have a successful St. Andrew’s dinner program. Young men in their junior year of high school or older are invited to come to dinner where they can meet me, and we can pray together, talk and participate in a holy hour.
CWR: Do you plan to participate in the March for Life on January 19?
Bishop Burbidge: Absolutely. I’ll be participating in a Life is VERY Good rally at George Mason University, which includes an evening of prayer tonight [January 18] and a morning Mass and rally tomorrow [January 19]. We have 11,109 young people confirmed to participate, from 50 dioceses in 26 states. Tonight we’ll have the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, music and speakers; tomorrow, we’ll have Mass. It will be a great way to start out the March for Life, nourished by the Lord’s Word and the Eucharist.
I’ve been attending the March for many years. I’m grateful to the older people, the pillars of the March, who have been doing it for many years. I’m also grateful to the many young people who have joined the March. They have to make some sacrifices to participate—the weather can sometimes be bad—but their presence sends a message that life is sacred. It bodes well for the future.
CWR: You were elected chairman of the Communications Committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops. Why is this role important?
Bishop Burbidge: I will assume this role in November. We realize as a conference of bishops that we have the truth—the teaching of the Church, the faith—and have what we need to address the pastoral and spiritual issues of the day. But what we always want to improve is our method of getting out that message in today’s society in a timely and effective manner.
CWR: Do you have any other news in Arlington you’d like to mention?
Bishop Burbidge: We were very blessed to have the Vatican grant St. Mary Church in Alexandria [a 223-year-old church] the title of minor basilica. I was pleased to make that announcement to the parish last Sunday.
We’re building a new campus for Paul VI High School; it’s the same school in a new location [moving 12 miles west from its current location in Fairfax City]. And, we continue to build new churches because of our growing population. This is good news, as building is a sign of growth, vitality and life.
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