Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bishop Carlson, tested elsewhere, faces tough issues as Archbishop of St. Louis

Bishop, John Carlson

Robert J. Carlson, the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw in Michigan, is greeted by Sister Mary Monica Wood during a visit to Our Lady of Grace Educational Center in Alma, Michigan. Carlson will be installed as the Archbishop of the St. Louis Archdiocese on June 10th.

St. Louis Post Dispatch: When Robert Carlson was in eighth grade, he was sent home from school one day and found a crowd standing around his mother. She'd been crying, and the parish priest sat next to her on the living room couch. Carlson's newborn sister had just died.

"Whatever he said, she seemed to feel better," Carlson said recently. "It was like God took a picture of that, put it in the back of my mind and then later brought it forward."

If the roots of his call to ministry began in the recognition of God's power in trying times, Carlson has called on that power time and again in his 39-year career as a priest and bishop. His church has asked him to do some tough things — deal with abusive priests and counsel their victims, discover new candidates to the priesthood where few exist, nurse an ailing diocese back to health.

On Wednesday, more than 50 years after he watched a priest comfort his grieving mother in the family's south Minneapolis living room, Carlson will emerge from the Cathedral Basilica as the shepherd of a half-million St. Louis Roman Catholics.

Because he'll be on a bigger stage and under a more powerful microscope in St. Louis, the challenges Carlson will face here may be even more daunting. Like his immediate predecessor, Carlson favors a strict interpretation of church law, though his style seems to be more pragmatic and attuned to political and public consequences than Archbishop Raymond Burke's.

Soon after he arrives, Carlson will have to take on issues Burke confronted, too: tension between the archdiocese and Catholic Charities; an unresolved battle over control of St. Stanislaus Kostka parish; and dwindling enrollment in the archdiocese's schools, to name a few. Then again, Carlson's had plenty of practice dealing with adversity.

In Saginaw, Mich., where Carlson has been bishop for the last four years, he has been on a mission to right a diocese the Vatican felt had fallen, tilting too far to the left after 24 years under a charismatic, liberal bishop.

"He's had his hardships," said the Rev. Eugene Tiffany, a friend of Carlson's from their seminary days. "Saginaw has been a tough challenge."

His personal life has been no less harrowing. Over the last decade, Carlson has undergone multiple surgeries for life-threatening bladder cancer.

"He's compassionate because of how he suffered," said Sister Jane Firestone, a member of the Sisters of Mercy of Alma and Carlson's internist, "and suffering can be transformative."


Both of Carlson's parents' obituaries mention their senses of humor, and the archbishop-elect uses humor to put people at ease, then draw them into deeper conversation. Friends say he does a great impression of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau.

"He has a great sense of humor," said Tiffany. "Maybe a little weird."

In a recent conversation, one of Carlson's doctors in Saginaw told Carlson about another patient who self-treated an earache using Listerine. Without missing a beat, Carlson shot back, "You should see him gargle."

Carlson is the kind of guy who would be right at home nursing a pint of Guinness and telling stories at The Tam O'Shanter or The Pride of Tralee. Indeed, the archbishop-elect is a raconteur; frequently beginning sentences, "Let me tell you a story..."

He reads a lot of novels, loves pheasant hunting with his three dogs, listens to bluegrass and craves grilled cheese sandwiches. Like any good Minnesotan, he's particularly fond of hockey. He admits to being competitive but says he's a better fan than athlete. "I skate like a 747 landing," he said.

In January, Carlson celebrated his 25th year as a bishop. He'll turn 65 on June 30 — just two days after a Vatican ceremony in which Pope Benedict XVI will officially recognize Carlson as the 10th leader of the Roman Catholic church in St. Louis since 1827.

Vatican watchers say it's unusual for a man so young to have so much experience as he takes over an archdiocese the size of St. Louis.

"This is a bishop who knows how to bishop," said Rocco Palmo, who pointed out in his Whispers in the Loggia blog that Carlson's been a bishop longer than his three St. Louis predecessors combined.

Carlson says he is a theological conservative but a liberal on social justice issues. His official motto — Ante crucem nihil defensionis — leaves no doubt about the seriousness of purpose behind his kind blue eyes and laughter: "Before the cross, there is no defense."


Carlson's father, Robert Carlson Sr., and mother, Jeanne, were married in 1942. He was 20, she was 18. "Everyone told them it wouldn't last," Carlson says. "But it did — for 62 years," until his mother's death in 2004. His father died last year.

Carlson's father was an usher at Annunciation Catholic Church in Minneapolis, and the family sat in the back row, near the usher stand. Friday nights at Annunciation were filled with youth activities. "It was kind of the center of our lives," Carlson said.

He played football at Cretin High School in St. Paul. He considered a career in medicine, but by the time he graduated in 1962, Carlson said, God brought forward that picture of the priest consoling his mother, and he entered the seminary.

"We never thought he was going to make it as a priest," jokes Anna Glynn, a friend since 1972. "He was too good-looking and smart. But he was always so dedicated to the priesthood."

Carlson was 25 when he was ordained in 1970. Within a decade, he'd risen to the position of chancellor of the archdiocese — akin to the chief operating officer. In between, he'd served as a parish priest, and his archbishop sent him to the Catholic University of America in Washington to study canon, or church, law.

He returned to the Twin Cities as Archbishop John Roach's right-hand man — and was about to face one of the most difficult challenges of his career.


When rumors of sexual abuse of minors by priests surfaced in the archdiocese, Roach turned to Carlson. St. Paul and Minneapolis was one of the first dioceses in the country to confront the issue, decades before it erupted in Boston, then nationally, in 2002.

Roach asked Carlson to investigate at least a half-dozen cases of suspected sexual abuse of children by priests. Internal church documents from the time and Carlson's sworn testimony in later lawsuits against the church show that one case in particular tormented him. Carlson had repeatedly tried to stop Roach from transferring the priest from parish to parish.

At each new church, the priest, the Rev. Thomas Adamson, attacked more children. Although Carlson became increasingly angry about the pattern of abuse, he never went to police, and he advised Roach on how to contain the potential legal and public damage to the church.

Carlson says now that he should have called law enforcement authorities — and he's learned from that mistake.

Indeed, when the clergy sex abuse crisis emerged nationally, Carlson was the bishop of Sioux Falls, S.D., and he opened diocesan files to the attorney general.

Carlson was 50 when he was installed as the bishop of Sioux Falls in 1995. It was his first diocese as boss, and he developed a reputation for creative fundraising. He also showed a willingness to wade into political issues other than the familiar Catholic political terrain of abortion and gay marriage. In 1998, for example, he asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate a possible criminal manipulation of hog prices that was hurting farmers. In 2000, Carlson headed a coalition that unsuccessfully promoted a constitutional amendment to ban video lottery in the state.


In October 1996, Carlson was diagnosed with advanced bladder cancer.

He had surgery in Sioux Falls, but at the urging of friends, he went to the Mayo Clinic in his home state for a second opinion. Doctors there found that the first surgery had not removed all the cancer. Another operation, two weeks after the first, "saved my life," Carlson said.

Carlson traveled to the Catholic pilgrimage site of Fatima in Portugal with some of his seminarians, who encouraged him to drink from one of the wells, believed by some Catholics to have curative powers. When he got home, Carlson said, his doctor was amazed.

"If I wasn't your surgeon, I wouldn't believe you ever had cancer," Carlson said his doctor told him.

Carlson, who is also a diabetic, has since had surgeries to remove other tumors, and doctors have taken out part of his colon as a precaution.

"I always say that God has really blessed me in weakness," Carlson said. "I've learned that I am who I am, that I do some things well, and I make mistakes in other areas."

"The cancer changed him," said Anna Glynn. "We loved him before and we love him now, but today he's in touch with his mortality."

Carlson said cancer changed his priorities. His career ambitions took a backseat, he said. Instead of spending so much time as an administrator, he wanted to be out in his diocese, among his flock.

"Once you almost die, you try to live life as best you can — not because you're afraid of death, but because you got a second chance," Carlson said.


Like Burke, Carlson has a reputation for recruiting the right men, and plenty of them, to the clergy. When Carlson arrived in Sioux Falls, there were few candidates for the priesthood. By the time he left, he'd ordained 50 men.

In 2005, after 10 successful and happy years in Sioux Falls, the Vatican moved Carlson to Saginaw, similar in size, with 130,000 Catholics — a lateral move that, on the surface, hardly looked like a promotion.

Saginaw was known as one of the most liberal dioceses in the country. To supplement its shortage of priests, Carlson's predecessor relied heavily on more than 200 lay ministers, many of whom were preaching during Mass, a violation of church law. Carlson put a stop to the practice.

When Carlson arrived in Saginaw, the diocese didn't have anyone studying to be a priest. In the previous 20 years, only 17 men had been ordained, said Mark Graveline, who, as Saginaw's associate vocations director, helped Carlson recruit clergy candidates. Half of the 106 parishes had resident priests, and some priests were saying Mass at three or four churches each Sunday.

Carlson made himself vocations director and got 40 men to enter the seminary. In four years, he's ordained 11, and 19 are still studying for the priesthood.

"When he talks to high school kids, you really get a sense that he wants to help them find out what God is calling them to do," said Graveline. "When he talks to parents, he realizes they have dreams and aspirations for their sons. He gives all of them a different perspective."

Burke left Carlson a robust, populous seminary. But on issues such as St. Stanislaus, Carlson will have to dive in and get dirty quickly. The Polish church north of downtown has been a headache for several bishops, and a lawsuit currently making its way through St. Louis Circuit Court means the dispute over control of the church could be resolved on Carlson's watch.

The archdiocese and Catholic Charities, the largest private provider of social services in Missouri, are at odds over philosophical direction. Since last fall, nearly a third of the organization's board of directors has resigned, as have its president and its vice president for development.

Carlson said he's reserving judgment on the issues until he gets settled in.

"One thing I know is that when you're coming into a community, the last thing you want to do is come in and pretend like you have all the answers," Carlson said.

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