UPDATE: St. Louis archbishop-elect Carlson aims for pastoral role

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 | 6:47 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — The Roman Catholic archbishop-elect of St. Louis, returning to a city where he says only a decade ago he couldn't get tickets for the pope's visit, pledged Tuesday to build bridges, listen well and work with Catholics and others to solve societal problems.

Robert Carlson — disarming, funny and emotional — was introduced Tuesday in St. Louis as its ninth archbishop. He was welcomed with a standing ovation in a packed archdiocesan auditorium.


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He appeared hours after Pope Benedict XVI named him to fill the post vacated in June by Archbishop Raymond Burke.

Carlson said that after learning of his appointment two weeks ago, he made a commitment.

"I'm going to pray every day that I love the people of St. Louis," he said. "I hope that's the kind of archbishop you want. That's the kind of archbishop I am."

Carlson, 64, is a native of Minneapolis and is in his 25th year as bishop, serving first in his home diocese, and later in Sioux Falls, S.D., before going to Saginaw, Mich., his current assignment.

"I've had a hard time keeping a job," he joked. "I thank you for taking me in."

St. Louis, considered a Roman Catholic stronghold, has been without an archbishop since Burke was named to head the Vatican supreme court in June.

Burke, a church law expert and outspoken preacher of church orthodoxy, sometimes was seen as lacking pastoral skills.

Carlson said he would be an active listener, work to build bridges among opposing factions, and visit every parish to learn its personality and ministries. He said he would reach out to civic leaders and people of other faiths to tackle poverty, crime and other social problems.

He said he felt "blessed by the appointment" and excited to work with St. Louis' priests, people and religious community.

He said he and others were working on a date for his installation.

Elementary school principal Deborah DaLay wept for joy as she left the auditorium.

"I've been praying for someone who is a pastor and a shepherd," said DaLay, who heads St. Joan of Arc school. "I love what he said about building bridges. I think he'll draw people together and build unity."

Carlson also made a strong impression on Dottie Herberholt, who works in the archdiocese finance office.

"He's very charismatic, charming, down to earth," she said. "It's just what we need."

University of Notre Dame theology professor and Catholic priest Richard P. McBrien said St. Louis Catholics may find Carlson more pastoral than Burke.

He said Carlson's elevation from bishop of Saginaw with 119,000 Catholics to St. Louis with more than half a million is an "interesting rise."

During his four years in Saginaw, Carlson focused on vocations, Catholic schools, service to the poor, stewardship and evangelization. In his time at Saginaw, the number of seminarians considering a vocation to the priesthood rose from two to more than 20.

Carlson, who once chaired U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committees on vocations and priestly life and ministry, said he plans to get acquainted with St. Louis' seminarians.

"Long ago, I pledged never to ordain someone I didn't know," he said, adding that the faithful deserve the very best possible priests.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said Carlson is well-respected by other bishops, a "multifaceted guy with lots of different interests and smart enough and smooth enough to avoid any major blowups."

Carlson was a protegee of the late Minnesota archbishop John Roach, former president of the Bishops Conference, who focused on social justice and fostered ecumenism.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all if he gets elected president of the bishops conference," Reese said.

Carlson said he was not among the bishops who publicly spoke out against President Barack Obama's election. Rather, he said, he asked Catholics to pray for the new president.

He said he doesn't believe in singling out Catholic politicians publicly on moral questions and denying them communion, opting to speak with them privately. Yet he sparred with then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, on abortion, and told Catholics they cannot vote for a pro-choice candidate and remain a Catholic in good standing.

He said that after a heated disagreement in 1997 with Daschle about an abortion procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion, the two of them met privately and exchanged letters. He said neither he nor Daschle disclosed the contents of those letters.

"If you're pro-life, you treat each other with dignity," he said.

He also addressed a 2003 report in the conservative Weekly Standard, which said Carlson wrote Daschle to say he should no longer call himself a Catholic in his congressional biography and campaign documents.

Carlson told reporters that the Weekly Standard writer had never seen the letters between Carlson and Daschle.


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