A cardinal reflects on the state of the church


Following is an abridged account of Richard Smail’s meeting with U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature. Smail of Mays Landing, an employee of the Federal Aviation Administration, interviewed the cardinal for an executive leadership program he is taking.


I met Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature, in his office near St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on Jan. 24. Our conversation covered the role of the priest, the church and the challenges it faces today, and his own experiences.

I asked him about the most rewarding and challenging aspects of his job. The cardinal explained that “the most rewarding part is to be able to offer very direct assistance to His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, the Shepherd of the Universal Church.”

“That brings me a great deal of happiness, but it also involves the greatest hardship, in the sense that many of the questions with which I am asked to assist the Holy Father are very difficult,” the cardinal said.

Reflecting back on his early days as a priest, he stressed the important leadership role priests play in the life of the church.

“A priest is fundamentally a shepherd. He is a secure guide for the faithful and this is expressed in many ways, most of all by his providing the Holy Eucharist, confession, the sacraments for the people, and also by being a good teacher of the faith. He is also one who gives sound direction and knows how to discipline situations in the church when necessary.”

In discussing the call to the priesthood, Cardinal Burke explained that “one recognizes right from the start the challenge to be, at one and the same time, a compassionate shepherd but also to be as truthful as one can be, because there is no true compassion unless it is based on truth.”

He heard that call from an early age, having identified with priests serving in his home parish.  Throughout his priesthood, Cardinal Burke pointed out how he was “asked to take more and more responsibility, to study more and then, on the basis of those studies, to further exercise leadership.”

Our conversation then shifted to the current state of the church and I asked him what, in his view, was the greatest challenge facing the Catholic Church in the 21st century and how it could be overcome.

The cardinal believes that “the greatest challenge is a world which has become ever more secularized, a world in which the culture, the society, refuses to recognize God as the source of our being and also the source of the right order of our own life as human beings, the right order of our world.”

He explained how this secularization has manifested itself in many ways, especially in the evolving discussion about gender “in which man now believes that he can redesign man and woman, and marriage and the family and so forth, according to whatever ideas he may have.”

Cardinal Burke even linked this to the recent economic crisis in the sense that it “fundamentally goes back to a failure of stewardship, the desire to want always more and more but without taking responsibility for what one has.”

To overcome this ever-increasing secularization, Cardinal Burke strongly believes that the “liturgy has to be restored to its beauty and that the teaching and catechesis has to become substantial again.”

I asked him what advice he would give to those in leadership positions in the Catholic Church. He responded simply that they strive “to remain faithful in teaching the truth.”

He identified the Sunday homily as the premiere place for giving instruction and catechizing the faithful, but he also highlighted the importance of everyday conversations with the laity as well.

“We must be very careful to present the truth in its integrity, and also to identify with charity, but nevertheless, with clarity and firmness, thinking that is false, thinking that is contrary  to reason, and therefore contrary to the faith. And I cannot urge enough those in leadership in the church to give particular attention to education in the faith.”

The cardinal acknowledged that such education and catechesis has been thin at times and that this is evidenced in recent political elections where large numbers of Catholics supported candidates who were in favor of abortion, same-sex marriage, and other non-negotiable issues such as embryonic stem-cell research, cloning, and euthanasia. Cardinal Burke believes that many people favor these issues because they do not know their own faith well enough or may think that other issues hold the same moral weight. “Continuing to ignore these non-negotiable moral questions will destroy us as a nation,” he said.

I asked Cardinal Burke what role he believes the church has to play in the world as we move forward in the 21st century.

The Catholic Church, he answered, “has a critical role going forward and you can see it very clearly when Pope Benedict XVI visited our own country in 2008, when he visited Great Britain in 2010, and Germany in 2011, and spoke about the critical issues of our time. The people were absolutely riveted at what he had to say. Why? Because he is the world leader who is speaking of the truth, and that is what the Catholic Church has to offer.”

According to His Eminence, the Catholic Church stands as the “strong witness we need with regard to the inviolable dignity of human life, and the integrity of marriage and the family. And so the world is counting upon the church.”


He is very encouraged about the future of the church by the quality of young seminarians he has met over the last few years and their passion for preserving and promoting the teachings and traditions of the Church.  His Eminence also expressed his heart-felt compassion for the young people of this generation who suffer through and “experience the scourge of widespread divorce, of sexual promiscuity, pornography” and so on and how they merely desire the Truth.  He placed much of the responsibility to help these young people squarely on the shoulders of those in Church leadership.  “We have to help them through a good solid education, Catholic education at all levels, and then also by giving support and encouragement to the young people in their witness because they look to us for leadership.”

Having the opportunity to meet and speak with His Eminence, Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke certainly was an experience of a lifetime for me and one that I will always treasure.  As a relatively young member of the Catholic Church, having the chance to interact with and learn from one of the brightest, most humble, and influential leaders of our faith truly was inspiring for me and it is my hope and prayer that my experience with him, as captured in this story, will help to inspire many more young people toward a greater love and appreciation for Christ and the leaders of His Holy Church here on Earth!


May God continue to bless Cardinal Burke and the rest of the College of Cardinals as they meet to elect our next Supreme Pontiff!