One of Archbishop Robert J. Carlson’s fondest memories when he became Archbishop of St. Louis was when he walked to the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis from the cathedral rectory just before his installation Mass.
A large group of people with the Neocatechumenate Way, a Church movement dedicated to Christian formation, had assembled across the street from the cathedral basilica, greeting him with their singing.
“They were singing beautiful songs, welcoming me to St. Louis,” he said.
The memory still stands out to him 10 years after his installation as 10th bishop, ninth archbishop of St. Louis on June 10, 2009. He also recalled how warm it was that day June day — a bit of a change from the milder weather he knew from his previous diocese in Saginaw, Mich. And of course, he’ll never forget how he was received by the people of St. Louis.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “It was a joyous event. Lots of people. In the midst of it all, you depend on the Holy Spirit to be able to capture what this really means — a legacy of faith” in St. Louis.
In a wide-ranging interview, Archbishop Carlson reflected on several of his priorities of the past decade as archbishop, and what he hopes for the future of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. On June 30, the archbishop turns 75, the age at which canon law requires bishops to submit their letter of retirement to the pope. There is no time table for the pope to take action on the letter.
Education has been Archbishop Carlson’s number-one priority since his arrival here. In 2011, he unveiled a framework plan for Catholic education. Called “Alive in Christ!” the mission advancement initiative included 10 priorities focused on four goals: catechesis/academic excellence, evangelization, social justice and stewardship. Some of the fruits of the initiative include increased collaboration among parishes and schools, the establishment of a scholarship program and new approaches in marketing and enrollment for schools.
“Our schools have to be healthy to be Alive in Christ,” he said.
Since his arrival in St. Louis 10 years ago, 82,248 young people have graduated from Catholic grade schools, high schools and PSR programs. The Archdiocese of St. Louis is the 40th largest diocese in the United States, yet ranks seventh in the nation for total number of students enrolled in Catholic schools.
Looking toward the future, Archbishop Carlson noted a newer partnership model of governance in the archdiocese, in which parishes are cooperating with regional schools systems to provide Catholic education in the archdiocese. Examples include Holy Cross Academy, All Saints Academy and South City Catholic Academy. The goal of this model is to make Catholic education sustainable in the 21st century.
The archbishop also established the Roman Catholic Foundation of Eastern Missouri, which in 2015 launched the Beyond Sunday campaign, initially to raise more than $100 million to aid students from low- and middle-income families and benefit programs at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The campaign grew beyond the initial goal, raising $110 million to date.
Additionally, the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation, since its inception in 1991, has provided more than $100 million in scholarship assistance elementary school-aged children to attend the faith based school of their choice. It is now considered the fourth largest scholarship organization in the United States.
An area that has been a focus for improvement is faith formation of Catholic teens who attend public high schools. “If they don’t get some kind of introduction, they’re more than likely than those in Catholic schools to walk” away from the faith, the archbishop said. The archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education and Formation has taken measures to combine the efforts of schools, PSR programs and youth ministry programs, so there is more uniformity and better communication, he added.
Vocations to the priesthood has been another priority of the archbishop. When he arrived, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary had 115 men enrolled, a number that continues to rise. Next year, the seminary is anticipating about 140 men will enroll. On top of that, Archbishop Carlson has ordained 50 men as priests for the archdiocese since his arrival in 2009.
Among seminarians and priests in the archdiocese, more than 90 percent have gone to Catholic schools. That’s why the archbishop has made a more concerted effort to place part-time priest chaplains in archdiocesan high schools, which he said “is beginning to produce good fruit.” Also noted were the many opportunities offered through the archdiocesan Vocations Office, led by Father Brian Fallon.
The archbishop credited the seminary’s strong faculty, made up of priests and lay men and women. The seminary has developed an in-house spiritual direction program, has a formal affiliation with the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to offer a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology (STB), and re-instituted the yearlong pastoral internship for men who have completed their second year of theology studies, among other programs.
The archbishop credited the “dynamic team” of president-rector Father James Mason and Father Paul Hoesing, vice-rector for formation. Seminarians see the example of Father Mason, who often is the first person to visit the chapel in the morning. “They see that, and they know what’s going to be the lifeline of their own priesthood,” Archbishop Carlson said.
Archbishop Carlson also highlighted several life-related issues that have been his priorities, including abortion, racism and immigration.
In 2017, the archbishop established Our Lady of Guadalupe Convent just across the street from Planned Parenthood in the Central West End, the only remaining abortion clinic in Missouri. His reasoning for the convent is clear — any efforts to make abortion unthinkable are not to be accomplished by humans alone. The convent provides a place to help re-energize those who are witnessing on the sidewalk, he added.
“It’s about pleading with our Lord to defeat the powers of darkness and to help people in our country become people of life,” Archbishop Carlson said. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in the business of the clinic. We know that every life is precious, and in the very early words of the Bible, every person is made in the image of God.”
When he arrived in 2009, the archbishop also established the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Fund, which helps relieve the burdens of expectant parents and those who have recently given birth under challenging circumstances. Since its inception, the fund has distributed tens of thousands of dollars to help parents in need.
Racism is another important life issue for the Archbishop. With the 2014 officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, racism is a topic that has emerged to the forefront in conversations within the archdiocese. The archbishop has asked priests to preach on the topic, and other workshops and listening sessions, including one held in conjunction with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ad hoc Committee Against Racism, have been held in the archdiocese.
“This is an issue the reflects on the dignity of the human person,” the archbishop said. “There are some people who don’t think it exists, but after having sat down and listened to the stories, I can say that it exists.”
Archbishop Carlson also has been strong on the topic of immigration. While he said our country has the right to protect its borders, “both parties in Congress have failed to come up with a policy that respects the dignity of people who seek to come here and that gives them a path forward.” The problem is only going to get worse without a solution in place, he added.
>> Archbishop Carlson: Ten years in St. Louis
In the past 10 years since his installation as Archbishop of St. Louis, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson has ordained:
50 men to the diocesan priesthood
80 men to the permanent diaconate
Sacraments that have taken place in the Archdiocese in the past 10 years
50,431 infant baptisms
10,210 adults received into the Church
56,713 First communicants
Catholic education figures from the past 10 years
29,856 children have graduated from Catholic elementary schools
30,279 children have graduated from Catholic high schools
22,113 children have completed elementary Parish School of Religion programs
Financial support in the past 10 years
$145 million pledged to the Annual Catholic Appeal
$110 million pledged to Beyond Sunday, a capital campaign led by the Roman Catholic Foundation of Eastern Missouri