Juneau’s Jovial Bishop Heads South to Dallas
Pope Francis’ appointment of Bishop Ed Burns from Juneau to Dallas was one that has generated a lot of buzz this week as well as great excitement here at Catholic Extension.
The Pittsburgh native has distinguished himself over the years as one of the nation’s friendliest, most upbeat bishops we have encountered.
Catholic Extension has worked closely with Bishop Burns since 2009 when the oils of his episcopal ordination were still fresh and he was taking possession of his new post in Juneau, Alaska. During his tenure in Alaska, Catholic Extension provided $1.8 million to support core ministries and Church operations in this geographically remote diocese with an annual budget of less than $2 million. As a new bishop, we can attest that Ed Burns took on a unique and challenging assignment. Unlike the other 90 “mission dioceses” we support, Juneau has no roads connecting their nine parishes and 17 missions. All travel is either by float planes or by boat. About 20 percent of the diocese’s Catholic population is Native Alaskan living in “bush” communities, many of whom maintain a subsistence lifestyle. Needless to say, organizing an annual Catholic appeal under these circumstances is not the easiest task.
Undoubtedly, there must have been days when Bishop Ed longed for “Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie,” as the lyrics go in the Home for the Holidays song repeatedly playing on the radio this season. In spite of the inherent challenges of his diocese, one thing never changed during his almost eight years in Juneau: Bishop Burns perpetually wore a smile each time we saw him, and he never lost that contagious enthusiasm that has become synonymous with his personality.
Now, as he prepares to trade the dark winters of Alaska for the sunbaked summers of Texas, some people might be asking what preparation he has to move from a diocese of 10,000 Catholics to a diocese of over a million Catholics. It is a fair question, and it is one that was frequently asked here in Chicago in 2014, when Pope Francis made the somewhat surprising decision to appoint (now Cardinal) Blase Cupich to Chicago. Just four years before his appointment to Chicago, Cupich was the shepherd of the 30,000-person Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota which includes 40,000 square miles of mostly prairie lands as well as five Native American reservations. So what does the pope see in these rural bishops that has given him confidence to place them in the big cities?
We believe that mission dioceses like Juneau and Rapid City, beget bishops with a missionary heart. In places where there is poverty, marginalized populations, and a scarcity of Church institutions, the bishop is put through a beautiful and unique pastoral experience.
With few resources and a smaller, more intimate Catholic population, bishops really get to know their people. In mission dioceses, bishops have the ability to rub elbows with the faithful and become familiar with their hopes and dreams, sorrows and joys, as well as the realities of their lives.
Bishop Burns tells the story of a family coming to Mass at the nation’s allegedly smallest cathedral in Juneau. He noticed their teenage son was not with them that day. When he asked about the young man’s whereabouts, the parents told him they were unsuccessful in their numerous attempts to awaken their son from his deep adolescent slumber. “Call him right now,” Bishop Burns instructed. The young man picked up, probably assuming that he was in the clear and it was too late for him to go to Mass. But, he was startled to hear the bishop’s voice on the other end of the phone, “This is Bishop Burns. I really think you need to come to Mass today, so why don’t you get ready and come over here.” That young man probably thought long and hard before ever again considering skipping Sunday Mass.
In a mission diocese the bishop is shaped by the faithful. Thus their time in a mission diocese is a sort of pastoral formation that is guided by the people of God. Even when they arrive in the big city and their schedule becomes more crazed, the demands of office intensify, and there are more institutions to navigate, the pastoral core of the bishop remains the same. They maintain that missionary spirit that was forged during their time in the mission diocese.
Three years ago, in an address to papal nuncios, Pope Francis said that he is looking for bishops that are “gentle, patient and merciful; animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life.” These are exactly the types of characteristics that are developed and reinforced among bishops in mission dioceses, who more easily acquire the “smell of the sheep.”
In light of the pope’s ideal profile for bishops, might we begin to see a new proliferation of younger bishops from mission dioceses being given the nod to lead larger dioceses? Only time will tell. What we can say for sure now is that Dallas just got a great new bishop, one whose heart has been shaped by his missionary adventures in Alaska. This missionary spirit will serve him well as he encounters a new reality in the wonderfully diverse Diocese of Dallas. Congratulations!