Two stories about a great bishop

Two recent pieces about the late, great Extraordinary Ordinary, Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, tell you a great deal about the man, who was misunderstood by many – purposely in the case of quite a few.

First, there is a piece by Rocco Palmo HERE.   Included is this:

A late-life favorite of John Paul II – with whom he bonded over their shared Polish heritage – the bishop once noted privately of how, upon his transfer to Madison in 2003, he was told that “Rome wanted a fighter” in the secularist mecca, and that’s precisely what they got. Absolutely no one agreed with everything he said – he would’ve found that boring – yet whatever one made of it, the tidal waves of reaction only went to prove how he could never be ignored.

Still, the octane level of the quotes in print obscured the piece that made it work – the telling glint in the eye that his bark was far worse than his bite. In other words, even if Morlino’s zingers made it sound like he’d chew your leg off (if not both), in reality, odds were he’d end up cooking you dinner instead… and sitting down to eat in an open shirt, still wearing his apron – then running back and forth to serve everything himself – those meals were something to behold.

Next, there is a piece at Facebook by someone who truly knew him well, Mr. Kevin Phalen, who served in Morlino’s chancery for a long time.  There is an extremely important anecdote in here about the oath that bishops have to make.  Here it is with my emphases:

The Diocese of Madison lost her shepherd on Saturday night, and I lost a very good friend. I’ve known Bishop Morlino for just over 40 years, and I was his Chancellor, both in Helena and Madison, for roughly 14 of those years. I honestly think I know him better than anybody.

I met him at Moreau Seminary at the University of Notre Dame in August of 1977. I was new to the place, and he walked over to introduce himself. “Hi, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Father Bob Morlino. I’m a Jesuit priest, and I head the diocesan formation program.” …the cherub face, the constant smile… I stood up and took his hand, looked him in the eyes and said, “I’m Kevin Phelan, I’m a candidate for Holy Cross, and I don’t like Jesuits very much.” He laughed loudly, and I thought, “Thank God, at least someone in this place will get my sense of humor.”

Over the years I made him laugh a lot, and he did the same for me. I made him laugh on purpose, and he made me laugh because he was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. A lot of times he just didn’t know it.

Another old friend of his, Ed Carey of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, reminds me too often that he knew the Bishop before me. Ed was also a Candidate for Holy Cross the year before I got there. As an accounting major in college, Ed found himself in need, along with a few other new seminarians, of a crash course in philosophy. The rector told them to seek out the Jesuit on the 4th floor as their guide. Ed and the guys approached Fr. Morlino and asked for help. The way Ed tells it, Morlino immediately took a yellow legal pad and wrote out a list of 25 or so books, with the instructions to read one book per week, and then on Tuesday nights he would discuss it with them as a group. Ed insists that he read every book. I had a similar experience the next year. I certainly needed help with Aquinas. Fr. Morlino must have kept the list, because when I asked him for help, he had it handy. The same instructions: read a book a week and we’ll discuss it. I looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. He said, “You’re not going to read all these, are you?” “No.” I felt no need to lie. He took the list back and said “Fine, just come up on Tuesday nights and I’ll talk you through them.” It was a good plan.

I’ve heard rumblings over the years that the Bishop was mean to his priests. As a chancery insider, I can tell you that the charge simply isn’t true. He loved the priesthood with everything he had in him. That’s why at the height of the abuse scandal he was able to ordain over 40 men. Those men saw his love for the priesthood, and wanted to share that with him. It’s why he brought in the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest, and it’s why they came. Madison wasn’t on their original list. They saw the Bishop as a man worthy of their love for the priesthood, and so they came, and they stayed. I know of many priests in the Diocese who are beholden to the Bishop, but those are their stories to tell, not mine. But I can assure you, the guy was all about the priesthood.

I’ve heard people say that the bishop was arrogant. Well, if I’m being completely honest (I always was with him, so I might as well be with you), he could come off as arrogant from time to time. He was extremely smart and extremely well educated. But the truth of what some called arrogance was really more frustration. You see, for the life of him he couldn’t understand how people expected him to be anything more or less than a Catholic bishop. He was a teacher of the Catholic faith because he firmly believed that it was handed down from Christ to His apostles, and from those apostles to him. He didn’t change the faith because it wasn’t his to change. The faith belongs to Christ, the message is from Christ. Morlino knew he was just the messenger. That doesn’t sound so arrogant, does it? He wasn’t a man of his time, he was a man of eternity and unapologetically so. I can assure you, he was all about the faith.

I can tell you about the night before his ordination to the episcopacy. I had a front row seat (literally). The guests had all gone, and we were sharing a night cap before the big day. There were only two bedrooms in the Bishop’s house, so I was the only one there. He started crying. Honestly, I’m uncomfortable with displays of emotion, but the longer I was with him, the better I did. Trying to read his mind, I told him that I was certain his dad, his mom, and of course his granny were all looking down from heaven with big smiles on their faces. He called me an idiot. “Well then why the hell are you crying,” I fired back? He replied, “You were in the chapel with me today. You knelt there while the Nuncio administered the oath. Did you not understand the words?!” “THEY WERE IN LATIN. OF COURSE I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND THEM!” He actually thought that was funny, and it broke some of the tension, but he turned serious again as he explained that the oath basically obliges him, at the risk of losing his soul, to teach the Catholic faith, the true Catholic faith, and only the Catholic faith. For those offended by him for not being more negotiable in interpreting the faith, I can assure you that he firmly believed that if he couldn’t save his own soul, he probably wouldn’t be all that helpful with anyone else’s. I can assure you, the guy was all about the salvation of souls.

I have a million stories of the bishop. In the next week or so, I’ll be with his friends both old and new. There is no family; he was the last in his line; there will be no more. I’ll close by saying something that is terrible theology and will probably surprise you. I don’t believe that Bishop Morlino is in heaven. He would often joke that when he got to the pearly gates, good St. Peter would hand him the keys to Purgatory and point the way, telling him to turn off the lights and lock the door when he left. But I don’t think the Bishop is in Purgatory either. As I mentioned, I think I know him better than anybody, and my best guess is that he’s exactly where he wants to be – standing before the gates of Hell, with his promise cross in one hand and sacred scriptures in the other, shouting the Gospel into the darkness with all the formidable strength of his younger days; in the hopes that he can get just one more lost, lonely, and beleaguered sinner to turn around, look into the face of the Risen Lord and say “YES.” I think I mentioned that he was all about saving souls; and I knew him better than anybody.

Kevin is a great guy, whom I met when I moved to Madison, with a great sense of humor.  His notion about the final state of souls at that of that wonderful piece leads me to suggest to Kevin – and he will understand this in the wry way I intend it – “Don’t quit your day job.”    Still, there is a point: Our Lord harrowed “hell” before His resurrection.  Okay, it wasn’t the Hell of final damnation.  However, if there were a bishop whom I could imagine saying, “Hang on a moment”, and then checking over his shoulder for one more soul to help, it would be Morlino.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. originalsolitude says:

    What a wonderful bishop!
    May he rest in peace.
    This post has spurred me to pray for bishops and priests more ardently.

  2. Elizabeth D says:

    I saw Fr Z’s next door neighbor is elected unanimously to be the administrator. That is the feeling in the diocese for years about who is the right successor to Bishop Morlino and have had repeated conversations about that over the years. I am going to tell the nuncio so, that Pope Francis could not go wrong appointing this man.


  3. discipulus says:

    Rest in peace +Morlino.

    Although this may be off topic, please pray for whomsoever will be my next bishop. The appointment will reportedly drop tomorrow.

  4. Kathleen10 says:

    How blessed you all were to know him and benefit from him. Many will never know such a man. I would like to offer my sincere condolences to all of his family and friends, and by family I mean those who were so close to him he was family. I know you held him in the highest regard, Fr. Z. I’m terribly sorry for your loss. It sounds like he was a good laborer in the Lord’s vineyard, may God have mercy on him and give him rest.
    The Good Lord seems to be calling home our very best men and leaving us with…well…never mind.

  5. Diane says:

    What touching stories. Thank you Father, for sharing them about Bishop Morlino.

  6. veritas vincit says:

    We could use a lot more bishops like him. Rest in peace, Bishop Morlino. Thank you, Father Z, for sharing the stories.

  7. Andrew says:

    Obligato parumper vulnere, audias laudes eius, cuius semper virtute laetatus es; nec doleas, quod talem amiseris, sed gaudeas quod talem habueris. (Hieronymus ad Heliodorum)

    (After treating your wounds, hear his praises, whose virtues delighted you always, and don’t mourn that you lost one like him, but rejoice the you had one like him.)

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  8. maternalView says:

    “He was a teacher of the Catholic faith because he firmly believed that it was handed down from Christ to His apostles, and from those apostles to him. ”

    What more could a bishop want said about himself?

    Bishop Morlino, pray for us.

  9. teachermom24 says:

    Two of my children had the privilege of visiting with Bp Morlino this past summer while working in Madison, one with Totus Tuus, the other as a canon law intern. Just a few brief encounters with him left a deep impression on them both.

    After the shock of the news of his death and wondering why God had to take such a good bishop when there are so many troublesome ones to choose from, I, too, had the thought, Bp Morlino will help the Church more from Heaven than Madison.

  10. Athelstan says:

    “…who was misunderstood by many – purposely in the case of quite a few.”

    In this vein, I was really quite astounded by the nasty, passive aggressive social media hit on His Excellency just hours after his death by a noted Catholic apologist – a new low even for him as he plumbs new depths in partisanship within and without the Church. Seriously: you can’t wait for the body to get cold before resuming your culture war against the man? Is this where we are now?

    It is a great pity, since we have lost a genuine shepherd with a real care for souls, a bishop who was *Catholic* in a way one seldom sees today.

    [The viciousness of the Left both surprises and fails, at this point, to surprise.]

  11. thomistking says:

    I have been surprised by how much Bishop Morlino’s death has grieved me. I live in a mediocre diocese with a bishop who’s attempts to articulate and defend the faith are sophomoric at best. I never met bishop Morlino and I have never even been to Madison, but seeing him defending the faith, celebrating the TLM, encouraging devotion to the Eucharist, and encouraging his priests to celebrate mass according to the mind of the Church was always very touching and was a hopeful sign. I will pray for his soul and for a worth successor in Madison!

  12. Pingback: The Oath: Every Bishops’ Aaron and Hur | Fr. Z's Blog

  13. KateD says:

    Oh, thank you for sharing these stories, especially Kevin’s reckoning that Bishop Morlino is standing at the gates of Hell turning souls back Heavenward. Powerfully good stuff. There must be a whole cadre standing beside him. We’ve lost so many good souls lately!

  14. michaelthoma says:

    From the Syriac/Malankara prayer for the beloved Fathers of our Faith:

    *Sel Bashlomo Aboon Sah’yo*
    *Blessed Father, Go in Peace*

    May those feet that cleanly trod,
    Keeping pure Thy holy place,
    Tread the courts of paradise
    And with angels ever abide
    Sthoumen kalos kurielaison (Stand well, Lord Have Mercy)

    God had created Adam
    Rested He and Looked on him
    And beheld him beautiful-His creator’s image there;
    –When the earth-born moved and passed
    –Through the trees of paradise, Angels wondering gazed,
    Seeing man exalted thus.
    Barekmor (Bless, O Lord)

    Son of God forget them not
    – Priests of thine who served Thee right.
    Grant them pleasantness of face
    – On Thy advent day sublime.
    Mor’yo Rahemelain oo-adarain (Lord have mercy upon and help us)

    Crowns are plaited closely placed
    On the holy altar there:
    Crowns will thus be set on heads
    Of those priests who’ve served Thee well.

  15. Semper Gumby says:

    Thank you for sharing these stories Fr. Z. Prayers for Bp. Morlino, the Diocese, and you.

    Athelstan and Fr. Z: The viciousness of the Left on social media is indeed surprising and not surprising.

    An anecdote. My sister emailed a month or two ago a number of tweets written by members of “socialist-Catholic twitter.” One young man tweeted a death threat involving, if I recall, a toilet. One young woman mocked an off-duty police officer who had been mauled by a bear because he was, well, a police officer. Another young man, apparently serious, tried to arrange a fight in a church parking lot after Mass. Another email during the Kavanaugh hearings contained a remarkable number of tweets by these “socialist-Catholics” that…oh well, that’s enough.

    Deo Volente, these misguided souls will see the error of their ways and put their God-given talents to constructive use.

    Catholic Leftists are entranced by theories that have been proven repeatedly to result in tyranny. Catholic Leftists believe that their theories are benign, that their “new” socialism is not the same socialism that was condemned by the Popes, and that any reasonable person should agree that Catholic Leftists “only want the common good.”

    What Catholic Leftists don’t recognize is that their beer-hall-thug mentality is quite apparent. Catholic Leftists are also, surprisingly but not-surprisingly, silent about the fact that it was Leftists who murdered 100 million people in the 20th century.

    Deo Gratias, some Catholic Leftists do grow out of that phase.

  16. mlmc says:

    Thank you for the stories-they a source of solace in a difficult time. We know that at all times the Church is blessed with great men & women, even if we are unaware of their existence-and the Bishop was one of them. I would love to have a copy of the list of the 25 books the Bishop wanted the men to read & even more importantly a recording of his “talking him through them”-that would be a treasure.

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