He’s a foodie who buys locally sourced rabbit and pork at the Dane County Farmers’ Market.
He loves the symphony but rarely has time to attend.
He’s got a really big television.
Off the job, Bishop Robert Morlino is described by friends as easygoing and light-hearted, someone who invites people over for home-cooked Italian meals three or four times a week when he’s not traveling.
At a recent Farmers’ Market with a reporter, he fussed over finding the perfect tomato, landing on a giant one for $5.65. “That’s going to be perfect on a burger,” he said, twice.
He lives alone at the rectory at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, three blocks off the Capitol Square, where he moved in 2005 from the outlying Bishop O’Connor Center because he said he wanted to be “embedded” in campus and political culture.
Though he is sometimes criticized for allegedly having expensive tastes, his living room is furnished with a hodgepodge of modest, somewhat dated, furniture. A big-screen TV — 60 inches? — is the only nod to modernity.
A picture of Morlino with his paternal grandmother, Mary Morlino, holds a place of honor next to his favorite rocker. She died in 1995 at age 96 and was his only remaining immediate family member.
An only child, the bishop lost his mother, a registered nurse, 33 years ago, in 1980. His father, a civil engineer, died of a heart ailment when Morlino was 16.
“‘Grams’ is all he had — no sisters, no brothers, no aunts, no uncles, no one,” said Chris DiMattio, 47, a family friend in suburban Scranton, Pa., where Morlino was raised. “She was so proud of him. She watched over him like his mother. At meals she’d say, ‘Oh, Bobby, don’t eat too much of this, and don’t drink too much of that.’”
Morlino credits his mother and grandmother with instilling in him the idea of becoming a priest.
He went on to earn numerous degrees, including a doctorate in moral theology from Gregorian University in Rome. His first job as a parish priest was in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“He’s always been viewed as kind of a conservative guy, and that was the case back then,” said Steve Statsick, 44, of Madison, who grew up in Kalamazoo and has known Morlino since age 10, when Morlino was his parish priest. “He’s not afraid to tell the truth, and that’s been his style his entire life. He’s not a populist.”
In 1999, Morlino was just getting ready to start a full-time faculty appointment at a seminary — a teaching job he greatly anticipated — when a call from Rome stunned him. He was told to head to Montana, to be bishop of the Helena Catholic Diocese.
“He was always well-loved here,” said Bob Fishman, 51, of Helena, a host on EWTN, the Catholic television network, who was a church layman when he got to know Morlino. “Helena is more conservative. He didn’t make any controversial moves.”
Morlino was so convinced he’d remain in Helena he bought a cemetery plot. But just four years later, Pope John Paul II uprooted him to Madison.
Rome “wanted someone trained in moral theology and bioethics to be able to enter into a conversation with the medical community in Madison, especially on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research,” Morlino said.
He loves Madison, he said, even when it doesn’t love him back.
“I take my joy in trying to please God,” he said. “Whether or not I please anyone else is quite secondary.”