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If there is one thing with which St. Louis Archbishop-elect Raymond Burke is familiar, it is creating controversy.

"I don't try to generate heat, but I don't mind taking the heat for my decisions," said the La Crosse Diocese bishop tabbed to replace Cardinal Justin F. Rigali in January as head of the St. Louis Archdiocese.

Most recently, Burke generated a wave of debate in Wisconsin by saying Roman Catholic legislators who don't toe the church's line on abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research and cloning should not receive Holy Communion.

This latest flap, however, is just one of a number of contentious decisions by Burke in recent years. Those decisions have defined much of his nine-year tenure over a 19-county diocese across 15,000 square miles of mostly farmland.

From his effort to build a $25 million shrine commemorating an apparition of the Virgin Mary to his pronouncement that Catholics not participate in an annual fund-raiser to feed the hungry to his taking control of Catholic schools from local parishes and consolidating them into unified school systems, Burke, 55, has created debate and sometimes dissension among the 200,000 Catholics under his watch here.

"He's a person of very strong convictions who acts on them," said Evangelical Lutheran Church Bishop April Larson, who considers Burke a close friend, despite their strong political differences

Burke is characterized by friends and detractors as brilliant, caring, compassionate and extremely faithful to the church.

"You can see when Ray talks that the other bishops look up and listen; they respect his intelligence," said Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, a St. Louis native.

He is also described by others as aloof and rigid - not to mention conservative, a label Burke says he wouldn't use to describe himself.

"I describe myself as a Catholic bishop," Burke counters. "I don't have an agenda but the church."

In fact, Burke is part of a continuing wave of conservative bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II, noted for their strict adherence to the policies and pronouncements emanating from Rome, say those familiar with the Catholic church.

Burke's bent is reflected in things big and small:

  • He has refused to grant local Irish-American Catholics dispensation so they could eat the traditional corned beef and cabbage when St. Patrick's Day fell on a Lenten day of fasting.
  • He ordered Catholics in his diocese not to participate in the annual CROP Walk for Hunger - led by the ecumenical Church World Service - because some of the organization's money was used to pay for condoms in developing countries.
  • He wrote a report to La Crosse Diocese schools suggesting that Harry Potter books might not be appropriate reading for their pupils.

"I think he is a very sincere person who wants to live by the Gospel," said Winona, Minn., Diocese Bishop Bernard Harrington, who has taken different positions on all those issues. "Sometimes his interpretation is the more strict interpretation, and sometimes people don't like that."

Following doctrine

Burke's supporters say that he is simply following church doctrine and the Vatican's lead.

"The teaching of the church is not something that he can bend to his own liking," said the Rev. Joe Hirsch, head of the La Crosse diocese's Office of Vocations. "I mean, what, for instance, is the liberal versus the conservative side of adultery?"

At the same time, Burke's passionate crusade during his years as bishop here on behalf of small family farmers has at its base the same tenets of respect for land and animals that characterize many of the nation's environmentalists.

Although Burke was born and raised in the area on small family farms, he never has been accepted as warmly as his predecessor, Bishop John Paul. He was born in Richland Center, Wis., about 50 miles away, and grew up in Stratford, about 130 miles away, before finally coming to La Crosse as a seminarian and priest.

Up close, Burke is a warm, approachable man, say those who have worked with him. But in public, they admit, he has a formal style that makes him less approachable than the previous bishop.

"With Bishop Paul, you could say, 'Bishop, come over for a drink,' " said Tom Wirkus, 70, a retired University of Wisconsin professor who once judged Burke in a speaking contest when he was in high school. "I wouldn't begin to say that with Bishop Burke."

While Burke's public demeanor has made him seem less approachable to some parishioners, it is his decisions that have caused consternation at times among those in his diocese.

Building a shrine

Aside from pulling out of CROP Walk, probably the biggest controversy occurred three years ago when he chose to build a $25 million shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Burke, who annually travels on pilgrimages to other countries, announced in 2000 that he wanted to build a shrine to a vision of the Virgin Mary that appeared to a Mexican in 1531.

The proposed shrine included a 350-seat church, a restaurant and a gift shop to be tucked away on 80 acres of rolling hills given to the diocese six miles south of downtown La Crosse. Burke said the shrine was an appropriate response to the pope's call for spiritual renewal as the church entered the new millennium.

All of the money, Burke guaranteed parishioners, would come from outside donors. None of the money would come from the diocese's funds.

Still, it created a huge schism, prompting the pastor of two parishes to resign. Numerous members took exception to spending millions on a new structure commemorating an event in Mexico. They argued that Jesus would be more concerned with helping the poor and suffering in society than with providing people with another place for prayer.

So far, Burke has built the shrine's gift shop, votive chapel and restaurant. The diocese expects to break ground on the church next year.

Much of the criticism over the shrine has died down, but deep divisions remain, some say.

"I think it made for some hard feelings in the city," said Lois Wirkus, who with her husband, Tom, was attending a noon Mass last week at the Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman downtown.

Burke created even more hard feelings when he consolidated the Catholic schools of seven cities in his diocese into unified school systems. A number of schools had to be closed, including 115-year-old Holy Trinity in La Crosse.

In the process, however, Burke dramatically raised the wages of many teachers by standardizing salaries.

"That is an example of his grace," said Larson, the Lutheran bishop. "He brought salaries up because he thought that was the right thing to do."

Burke also standardized tuition and curriculum. But the changes were sometimes met by mean, verbal assaults, including a child protester outside a school holding a sign that said, "How Do You Impeach A Bishop?"

"That hurt," Burke said. "Those things hurt a great deal. Anybody who leads is going to have people who disagree with them, but I realize that I can be misunderstood. I guess that's what's most hurtful to me, being misunderstood. And it's painful to see Catholics who dissent from the Catholic teaching."

An activist approach

Burke's approach appears to be one of more activism than that of Rigali's.

One example is his hiring of Arthur Hippler, 37, of Alaska, to head the diocese's Office of Justice and Peace.

Hippler has become Burke's point man for issues dear to the bishop. And Hippler said he knew he had found a boss that was to his liking after their initial interview and when Burke gave him his "marching orders."

His priorities, Hippler said, were working to halt abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research and contraception.

Burke said that while it's true that Hippler's duties include numerous charitable efforts, the ideological issues come first.

"The human life issues are foundational, fundamental" he said, "If you don't protect people's right to life, what else are you going to protect?"

Consequently, he and Hippler both cite, among other things, the church's pulling out of CROP Walk as a major achievement during Burke's tenure.

"I think that took real bravery to do that," Hippler said. "It showed he had the bravery of his convictions."

Burke also counts among his accomplishments the shrine, the improvements in Catholic education and a 400-page document that lays out the direction for the diocese in the upcoming years.

Preparing for St. Louis

As Burke prepares to depart La Crosse, he said he hopes that he accomplished what was most important to him during his years in the diocese here.

"I was trying to bring Christ to them, Christ in their teaching and in their everyday life," he said. "I've tried to teach clearly, especially in recent years. I hope that in some way, I've done that."

As for St. Louis, Burke said he knows he will have a steep learning curve as he moves to a mostly urban diocese not only larger, but dramatically different demographically from the one he is leaving. There will be issues - crime, race, big city politics - that he has not dealt with here.

"But it's really not going to be that new," he said. "These are issues that I've been concerned about for years."

General assignment reporter Ron Harris of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has written extensively about race, religion and politics.

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