Rev. Robert C. Morlino, 71, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison, died at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison Saturday night.
Morlino was the Bishop of Madison for 15 years, a period of significant change in the Catholic Church in Southwest Wisconsin and specifically Platteville.
During Morlino’s term as bishop, St. Mary School in Platteville closed in 2012 and then reopened earlier this year. Priests from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest were installed in several Southwest Wisconsin churches, including St. Mary and St. Augustine University Parish. A student housing building targeted at Catholic students opened on the St. Augustine grounds.
Rev. James Bartylla, vicar general of the diocese, will be in charge of the diocese until a new bishop is chosen. Bartylla was chosen by the diocese’s College of Consultors, a group of nine priests, as the diocesan administrator, according to an announcement from the diocese.
Bartylla previously served at Immaculate Conception in Kieler, St. Joseph in Sinsinawa, St. John in Patch Grove and St. Mary in Bloomington.
Morlino’s funeral will be at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Madison Tuesday at 11 a.m. Rev. Jerome Listecki, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, will preside.
Morlino will be buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Madison.
Morlino was undergoing planned medical tests when he had a “cardiac event” Wednesday. The announcement of Morlino’s illness was made Friday.
By Saturday evening, a statement from Bartylla said “matters have continued to turn for the worst and it is likely that our hope lays in a miracle at this point. In particular, we are asking for the miraculous intercession of Ven. Samuel Mazzuchelli,” who opened numerous Catholic churches in Southwest Wisconsin, including St. Mary’s.
Morlino died Saturday at 9:15 p.m., according to the diocese.
Morlino was the bishop of the Diocese of Helena, Mont., when Pope John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Madison in 2003.
According to a diocesan statement, Morlino sought to “increase the number and quality of the men ordained to the diocesan priesthood; to instill a greater sense of reverence throughout the entire diocese, especially through our worship of God, celebrated in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and to challenge Catholic institutions in the diocese to live out their professed faith in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, through their ministry in the secular community.”
The statement said Morlino “ordained 40 men to the priesthood, with another 24 presently in formation” and “made significant inroads toward encouraging the Catholic institutions in his care to live out their mission with greater fidelity, during his 15-plus years as Bishop of Madison. We pray this continues.”
Nine of the diocese’s priests are members of the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest, according to the diocese’s online directory of clergy, including Rev. John Blewett, pastor at St. Mary’s, and Rev. John Del Priore, parochial administrator of St. Augustine University Parish.
Morlino thanked the society at a Mass celebrating St. Mary’s 175th anniversary in October 2017, saying, “The Society of Jesus Christ has made a tremendous contribution, at great cost sometimes, so that our diocese can maintain our parishes.”
After the first SJS priest was installed at St. Mary’s in 2010, about 40 percent of parishioners signed a petition to remove the order’s priests, according to a 2012 Wisconsin State Journal story. A fundraising drive to purchase the Platteville Public Schools’ O.E. Gray building for St. Mary School stalled, school enrollment dropped, and the school closed in June 2012.
"It has been said that the only solution for saving the parish school would be for me to remove Fr. Faustino Ruiz and Fr. John Del Priore," wrote Morlino in a letter to parishioners in April 2012. "This would, I have been told by many people, ransom the school from those who are protesting and return giving to its previous level. I'll not get into the previous financial condition of the school here, and there is certainly something to be said for the lack of monetary support coming from the parish community. But, as evidenced by the very fact of this situation of protest and refusal to support the needs of the church, the deficit at St. Mary and St. Augustine parishes is of a much greater kind."
Morlino wrote he was confident that the Catholic faith is being taught in Platteville according to the proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council, "and that what remains are personal likes and dislikes, along with inflated rumors and gossip, some of which may even rise to the level of calumnious inciting of hatred of your priests, the faith, and myself. For these likes and dislikes, gossip, and hurt feelings, the Catholic faith is rejected and a school is closed."
Morlino presided at the ordination of three of the order’s priests at St. Mary’s in December 2013.
“Usually God allows temptations of a priest to get worse, not better,” he said. “They get worse because people place their souls into your loving care. … Never face temptation without Mary at your side.”
Morlino listed faults of American culture as abortion, same-sex “unions” and a decrease in religious freedom.
“We are not as Catholics in this country turning to Mary,” who he called “the only perfect follower of Jesus Christ. Without her we risk losing hope.
“When you preach, don’t forget Mary. Remind people that the Devil is real, in a way that’s peaceful, because Hell is real, and truth brings peace.”
In November 2014, Morlino went to UW–Platteville to give a talk, “Why Does Evil Exist,” to the Catholic Newman Community student group.
Morlino was greeted on his way into the Doudna Hall lecture hall by a group of protesters who held signs and whistled a hymn, “All Are Welcome,” that Morlino said in 2011 was inappropriate for Mass.
Morlino’s Doudna Hall talk lasted about five minutes. Then, after asking Platteville Journal editor Steve Prestegard to stop taking photos, he asked Prestegard to leave, saying, “Sometimes the bishop would just like to have a talk with great young women and men, but there are others who want to make a political battlefield about it, and it just ruins things for the great young women and men, and it ruins things for the bishop.”
When Prestegard refused to leave, Morlino replied, “If you’re staying, I’m leaving.” The talk was completed in the basement of St. Augustine’s without media present.
Brent M. King, the diocese’s director of communications, said Morlino “realized that non-students were trying to make something of the lecture that it was not — something political, controversial, or divisive. The camera disruption from a non-student took him aback. That’s when he asked that no unauthorized recordings or photos (not knowing who Mr. Prestegard was, or why he was taking many pictures). At that point all non-students in the room were seen as being together, trying to hijack the student event on the philosophy of evil.”
King said Morlino’s request “was made in light of the protesters’ presence. Given the volatile history of past events in Platteville, the bishop was attempting to salvage what was intended to be a positive learning experience for the 80 (or so) students gathered to hear his lecture. He thought that it was reasonable, out of respect for the intended objective of the evening and his being distracted by non-student designs to disrupt that objective. There were students who had expressed their intention to take pictures and record. The bishop had no problem with this. It was the fact that others were doing so, seemingly with the motive to divide and stir up controversy that he found unreasonable and unfair to the students.”
Morlino went to St. Mary’s in late October 2017 to celebrate St. Mary’s 175th anniversary.
Morlino said he brought “sincere, prayerful and personal congratulations to all of you, as well as the congratulations and prayers of the entire diocese. This is a very important church in the diocese in Platteville, [with] so many good days here” as well as “days of problems.”
Morlino thanked St. Mary’s previous pastor, Rev. Faustino Ruiz, for his work “in hard times and yet with great love for every one of you.”
Morlino called St. Mary’s, which began as a mission of St. Thomas Catholic Church of Potosi, “a house of God” since St. Mary’s opened as its own church in 1849. “Under the leadership fo your priests … you have been able to day in and day out … praise and worship God the father. … It comes to life through the faith of the church, the faith of your priests … and the faith of your forefathers and foremothers.”
Earlier this year after increasing activity in the Catholic Newman Center, Newman Heights student housing opened on the St. Augustine property. St. Mary School reopened six years after it closed and one year after its reopening was delayed by a year.
Morlino was in Platteville Sept. 12 to commemorate the reopening of St. Mary School.
Morlino started his homily by acknowledging “the existence of evil in the world, and the existence of evil in the church, but now is not the time to go into detail about that. It is time to go into detail about the victory of truth over falsehood, the victory of good over evil. The closing of the school when it happened was the work of the Devil — the Devil attacking beautiful families who [sent children] to the school, attacking these great priests.
“When the Devil hears that kind of happiness, holiness and hard work … he dealt us all a very painful shot when this school closed.”
The school opened Sept. 4 with six four-year-old kindergarteners.
Morlino said he “never had the least doubt that it would reopen.” But, he added, “we don’t think for a moment that the Devil has given up creating dissent in church. …
“We really have to keep up prayers and fasting” against “the Devil, who continues to be our enemy, about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.”
Morlino said the Mass was in honor of Mary, Jesus Christ’s mother, to “ask her special intercession against evil. We’ve got to pray for that special intercession every day, and we can’t afford to let our guard down.”
Morlino said the school “has to grow and flourish and thrive. … By the power of Christ , the victory over evil … don’t let the Devil take another [attack] at your precious church.”