"You just keep doing what you believe the Lord wants you to do, and who knows where it leads you eventually," Burke said during a recent interview in his Rome residence. "That's the only way I can describe it."
Burke, the former bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of La Crosse, was elevated to the position of Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in June 2008 - equivalent to chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Catholic church - and was named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2010. Burke is one of nine active U.S. cardinals and one of 179 cardinals in the world.
Burke, 62, was born in Richland Center and later moved with his family to Stratford. He was ordained a priest in 1975, was bishop of the La Crosse Diocese from 1994 to 2003 and later was archbishop of St. Louis from 2003 to 2008. Burke was active in rural life issues during his time in Wisconsin and often became embroiled in controversy because of his conservative positions. But he stood firmly by his stances and said he was simply sticking up for the values of the Catholic church.
In his new role as head of the Catholic church's highest tribunal, Burke makes decisions on specific cases and issues related to the laws of the church. He said it's not a glamorous job, but it's an important one. "It happens to be an aspect of the church that is not very pleasant, but it's an aspect of the church that someone has to deal with," Burke said. "I always say no one comes to our office who is happy, but when they leave, even if they don't get the decision they want, they leave with the knowledge that the highest authority in the church has examined their case and given them a decision. Even if they don't like it, at least they know they've done every-thing they could and they have a decision from the pope's highest tribunal."
Burke and a college of judges hear cases on Catholic church issues from throughout the world. The judges are all cardinals or ex-bishops. Burke is the only full-time judge in the tribunal. He sits in on every case unless he is personally involved with one of the parties. That hasn't happened in the three years he's held the position, Burke said. "The Mass and daily prayers have to be the center of your life, otherwise you would be crushed (by all of the issues)," Burke said. "You have to see it as a service of our Lord and his church.
"I always say it's a very humble service in the sense that it has none of the beauty of the sacred liturgy or the teaching of the faith, but yet it's essential because if the church doesn't respond to people with a just decision, how can you she talk about charity?"
Burke is no longer involved in rural life issues, although he continues to read and be concerned about issues such as large animal confinement, the health of food and the plight of small farmers. "All that is still very much in my heart, but I don't have the occasion to do anything directly," Burke said.
He begins an average day by saying Mass in his private chapel with the religious sisters who work for him. He has breakfast about 7 a.m. and walks about 40 minutes to work. The tribunal office is in the same place in Rome that it has been since the 1300s, Burke said. His job consists of a lot of reading, studying reports and writing, Burke said. He anticipates living and working in Italy for the rest of his life.
Burke said he returns to Wisconsin twice a year, once in the summer and a second time in early December. He said he tries to visit around the time of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 and celebrate Mass at the shrine he helped create just outside La Crosse. "The shrine is one of the best things that God did while I was bishop of La Crosse," Burke said.
Burke said he doesn't have much occasion to work directly with Pope Benedict, although he and the other tribunal judges had a meeting with the pontiff in early February. As a cardinal under the age of 80, Burke would be eligible to vote the next time there is an election for a pope. Only the cardinals vote and only a cardinal can be elected pope.
He said he doesn't know if there will ever be a U.S.-born pope, but he believes it is possible. "I wouldn't anticipate it any time soon, but I think it could happen," he said. "We've had a Pole and a German. For 450 years it was always an Italian, and we presumed it would always be an Italian. But now that pattern is broken, and good cardinals readily think of a pope being from other parts of the world."
Burke said he can remember "as clearly as if it was yesterday" being a parishioner at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Richland Center and later attending Holy Cross Seminary in La Crosse. "It just all happened very quickly," Burke said.
He said his life in Rome is "quite different" than it was when he was a bishop, but yet he's just doing God's work in a unique way. "Here I try to serve the universal church, but I don't have a flock that's entrusted to my care as I did in La Crosse and St. Louis," he said. "I'm helping other bishops and dioceses, but I don't have my own diocese. It's quite a different life." Eau Claire Leader Telegram