The media will certainly have its varied narratives when discussing Raymond Cardinal Burke, but I have known him to be a simple and generous servant of the Lord, humble and warm to everyone he meets. I write this reflection after reading news that he is now struggling to remain alive, and I recall an assertion by C. S. Lewis, who wrote that, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.”
I first met Cardinal Burke on the set of Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s “EWTN Live”– he was not yet a cardinal though he had already heard he would soon be made one by Benedict XVI. The crowd surrounded him quickly at the end of the program while he and I shook hands, and I recounted a story I had just heard while visiting the Cathedral in Beijing.
I told him about an old Chinese priest who had been buried alive by Maoist Red Guards because he refused to deny his Catholic faith. He was beaten and buried below a tree near the façade of the towering Gothic church, and the gardener there still attends to that spot in respect for the sacrifice of that holy priest. I wanted Cardinal Burke to know of the deep faith and resilience of China’s Catholics. He stood as if no one else was in the room while I told this story, and afterward he paused and said, “I won’t forget this.” I think he never did forget.
The next time we met was in St. Peter’s Square not long before Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. While standing together in the square we discussed the progress of my research, and he was interested in having a copy of my book on China’s Catholic martyrs. I sent him a signed copy (the book happened to be for sale then in the Vatican book store), and soon afterward I received a kind note from his eminence.
We remained in touch, and the last time we were together he met with a group of my students in Rome. He laughed with them and described his favorite restaurants and dishes in the Eternal City. I recall a powerful dialog between he and I while alone in the elevator in the convent of the Theatines. That evening he sat patiently with the Mother Superior and myself discussing the challenges of the religious life in the modern world. The sisters gathered around him to express their gratitude for his time and prayers. With those wonderful women he was a simple Christian rather than a prince of the Church. He was unselfish with his time when these sisters in Christ clearly needed his attention and advice.
What did we discuss in the elevator at the Theatine convent? We talked about the Church in China, and again Cardinal Burke showed deep sympathies with his fellow Catholics there. Without knowing it, he echoed a famous saying among Chinese Catholics, “海内存知己，天涯若比邻: “When someone from afar understands you, the distance disappears as if you are neighbors.”
When most people imagine this American cardinal from Richland Center, Wisconsin, they likely think of his love of the liturgy, his championing of Catholic belief, or the popular media’s obsessive depiction of him as an “arch-conservative.” And that is of course understandable. But to China’s often flourishing, and sometimes suffering, Catholic Church, Raymond Cardinal Burke has remained a friend, an advocate, and a pillar of prayer through his nearly five decades as a priest, bishop, and Cardinal.
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