Madison Bishop Robert C. Morlino was remembered at a funeral Mass Tuesday for having a deep knowledge of Catholic doctrine and representing the “bone marrow” of the Church.
Morlino “wanted to direct people to the truth” because he knew that is the path to Jesus, said Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, who presided over the nearly two-hour Mass at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church on Madison’s Southwest Side.
Nearly 2,000 people, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, paid their final respects.
Morlino, 71, died Nov. 24, after suffering what the Catholic Diocese of Madison called a cardiac event.
The Scranton, Pennsylvania, native was installed as the fourth bishop of Madison on Aug. 1, 2003, and soon became known for upholding conservative Church teachings often at odds with the more liberal flock he led. Morlino publicly opposed abortion and same-sex unions and blamed the ongoing sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church largely on what he called a homosexual subculture.
Monsignor James Bartylla, who worked with Morlino during his entire time in Madison, said in his homily that Morlino’s steady, deep maturity and knowledge of the sacred doctrine was in sync with Jesus’ spirit. That represented the “bone marrow” of the church, Bartylla said.
“Courageous and firm, jovial and joyful, even if not perfect, Bishop Morlino would always enjoy a good argument from his opponents, he might even invite them for a drink or a meal with him, very much to their surprise,” Bartylla said.
“However, he would not accept petty, ad hominem arguments that sometimes crept their way into widely spirited debates. He’d defend sacred doctrine without hesitation.”
Among the 17 bishops at Morlino’s funeral were the four other bishops from Wisconsin as well as Minneapolis-St. Paul Archbishop Bernard Hebda and retired Archbishop John C. Nienstedt. Also in attendance were U.S. Reps. James Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, Sean Duffy, R-Wausau, and Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, along with Brian Steil, who will take over Ryan’s congressional seat in January.
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Madison Police Chief Mike Koval also attended the service.
Bartylla told the packed church that when Morlino asked him to deliver the homily at his funeral it came with one simple order: “He said, ‘Don’t canonize me.’”
So Morlino’s loyal vicar general, who was elected to run the diocese until a new bishop is selected by Pope Francis, mentioned in his homily that he wished his boss had exercised more and had a stronger diet. That may have prevented him from dying so early, he said.
Bartylla also said that he grew frustrated with Morlino’s lack of interest in managing “day-to-day administrative things.” But Bartylla described how that frustration “melted away” whenever he tried to confront Morlino face-to-face. He was treated no differently than everyone else who had an issue with him.
“It’s the charming, jovial personality combined with grace in office,” Bartylla said. “That’s a powerful tool for a bishop.”
Morlino used that tool to achieve the goals he set for the diocese, including increasing the number of men ordained to the priesthood.
Morlino’s last official act as bishop was one “of mercy” for someone who had been critical of Morlino and the Catholic Church, Bartylla said. “That wasn’t unfamiliar to us,” he said in his homily.
Bill Van Wagner, 27, of Madison, who will be ordained as a deacon Friday at St. Paul’s Catholic Church, said Morlino provided strong answers to “heavy moral questions” millennials have been asking for years.
“I think a clear authoritative speaker like Bishop Morlino, who presented the message of the Gospel with this courage, but also with a great kind of a jovial spirit, was very attractive because it was instructive, it was helpful,” he said. “I think popular culture and secular culture offers answers that aren’t as satisfactory as the answers that Bishop Morlino gave.”
Morlino had been a friend of the Van Wagner family for years. Van Wagner recalled how Morlino, the academician, loved the challenge of debating issues most important to him with some of the greatest liberal minds in Madison and elsewhere — and how Morlino reveled in making statements that he knew would stir the emotions of his detractors.
When Van Wagner’s sister, Mollie, died from a drug overdose in September, Morlino was the first person outside of the family to call him. Van Wagner recalled Mollie’s death was hard on Morlino, too, because he often prayed with the family during Mollie’s roller-coaster journey with drug abuse. “We just chatted on the phone for 10, 15 minutes and he just let me cry a little bit and then he expressed his fatherly care,” Van Wagner said.
It was the last substantive chat Van Wagner had with Morlino. “I think it’s a good testament to who he was because he really cared,” Van Wagner said.
Sioux Falls Bishop Paul Swain told a similar story during his homily at a prayer vigil for Morlino Monday night at Holy Name Heights.
Swain recalled how Morlino was a source of comfort to him after St. Raphael’s Cathedral — where Swain was pastor — was reduced to ashes in March 2005 at the hands of an arsonist.
“He cared about me as a person and all the others who were involved, too,” Swain said after the vigil. “He didn’t let the sadness of it all get in the way of his relationship with me and with others even though it was hard for him, too.”
Swain also recalled how he went with Morlino to the Dane County Jail to visit William J. Connell, who admitted to setting the fire at the cathedral. Morlino “was a great fan of St. John Paul II, who visited the man who tried to assassinate him,” Swain said. “I think that’s a lesson that he picked up — that we’re all troubled, we’re all sinners in some way.”