The Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski has served since 2014 as the bishop of Springfield, Mass. On Aug. 25, the feast of St. Louis the Great, he will be installed as the 10th archbishop of St. Louis. Ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1984, and consecrated auxiliary bishop there in 2004, he is of Polish descent.
Born in 1958, Archbishop-elect Rozanski has two brothers, and both of his parents are living. He attended Sacred Heart of Mary School in Dundalk, Md., Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School in Essex, Md., and The Catholic University of America before pursuing his seminary studies at Theological College on that campus.
An interview with the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, who will be installed on Aug. 25, the feast of St. Louis the Great, as the city’s 10th archbishop.
Appointed by Pope Francis on June 10 to replace Archbishop Robert Carlson, who is retiring, Archbishop-elect Rozanski will arrive in St. Louis at a difficult time, as pandemic anxieties and protests against racism rock the city. On July 22, I interviewed him by telephone from St. Louis about his ideas for shepherding the St. Louis Archdiocese through these difficult times. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.
Your installation as archbishop of St. Louis will take place on the feast of its patron saint, a recent target of Black Lives Matters protests seeking to remove the statue of St. Louis and rename the city, prompting Catholic counter-protests. As you preach on his feast day in this climate of racial tension, what message will you send about St. Louis of France?
First of all, I believe St. Louis of France became a saint because of his dedication to justice, to taking care of the poor, to inviting his subjects to his table to dine with him. So St. Louis did a lot in his time for reform, allowing the people of France to know their king respected them, loved them and cared for them. So if we emulate what King Louis lived in his lifetime, we can find a way to work through, talk through and act upon these times of division and racial tension—all the ills of this day.
‘If we emulate what King Louis lived in his lifetime, we can find a way to work through these times of division and racial tension.’
You also arrive in the midst of a pandemic, with many Catholics agreeing that we need to be more creative about getting the sacraments to people when the second wave hits. What ideas do you have for fine-tuning our sacramental response if the St. Louis metro area shuts down again?
I still think we’re learning about this virus, how it spreads and how it affects people. I also believe we’ve learned a lot these past few months, thanks to our scientists and health care professionals. The time of closing our places of worship has been painful, because it’s kept us apart, but I applaud the way our priests and parish leaders have worked to livestream the Mass.
Now, knowing a little bit more about the virus—even though we don’t know everything—we can look at ways of bringing the sacraments to our people, particularly the anointing of the sick. If we take the precautions that have to be taken, especially for people in hospitals suffering from the coronavirus, we can be able to go in there and anoint. I think that was probably the hardest part of the initial outbreak of the virus: We didn’t know much about the virus, and it was hard to get into our hospitals and institutions. So I think if we take precautions, we can be more creative about how we deliver the sacraments, especially the anointing of the sick.
‘I was appointed under Pope John Paul II and greatly admired him for his sense of history.’
You’ve served as a bishop under John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis. What have you learned about being a bishop from these papacies?
I was appointed under Pope John Paul II and greatly admired him for his sense of history—not only the history of the church, but particularly his role in breaking down post-World War II divisions to bring freedom to the countries of Eastern Europe as well as his native Poland. He saw the evils in totalitarian regimes, called them out and worked against them in cooperation with world leaders to be successful at freeing the people of Europe. As a bishop, I know we have to grapple with where we are in the world and see how we can bring the light of the Gospel.
I love Pope Benedict XVI’s writings, particularly his works on Jesus, but also his whole history of great theological writings. Pope Benedict has taught me the importance of learning, leading and being able to critically reflect on theology. I think he’s done that in such a wonderful way; I still think his mind is very clear in the way he writes.
Pope Francis has taught me the value of synodality. I think it’s refreshing the way he’s called together the different synods and how he’s allowed the free exchange of ideas. In November, I was part of the region one ad limina visits. He spent two hours with us, listened to what we had to say, gave us feedback, gave us encouragement and gave us his insight. It was a wonderful dialogue; we felt very much at home with him and very much in fraternal support of one another. He also has taught us a love for our world, our ecology and for the poor. I call his work “The Joy of the Gospel” the Magna Carta for the church in the 21st century.
Francis has certainly worked to extend a spirit of synodality to the entire Roman Catholic Church, inspiring many U.S. dioceses to hold their own local synods in recent years. Where do you see synodality playing a role in the Archdiocese of St. Louis under your leadership?
I want to enter St. Louis as archbishop by listening and learning; I think that’s a very important part of leadership. I look forward to meeting with as many people as I can under Covid restrictions, especially with different archdiocesan groups, to hear their insights and opinions. Also, I want to visit the parishes to speak with people. So for me personally, I look at synodality as listening, learning and then planning together the future of the archdiocese.
‘I look at synodality as listening, learning and then planning together the future of the archdiocese.’
With the Covid-19 pandemic continuing, many Catholic schools nationwide have begun to close. As a product of Catholic education yourself, from elementary school through college, how do you respond to this crisis?
Just as we’ll have to be creative bringing the sacraments to people in the midst of the pandemic, so we’ll have to be creative about what we do with our Catholic schools. The pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives—psychologically, emotionally, financially—and we have to find a way of making our Catholic schools viable in the midst of all of this. It’s an uphill battle, but I think if we can work together within the restrictions we have for the safety of our children, we need to do all we can, especially to engender financial support. I think it boils down for many schools to the financial situation; we have dedicated administrators, teachers and parents in our schools, but we need to work together in this crisis to preserve the jewels that our Catholic schools are for the church.
Many people worry especially about the health of elderly relatives in the face of this virus. What do you say to your own parents when you talk to them on the phone about it?
I tell my parents to be cautious, to be careful. They have been very thoughtful in what they need to do to protect themselves. Their neighbors have been very thoughtful toward them and their condition in their life. I just tell them to use every means they have to prevent themselves from getting the virus. They’ve certainly curtailed their outside activities a lot since this virus erupted in March.
Who have been your role models, living or dead, in the Catholic faith?
As a young boy, I really admired St. Augustine. Even though I’ve always been a Catholic, there was just something about his story of conversion that touched my heart. Like St. Paul, once he converted he contributed so much to the intellectual and spiritual life of the Catholic Church.
I’ve also always admired St. Maximilian Kolbe, O.F.M.Conv., who exemplifies for me what priesthood is all about. In the willing sacrifice he gave of his life at Auschwitz, being able to step in for another who was condemned to death and offer himself, for me is the ideal of priesthood. Not all of us certainly are going to be called to be martyrs, but the sacrifice he showed is really something for us as priests to emulate in the self-giving of our lives for others.
‘I’ve also always admired St. Maximilian Kolbe, O.F.M.Conv., who exemplifies for me what priesthood is all about.’
How do you pray?
The traditional ways: I am certainly faithful to the breviary, the rosary and the daily Mass. I also love to read the lives of the saints and the church fathers. Plus, being able to sit and be quiet—especially for a parish priest involved in demanding ministries that a lot of time, it takes an effort to be quiet in front of the Lord, and yet those are my favorite times to feel recharged when I can sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament quietly; not saying anything, but allowing that presence of the Lord to imbue me with his love and care so that I can love and care for others.
What do you see as the role of a Catholic priest in this pandemic?
Based in the Gospels, Jesus brought healing to so many very difficult situations. So I see our priests in the midst of the pandemic as those who have to watch out for the care of their parishioners. We take the precautions we need when we come together for Mass and for any kind of gathering. And the priests in explaining the Gospels, particularly in homilies, need to give hope in the midst of this pandemic. We know it’s a very difficult time for everybody, for all different reasons. But the priest has to be a person of hope, sometimes in the midst of despair, when people seem to give up and everything seems lost.
Looking back at your six years in Springfield, where you’ve had some criticism as well as praise, what have you learned from your mistakes as a bishop so far?
Well, first of all, I’ve learned to take any decision to the Lord in prayer and ask him to give me the guidance of the Holy Spirit so I could do what’s best for his people. I make decisions consultatively with others, not in a vacuum, and I know in doing so I’m listening to the Holy Spirit and to those who advise me to look out for God’s people. I really compare it to being a parent in a family. Sometimes parents have to make unpopular decisions that might not be understood by everyone in the family, and they might be disliked for a while, but I think parents have to make decisions for the good of the whole family,
What do you want people to take away from your ministry?
My motto is “Serve the Lord with gladness,” and I chose that from Psalm 100. It’s a phrase to me that says if we’re serving the Lord, doing his will and bringing his love into the world, we need to have joy in our hearts. So I hope people will take away from my ministry a sense of joy in serving the Lord.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis right now, what would it be?
My advice to Pope Francis would be, “Stay the course.” He has connected the dots of the Gospel with the realities of everyday life: with immigration, racism, the poor, ecology and taking care of our world. I would say, “You are leading us in the ways of the Gospel and you are challenging us to live in those ways.”
Any final thoughts?
I will always, to my dying day, be grateful for my 20 years as a parish priest. I loved parish ministry. It was a surprise when Cardinal Keeler called to tell me I was appointed as auxiliary bishop. I objected by saying I had never worked in the chancery and he said: “Well, maybe that’s not a bad thing.”