Local News

Catholic bishop on the move, on a mission

Posted July 22, 2009 6:04 p.m. EDT
Updated July 22, 2009 7:08 p.m. EDT

— Keeping pace with one of the fastest-growing denominations in North Carolina is all in a day's work for Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh – a 15- to 18-hour day much of the time.

Burbidge usually wakes before 6 a.m. and spends his first hour in prayer, often in a chapel in his north Raleigh home.

"For that hour, in this chapel, it's you and God," he said. "I try to do some listening because there are a few things God wants me to know."

Burbidge, 52, said he also believes God wants him to be healthy. So he spends a half-hour each morning on the treadmill while he watches the morning news.

"It's essential to me to have the hour of prayer and exercise before I begin the responsibilities of the day," he said.

After time answering e-mail, he heads to his office off Western Boulevard by 9 a.m., where his schedule is already packed.

A meeting with the Catholic bishop of Congo is followed by a working lunch with his clergy council and an early afternoon meeting with his lay council. Then he heads to St. Mary Magdalene School in Apex, one of more than two dozen Catholic schools in the diocese, where students give him a rock star welcome.

He presents a trophy to the school's lacrosse team, spends time encouraging students, signs a few autographs and poses for pictures before jumping back into his car and hitting the road again.

"Many times, my car is my office," he said, noting the diocese covers 32,000 square miles in 54 counties.

The schedule isn't what Burbidge envisioned for his life's work as a youth. He reluctantly entered the seminary when he was 19.

"It's kind of humbling to admit this. I did have in my mind I would go to seminary and try it for six months and find out it wasn't for me, and I'd get on with the rest of my life," he said.

Instead, he said, the opposite happened.

"It fit like a glove. It's like when people fall in love and know this is the one. I've never looked back."

Burbidge was ordained 25 years ago. He worked in Catholic schools in Philadelphia and in various administrative positions in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia before Pope Benedict XVI named him three years ago as the fifth bishop of the Raleigh diocese.

After his visit to St. Mary Magdalene, he heads to St. Raphael Catholic Church in north Raleigh, where he shares dinner with several priests and his predecessor, Bishop Emeritus Joseph Gossman.

The meal is followed by a confirmation service in the church, with scores of teens receiving a sacrament reaffirming their commitment to the Catholic faith.

The tenets of that faith must remain constant in a world dealing with issues like abortion, the death penalty, stem cell research and gay marriage, Burbidge said.

"It's a truth that has to be proclaimed consistently," he said. "We can't water this down. We can't compromise. We must teach clearly but with compassion."

Burbidge meets with some of the teens before the service, and interacting with them re-energizes him some 13 hours into his day.

During the service, he appears to be in his element, delivering a forceful sermon and smiling throughout. Afterward, he attends a reception and returns home by 11 p.m. – a 17-hour day.

Some local Catholics believe that, because of his talent, experience, energy and youthfulness, it won't be long before the pope promotes Burbidge. He said he's too focused on his current responsibilities to worry about the future.

"I don't anticipate what's next. I can't even think about it," he said. "I pray God allows me to serve and lead this diocese as long as the Lord wants me to serve as bishop."