Sunday, November 25, 2018

"The Mouth That Roared," Madison's Morlino Dies at 71

Even as the US bench is known for its fair share of bomb-throwers, it's an according shock that the most gleeful and fearless among them has been stilled.

Fifteen years into an ever-controversial stewardship of Wisconsin's capital fold, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison died late Saturday, three days after an unspecified "cardiac incident."

A month shy of 72, the Scranton-born ex-Jesuit was, bar none, the American hierarchy's ultimate provocateur. And just to be fully clear, it was a distinction he didn't mind one bit.

Assembling a full slate of Morlino's various skewerings would take the rest of the year, but among others that suffice to tell the tale, there was the Sunday morning homily in the midst of the 2008 campaign that turned into a spontaneous diatribe against Nancy Pelosi; his blast of the liberal anthem "All Are Welcome" as a lie unsuited for liturgical use; the early depiction of his wildly progressive turf's civic attitude as being "highly comfortable with virtually no public morality"; a Chancery clarification that could've been read as denying funeral rites to openly gay Catholics; the warning to graduates earlier this year that "your peers in this generation and so many others are running toward hell with much more enthusiasm and strength than so many mediocre people are running toward heaven"... and to cap it off, a decade-old academic talk that helped lay the groundwork for a Vatican inquest of the US' religious women.

All told, some would cheer, many would cringe, but the method was simple: to leave no thought unspoken. (That Morlino's diocesan column was always published with a disclaimer unique among the bench – namely, that his musings were intended solely for his own faithful and no one beyond them – merely reinforced the point... the warning, however, was usually honored more in the breach than the observance.)

A late-life favorite of John Paul II – with whom he bonded over their shared Polish heritage – the bishop once noted privately of how, upon his transfer to Madison in 2003, he was told that "Rome wanted a fighter" in the secularist mecca, and that's precisely what they got. Absolutely no one agreed with everything he said – he would've found that boring – yet whatever one made of it, the tidal waves of reaction only went to prove how he could never be ignored.

Still, the octane level of the quotes in print obscured the piece that made it work – the telling glint in the eye that his bark was far worse than his bite. In other words, even if Morlino's zingers made it sound like he'd chew your leg off (if not both), in reality, odds were he'd end up cooking you dinner instead... and sitting down to eat in an open shirt, still wearing his apron – then running back and forth to serve everything himself – those meals were something to behold.

The penchant for controversy hid something else, too. Given Madison's brutal winters, you'd think the day the locals call "Skin Friday" – the end of the first warm spring week – would see the college kids thronged in the streets and down on the lakes, not packed into a downtown adoration chapel at mid-afternoon... but there they were.

Indeed, well beyond recruiting a crop of seminarians that peaked at 35, some 40-plus already ordained – both stunning figures for a diocese of less than 300,000 – Morlino drove an uptick of youth ministry and engagement that would be a standout boast anywhere in the American church. And with the "living stones" already bolstered, last year brought the culmination of the effort: the dedication of a sprawling, almost majestic new Catholic Center on the University of Wisconsin campus (above), replacing a structure wrecked in the '70s whose baptismal font was literally a derelict above-ground swimming pool, its tabernacle a plexiglas black box.

For a bench that usually goes years without a diocesan vacancy upon a bishop's death, the opening of the Wisconsin post is the US' third to occur within four months following its ordinary's sudden illness – in July, Bishop Richard Garcia of Monterey died at 71 after a weeks-long bout with early-onset Alzheimer's, while Saginaw's Bishop Joseph Cistone succumbed in mid-October at 69 to what was thought to be a mild, easily treatable lung cancer.

There will be a time to talk the Madison succession, and this isn't it. For now, it nonetheless bears noting that the void in Morlino's wake adds yet another challenging personnel-choice on top of a docket already brimming with them... but considering the unique state of the diocese the big man leaves behind – one which, among other aspects, hasn't had a cathedral since St Raphael's burned to the ground in 2006 – who takes his place in the "People's Republic" might just be the most fascinating pick of all.

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As a boy in Scranton, Morlino once told a friend that he was taught to be faithful to three institutions in life: "The Church, The New York Yankees – and The Republican Party."

Much as that was a private remark, per usual, it was one he left few illusions about in the open...

...but this scribe knows the line as he said it to me.

Practically from the beginning of the Whispers experience, Madison's fourth bishop has been a devoted friend, confidant – and, as you can well imagine, one of the greatest "quote machines" a beat-writer ever could've dreamt to have.

(In just one of a million priceless examples, while walking into the election that would see Tim Dolan shatter precedent to win the USCCB Presidency, I threw my arm around Morlino and asked him to predict the outcome, which sprung this reply: "I don't know what's gonna happen, but I'm gonna make like Chicago today – vote early and VOTE OFTEN!"

(...and because we can't help ourselves, on another vivid front, while going through the morning papers with the bishop during a visit to Badger Nation, one of the day's headlines – what could've been termed his daily "hate-reading" – was Madison's decision to fly the Tibetan flag over City Hall to mark a visit by the Dalai Lama....

("Now, look, I actually don't mind that" – the inimitable cadence went – "I'd just want them to do the same thing for us if the Holy Father came here, which I very much doubt they would.")

Easy temptation that it is, the tendency to caricature the other and celebrate or demonize it on the sole basis of one's own views is one of the crimes of our age. When it happens in the context of a church, it's all the more a counter-witness – a sign that, far from heeding our better angels, we've imbibed the most toxic excesses of a secularized world. Especially as Morlino's champions and critics have lent themselves more to this dynamic over him than possibly any other figure in the discourse – at least, outside of the Pope himself – to measure the man solely on the basis of his shock value is as much a facile disservice to the truth as it'll be a predictable occurrence over the days to come.

Ever the son of Scranton – and woe to anyone who forgot it – the bishop once told me that the happiest act of his ministry wasn't any of the scores of ordinations, confirmations or church dedications he performed, no speech he ever gave, but when he was asked to be lead celebrant for the St Ann's Day Mass at her national shrine in his hometown.

Of course, part of that was the irrepressible local boy in him. But even more, the role spoke to a piece of his life more significant than anything he'd harp on in the public square: an only child whose father died young, Morlino was raised by his widowed mother and her own mother – the beloved Polish "granny" who was his only family for several decades after his Mom died, until her own passing at 99.

Given the mix of her role and his Northeast Pennsylvania roots, both Bob Morlino's "granny" and the Lord's loomed eternally large for him... and as this scribe's own grandmother reached her final years back in Philly, she found an unexpected adopted grandson in the bishop from Wisconsin.

Every time The Boss fell ill over her final lap, as soon as any mention would be made of it, without fail, Morlino was always the first to call promising prayers – and invariably had to be assured that, no, he didn't need to send flowers. Once recovered, she'd get on the phone with him from her nursing home... yet most memorably of all, the one time he made it through town during that stretch, nothing could keep the Midwestern prelate from barreling through her door to exclaim, "Hello, Granny!" just as if he had come home.

Indeed, loved as she was by no shortage of this crowd, Morlino was the only bishop who met Boss before we lost her six years ago... and the mental snapshot of the two lions – both as frequently misunderstood as they were stubbornly faithful (or, sometimes, just faithfully stubborn) – simply basking in each other is as unforgettable a moment as it sounds.

As we left her that day, Boss told Morlino – much like him, in no uncertain terms – "Faddah, I gotta get outta here and go home so I can make you dinner." In that light, shocking and difficult as this loss is, that he would be taken in the week of her birthday, on the calendar's ultimate feast of triumph (not to mention, given his lifelong affinity for Notre Dame, as a come-from-behind Irish win over USC unfolded) makes for a comfort of the kind only Providence can give.

Still, though his long-awaited banquet has come due too soon, as our dear bishop-brother returns to his "granny" and mine, Morlino and his twin specialties – his osso bucco... and no shortage of the most raucous lines any of us will ever hear – will be missed beyond all telling.

May the angels lead him into Paradise, and may his spirit of fortitude and friendship be ours as we strive ahead.