Every so often, you run across an article that sings. The Dallas Morning News’ front-page piece on the area's incoming Catholic bishop was one of them. And we're talking smack-in-the-middle, above-the-fold placement.
Having recently lived in Alaska, I cannot imagine having to move 3,422 miles from lovely, isolated Juneau, where bald eagles are everywhere and king crab gets sold from the city dock (at least when my family lived there) to flat, hot Dallas.
Yet, this is the fate of Dallas’ new bishop. And the writer gets to the story through an amusing anecdote that could have only happened via good reporting and interviewing.
The call came on the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Edward Burns, the bishop of Juneau, Alaska, was on a FaceTime call with a young man weighing a decision to enter the priesthood. A 202 area code appeared on the screen. It was a Washington, D.C., number, and most likely a mistaken call.
The 59-year-old bishop was busy. Recruiting young men into a priestly vocation is a significant part of his job. So without hesitation, Burns pressed decline.
How could he have known that ever since former Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell left the city in August to lead a new Vatican department, a confidential search had begun to find a replacement? Now, after months of research, Pope Francis had made a decision.
Two hours after the Face-Time call, Burns noticed a voicemail from the 202 number. He listened.
“This is Archbishop Christophe Pierre,” a man said in a French accent.
Part of Burns’ career had been with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in northeast Washington, D.C., so no wonder he thought it was a wrong number.
Pierre is the pope’s ambassador to the United States. The last time Burns got a message like this was seven years ago in a taxicab in Phoenix. Back then, it was to inform him that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed him to lead the Diocese of Juneau.
Burns was quiet. He sat at a dining room table. He closed his eyes. In a few moments, he would return Pierre’s call, learning that his next destination would be Dallas, a diocese with 1.3 million Catholics, about 200 priests and 70 parishes.
But first, he needed to pray.
The rest of the piece traces his life from his interest in the priesthood as a second grader to his early career in Pittsburgh heading up two parishes and the local seminary. A nine-year stint at the USCCB put him on the fast track for a bishopric. His first post was in Juneau, which is only reachable by boat or air and where, if one is a beginner bishop, any mistakes won’t influence too huge a populace.
Juneau was pretty small; in fact, the smallest of America’s Catholic dioceses. However, as noted in this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette piece, Burns had some powerful friends –- including his former bishop in Pittsburgh who is now Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC –- who had the influence to advance his name with the Vatican congregation that chooses new bishops.
So Burns wasn’t going to be a lifer in Alaska. However, a jump to one of the largest U.S. dioceses is quite a promotion.
There’s a few small things to suggest in improving the piece. First, the scathing letter by the sexual abuse victims group SNAP –- albeit mentioned by the Dallas paper -– should have gotten a bit more ink, as the group criticizes Burns for doing “nothing more than the bare minimum” in helping victims in the church. For instance: Why Burns didn’t post the predators’ names for the Juneau diocese, as 30 other bishops have done?
I would have also liked some reaction from Catholics in Juneau. Alaska has seen quite the turnover in bishops, as a new one was appointed in Fairbanks in 2014; Anchorage just got a new archbishop this fall and now Juneau is losing its bishop.
But I’m glad the article pointed out the incongruity of placing a non-Spanish-speaking cleric as head of a diocese where some 700,000 Catholics speak that language. At the very least, this underlines the fact that Burns had powerful friends higher up who felt that he had enough pastoral gifts to override the lack of Spanish. In that the press conference staged to introduce Burns to the diocese was half in English and half in Spanish, it sounds like Burns had better be a quick learner.
This passage was quite effective, on this crucial issue:
Burns’ framed picture was already hanging on the wall of the Diocese of Dallas building by early afternoon. He met with reporters, prepared with a speech.
At one point, he spoke in broken Spanish, ending his short sentence with an apology: “Mi español no es bueno.” ...
Following the news conference, he walked through the room to shake hands with as many people as he could, wanting to learn names, professions and personal stories. He made eye contact. He smiled.
A reporter from Telemundo approached, and asked Burns for a favor.
“You’re going to learn Spanish?”
“Sí,” Burns said.
“You have to give me the first interview in Spanish -- when you’re ready.”
Burns smiled. “Absolutamente!” he shouted, enunciating every syllable.
Now, he’s looking for a tutor.
The article showed a human side to Burns without the snark that sometimes accompanies reporting on Catholic bishops. In these days of tight news budgets, it might be a lot to expect that the News will spring for a reporter to travel to Juneau, but here's hoping future reporting on the new arrival will keep to the same high standard.
MAIN PHOTO: Care the website of the Diocese of Juneau.