WASHINGTON, D.C. — Taking over one of America’s front-line dioceses in terms of both the political and pastoral challenges of immigration, Bishop Edward Burns, named December 13 as the new shepherd of Dallas, Texas, has pledged to emphasize solidarity with immigrants.
Asked by Crux what he would tell immigrants who are fearful of the immigration policies in the upcoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump – who as a candidate had said that all illegal immigrants may be subject to deportation – Dallas’s new bishop underscored the importance of service.
“As the shepherd of the Diocese of Dallas, I want to assure them that we will do everything we can to help them and assist them. Regardless of the circumstances of how they entered this country, we will seek to serve their needs,” he said, adding, “…We need to be present to them. For us, it is the very essence of being a universal church.”
The new bishop of Dallas also said, “I plan to learn Spanish in a very short order.” He said he had seen images of that diocese’s celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “I look forward to being with them in person next year,” he said of the diocese’s Hispanic Catholics, adding that he looked forward to learning their language and their culture.
Burns also signaled support for the pastoral approach to marriage and family life reflected in Pope Francis’s much-discussed apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
The importance of the Church being there for people, and bringing Christ to them, is at the heart of Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), Burns said.
“What I find to be the genius of the Church isn’t how we keep people out, but rather how we keep people in,” the new bishop of Dallas said, adding that Pope Francis in that document is encouraging the Church to bring people to Christ, amid the complexities of marriage and family life.
“I think that’s the essence of what the Holy Father is saying, is (aimed at) keeping people alive in their relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said.
The Diocese of Dallas, where he will be installed as bishop on February 9, includes 1.32 million Catholics, about 33 percent of the population in nine counties in a 7,523 square mile area in north and east Texas. In addition to the city of Dallas and its suburbs, the diocese includes small towns, farms and ranches.
Asked about moving from “The Last Frontier” to “The Lone Star State,” Burns said at a press conference that afternoon that he would go from being a “missionary bishop” to serving a large, growing and diverse diocese.
“I am humbled,” he said. “The Diocese of Juneau has 10,000 souls. There are 10,000 souls in one parish here. I look at the vastness of this diocese, and I am absolutely impressed by how fast it is growing, and the good work it is doing.”
In an interview with Crux, Burns said the two dioceses have something very important in common. “First and foremost, I see people who hunger and thirst for a relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said.
In a statement, the new bishop of Dallas noted his new diocese’s diversity, and he promised to “be a shepherd for all people.”
Hispanics constitute about 40 percent of the diocese’s Catholic population, and its immigrant populations include Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese and Filipino Catholics, and a growing Nigerian community.
Dallas became the tragic focal point of the nation this past July, when a sniper killed five police officers there, apparently motivated by several well-publicized cases across the country of unarmed black suspects being shot and killed by police.
Burns told Crux that it is important to support and pray for “our men and women in uniform, especially our first responders. They do a phenomenal job.”
But he said it is also important for “our Church to seriously address the evils of racism and prejudice,” to help people of different races see one another as brothers and sisters.
Burns said religious and community leaders need to work together for the common good and to promote human dignity, especially to improve opportunities for decent wages and housing.
A 59-year-old native of the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Burns was ordained a priest for that diocese in 1983 after studying at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Much of his priesthood has centered on promoting vocations and supporting priestly formation. When asked about his own vocation, Burns said it became clear to him that “answering that call was the way in which I could live life to the fullest.”
After his ordination to the priesthood, he said, “I didn’t have my sights set on anything but serving God as a pastor” in western Pennsylvania, and he added, “I marvel at how the mystery of my priestly vocation continues to unfold.”
In 1999, Burns became the executive director of the Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. He served in that role until 2008, when he led the conference’s reorganized Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life & Vocations.
Later in 2008, he returned to Pittsburgh as rector of St. Paul Seminary, a post he held prior to his work at the bishops’ conference. The next year, Pope Benedict XVI named him as the fifth bishop of Juneau.
In an interview, Burns said he has been inspired by the example of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, with whom he worked as a priest when Wuerl was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988-2006.
“I had the privilege of serving in priestly formation (in Pittsburgh), and I learned firsthand the importance he placed on seminarians. It was important he knew the man he was calling to the altar for ordination,” he said.
“I served also as director of clergy personnel for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I will forever be inspired by the way in which he took special care for priests in need, any kind of need. He was there to support them, to pray for them, to care for them and restore them back to effective ministry.”
Later as a bishops’ conference staff person and then as a bishop, Burns continued to work with Wuerl, whom he said “is always on target with the teachings of the Church. He possesses a great grasp for theology and the need for effective catechism, as well as a phenomenal grasp for evangelization.”
Reflecting on what he learned from his friend and mentor, Burns said, “My having worked with him has assisted me in so many ways here, now that I’m an ordinary. He has a great administrative mind, the heart of a shepherd, care and empathy for all the people, and a desire to do God’s will in the Church.”
That respect is mutual. Wuerl in a statement praised the appointment of Burns as the new bishop of Dallas, saying, “I have seen the great pastoral care and spiritual leadership with which Bishop Burns has faithfully served the Church.”
In Dallas, Bishop-designate Burns will succeed Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who led that diocese from 2007 until this year, when he was appointed by Pope Francis to serve as the first prefect of the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Farrell was made a cardinal in November.
At the press conference, the new Dallas bishop said he had spoken with and thanked Farrell, whom he called “a great churchman” and added, “I am going to truly build on his good work.”
In recent years, Burns has served as chairman of the USCCB Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People.
At an April 2016 Ceremony of Sorrow held at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Juneau, Burns spoke in unvarnished terms about the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the United States, noting how some priests had “preyed on children and young people,” and how some bishops had failed to protect children “by covering the crimes of the perpetrators and minimizing the stories of victims who came forward.”
At that Alaska prayer service, Burns announced that the diocese would observe an “Annual Day of Sorrow” on the Friday following Ash Wednesday, to pray for forgiveness of the sins committed by the Church’s clergy and ministers and to pray for healing for anyone who has been abused or offended.
The press conference introducing the new bishop to Dallas included lighter moments.
When asked by reporters if he was now a fan of the Dallas Cowboys football team, Burns joked that, “Having received the appointment as bishop of Dallas, I am indeed a Dallas Cowboys fan…The bishop of the diocese is one with them,” he said of the region’s football fans.
But he confessed that his lifelong devotion to his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers might cause a crisis in conscience when they play the Cowboys, and he joked that when that happens, he may need to consult with his spiritual director.