Bishop Stika, Cardinal Rigali entertain in ‘Evening Chat’

Amusing dialogue gives insight into Church, papacy

MAKING HIS POINT Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop Richard F. Stika present their “Evening Chat” on Sept. 13 at the Eucharistic Congress, which drew a standing ovation from the audience. Photo by Scott Maentz

MAKING HIS POINT Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop Richard F. Stika present their “Evening Chat” on Sept. 13 at the Eucharistic Congress, which drew a standing ovation from the audience. Photo by Scott Maentz

Watch out Cardinal Dolan and Stephen Colbert, there’s a new Catholic stand-up team and they just might take their brand of catechetical comedy on the road.

Bishop Richard F. Stika and Cardinal Justin Rigali held an “Evening Chat” Sept. 13 attended by more than 1,600 people on the first evening of the Eucharistic Congress.

Not quite knowing what to expect, many in the audience were anticipating a deep discussion on the Church and the role of the Gospel in the daily lives of the faithful.

While there certainly was that, Bishop Stika and Cardinal Rigali also applied a lighter approach to the evening chat that drew frequent laughs and made it apparent that the bishop and cardinal play well off each other and enjoy each other’s company.

Positioned behind lecterns on opposite ends of a stage in a point, counterpoint style, the pair—facing each other—rivaled Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Stephen Colbert, who is host of TV’s popular Emmy Award-winning The Colbert Report and also a comedian and political satirist. They have developed somewhat of a comedic chemistry when Cardinal Dolan appears in public with Colbert or on The Colbert Report.

The Evening Chat began when Bishop Stika asked Cardinal Rigali about his experiences as a priest, including serving as papal nuncio to the island nation of Madagascar that involved ministering to lepers. The cardinal refers to his time there as “The Madagascar Experience.”

Cardinal Rigali joked that he was simply “minding my own business” in Los Angeles when he was tapped to go to the Vatican early in his vocation, then he was simply “minding my own business” in Rome when he was assigned to Madagascar, then was “minding my own business” in Madagascar when he was transferred back to Rome to work closely within the papacy.

The cardinal related a story from when he was a priest and given an assignment from Rome. His mother asked, “What does this mean?” And the cardinal replied, “It means they can send me anywhere in the world. For example, I could be assigned to Madagascar.” His next assignment was Madagascar, which drew an immediate audience response of surprise.

Cardinal Rigali described his relationship with Pope Paul VI, who took a special interest in the cardinal’s brother, who was dying of cancer at age 50. Cardinal Rigali said the pope took him aside as the cardinal was preparing to return home to Los Angeles to be near his ill brother and asked “how is Paul?” “How is his wife holding up?” How are his children?” “What can I do?”

“I was amazed. I thought to myself, ‘how can he possibly worry about Paul,” Cardinal Rigali asked, adding that the pope then offered a Mass for the cardinal’s brother when he died. The cardinal paused to figure the death date (1977) and looked to Bishop Stika for assistance.

Bishop Stika then matter-of-factly offered, “I liked history, not math.” The comment prompted laughs.

Cardinal Rigali’s stories were steeped in history and drama, gripping the audience, as he described life in the priesthood on the front row of papal history. He recalled with vivid detail working alongside Pope John Paul I, who served as pope for 33 days before his sudden death in 1978.

Cardinal Rigali told of being with Pope John Paul I during his last audience, 10 hours before the pope died.

“The pope looked fine. There was no indication he would be dead in 10 hours,” Cardinal Rigali said, remembering that the pope visited with him briefly as the cardinal was finishing some work, just before the pope was retiring for the evening.

“The last thing he said to me was ‘I have disturbed you. Thank you disturbed Monsignor.’ I said it is an honor to be with you, Holy Father.’”

That story prompted an immediate response from Bishop Stika, who wryly smiled and deadpanned, “Popes are infallible, you know.” Laughter again enveloped the Sevierville Convention Center ballroom.

“I think we should take this on the road,” Bishop Stika joked.

Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Stika have known and worked with each other for decades, with the bishop serving as vicar general and chancellor of the Archdiocese of St. Louis when Cardinal Rigali was St. Louis’ archbishop in the 1990s.

In addition to Popes Paul VI and John Paul I, Cardinal Rigali worked closely with Pope John Paul II.

In a more serious tone, the bishop then informed the audience that Cardinal Rigali was in John Paul II’s entourage when the pope was shot by Mehmet Ali Ağca in a 1981 assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square.

“The doctors don’t understand how it was possible for the bullets to enter his body in such a complex area and did not explode,” Cardinal Rigali said.

And in a dramatic demonstration of forgiveness and love, the pope later visited his shooter in prison and forgave Ağca, then befriended his family.

“He had already offered pardon to this brother of his. Ali Ağca had only one question for the pope. He only wanted to know ‘why didn’t you die? Why didn’t you die?’ He thought he had committed the perfect crime,” Cardinal Rigali said.

Bishop Stika proudly noted that Cardinal Rigali has served in two papal conclaves—the first selected Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005 and the second selected Pope Francis in March.

“I have two questions,” Bishop Stika said to the cardinal with a hint of mischief.

“First, who did you vote for,” the bishop asked, again eliciting laughs from audience members who knew that cardinals are bound to never discuss what occurs behind closed doors during a conclave.

“Even today I sneak into his room when he’s going to sleep and whisper ‘whoooo did you vote forrrrr…’ He responds ‘go awayyyyyy…’”

“My second question is what was it like,” the bishop asked.

“It was overwhelming. We were anything but alone. We knew the Holy Spirit was with us,” Cardinal Rigali said, adding that Pope Benedict was elected April 19, 2005, and the cardinal’s birthday also is April 19. “Once elected, the cardinals vowed obedience to Pope Benedict as we knelt in front of the Last Judgment painting. When I stood, he said, ‘Happy Birthday.’”

As the evening chat drew to a close, Bishop Stika informed the audience that Cardinal Rigali was with Pope Francis for 14 of the pope’s first 16 meals following his papal election March 13. In those first days, Cardinal Rigali relayed Bishop Stika’s request to the pope for a blessing for the Diocese of Knoxville.

In one of his first acts as pope, he presented Cardinal Rigali a written blessing for the diocese and signed it simply “Francis,” which is most unusual for a signed papal document.

“Do you know what it’s worth on eBay,” Bishop Stika mused, again to the delight of the audience.

Both Bishop Stika and Cardinal Rigali were greeted by well-wishers after their talk and given thumbs-up for their effort. It remains to be seen whether their show will indeed go on the road.