MADISON, Wis. — Visus non mentietur: “The vision will not disappoint.” Most Rev. Robert C. Morlino chose that phrase from the book of the prophet Habakkuk as his episcopal motto when he was installed as bishop of Madison. The nearly 1,700 people who gathered Tuesday for Morlino’s funeral heard just how much he brought that vision — the sure hope found only in Jesus — to the people he served across 44 years of priesthood.
“He was a true servant of the Church, and fostered his love in the communities that he served for that Church,” said Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, the main presider at Morlino’s Mass of Christian Burial. “So we will miss him, but we have that vision, the vision which he used as a motto — that vision will not disappoint.”
Morlino used the lesson of Jesus, as the only vision that won’t disappoint, to build up the Diocese of Madison, boost vocations to the priesthood and foster a return to the sense of the sacred, Listecki said. It showed prominently — and occasionally gave Listecki heartburn.
“His vision, he wanted it to be shared, so he was really a tremendous trailblazer for vocations,” Listecki said. “And I can tell you that I, as the archbishop of Milwaukee, used to fear every time I heard one of my men who were here at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, being invited to a dinner by Morlino. That was like a fly being invited into a venus fly trap. I used to tease Bob about that, saying, ‘Bob, quit poaching on my guys.’”
From his first days as the fourth bishop in the Diocese of Madison in 2003, Morlino made priestly vocations a central focus. At the time, only six men from the diocese were studying for the priesthood. He encouraged parishes to regularly schedule adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. He secured $44 million in pledges — nearly 50 percent more than the campaign goal — for a seminarian education trust fund. Morlino quietly set a personal goal to have 30 men studying for the priesthood within 10 years. Nine years later, the diocese had 32 seminarians. Morlino ordained 40 men to the priesthood during his more than 15 years in the Madison diocese.
“It’s the sense of his vision of wanting what’s best to be shared,” Listecki said. “And why wouldn’t you want to challenge young men and women to serve the Church when you knew that this was the presence of Jesus Christ being offered to you. We need young men and women. And I’m sure Bob would be able to tell us right now, he would stand up and say how wonderful that vision is, to capture it in your own life, and the God-given grace to share it with others.”
St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church was packed to overflowing for Morlino’s funeral, just one sign of the love the faithful have for their bishop. They came to the church on foot, in hundreds of cars and even in massive Badger-red motor coaches. There was so much demand for seating that some of the capacity crowd had to watch Mass on video monitors in the narthex. More people viewed a live stream at the diocesan center at Holy Name Heights, while a global audience watched live on EWTN.
Morlino died Nov. 24 after suffering a “cardiac incident” the day before Thanksgiving. He was at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison for scheduled medical tests when sudden heart and respiratory failure caused him to lose consciousness. By the afternoon of Nov. 24, it became apparent the bishop might not recover. He died at 9:15 that night, never having regained consciousness.
The Mass was very reflective of Morlino’s longstanding efforts to increase reverence for the sacred traditions of the Catholic faith. Mass was celebrated ad orientem, or facing liturgical east; at Communion, prie-dieux were placed around the church so the faithful could receive the Eucharist on the tongue while kneeling. (A number of churches in the Madison diocese have installed Communion rails to again make this a seamless part of Mass.) From the choir loft arose the beautiful sounds of sacred hymns and chant.
Mass was concelebrated by three archbishops and 14 bishops. Among them was Bernard Hebda, archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis; Most Rev. John Nienstedt, former archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis; Wisconsin bishops David Ricken, William Callahan and James Powers; Thomas J. Paprocki, bishop of Springfield, Ill.; and Bishop Paul Swain of Sioux Falls, who served as Morlino’s vicar general in Madison. More than 150 priests flanked two sides of the altar. Civic dignitaries included U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, congressional representatives F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Sean Duffy and Glenn Grothman; and U.S. Rep.-elect Bryan Steil, who will take Ryan’s congressional seat in January.
Msgr. James Bartylla, the Madison diocese vicar general, said in his homily he had a “very difficult task” — to follow Morlino’s one and only funeral request. Recalling a dinner the two shared some time ago, Bartylla said the bishop advised him, “Don’t canonize me.” Morlino made it clear he didn’t care for “celebration of life” funerals with nothing but uncritical prose. Bartylla said he would oblige, “my last act of obedience to my beloved bishop.”
“The bishop honestly thought he would be fortunate if he made it to furnace number 57 in Purgatory,” Bartylla said. “He said that, literally.” Morlino had human frailties, Bartylla said, including a rich diet of home-cooked Italian food and lack of proper exercise. “We lost him too early at 71,” he said. Bartylla is serving as apostolic administrator of the diocese until the Holy Father names a new bishop.
Bartylla described November 24 as a “beautiful day,” as priests, friends and two groups of nuns visited Morlino in the intensive care unit. “In all his helplessness, he looked more like the consummate churchman,” Bartylla said, “trading in his jeweled mitre, Roman chasuble, gold crozier (and) pectoral cross for a ventilator, surgical cap and a room full of monitors. But, with the sisters kneeling at the bedside, chanting into his ear and praying for him… it is a privilege to witness the power of weakness.”
Morlino was known as a staunch defender of Catholic truth and sacred tradition. His orthodox stances on abortion, homosexuality and the sex abuse crisis in the Church have been criticized by secular progressives and left-leaning Catholics. While the bishop was remembered for safeguarding Church teachings, he also had a warm, personal charm that more often than not won people over. Bartylla described him as a lion in the public square, but a lamb up close in person.
Noting the schedule of Solemn Requiem Masses around the diocese, Bartylla asked those in attendance to pray for the repose of Morlino’s soul. “He now becomes for us in death the apostle of Purgatory,” Bartylla said. “May he now be granted privilege from our Lord to preach to the souls in Purgatory the fullness of the Lord’s gospel and the sweet hopefulness of purification.”
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