John Knebels
Special to The CS&T

When he was known only as Mike Burbidge, he attended Most Blessed Sacrament School in Southwest Philadelphia before graduating from Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield in 1975.

During the fall and early winter, he would often accompany his father, a 20-year season ticket holder, to Eagles games.

After being ordained by the late Cardinal John Krol in 1984, Father Michael Burbidge celebrated his first Mass at St. Anastasia Church in Newtown Square. Fourteen years later he was named monsignor.

In 2002 he was ordained an auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia, and on June 8, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI named him the fifth Bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C.

But on a gorgeous afternoon Sept. 13, after he had been asked by the Carolina Panthers to provide a 100-word, ecumenical invocation before roughly 74,000 fans to commence the 2009 NFL season opener, Bishop Burbidge had one person in particular on his mind.

“My dad died last August,” he said. “We had a unique relationship, and I was thinking about him a lot. We did our thing together at the Eagles games and I have many great memories about that time. I really miss him a lot.

“So I dedicated the prayer to my dad. I didn’t say that during the blessing, but I definitely felt his presence. I felt that connection. I was saying, ‘Dad, can you believe this is happening?’ I was honored to do it. It was such a blessing.”

Of course, the irony of the situation was that the Panthers’ opponent just happened to be Bishop Burbidge’s beloved Philadelphia Eagles. Earlier that day, before an estimated 25 people in attendance, Bishop Burbidge celebrated a Mass in the Eagles’ hotel.

One person in attendance was Mike Dougherty, the video director for the Eagles. A 1970 graduate of now-closed St. Thomas More High School, Dougherty said that Bishop Burbidge, to borrow a sports phrase, “really stepped up” when it came to the homily.

The affable bishop displayed his trademark sense of humor as he detailed the experience, particularly how delivering the invocation “didn’t mean I had to pray for both teams to win.”

With Bishop Burbidge sitting in the stands wearing both priestly garb and an Eagles shirt that had been given to him by the team after Mass, the Eagles ultimately dismantled the Panthers 38-10; it ended up being a perfect day. Compounding the flow of positivity was how many Eagles fans adorned the crowd.

“Even the Panthers fans were very nice despite the score,” said Bishop Burbidge. “When Eagles fans started doing their fight song, the Carolina fans actually seemed like they were enjoying it. They were smiling. I thought to myself, ‘Boy, this is very different from Philadelphia.'”

While Bishop Burbidge said he sorely misses his friends and family, the change of venue helped him further understand what Jesus experienced throughout His life.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet different people and share your faith with them,” he said. “Just love one another and reach out to as many as you can.”

It was a lesson that he and his older brother Fran learned under the tutelage of his parents, Francis and Shirley, who had been married 57 years before his father passed away.

On Sept. 10, Bishop Burbidge celebrated his 25th anniversary of priesthood before a packed congregation at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Cary, N.C. His mom was one of the first people to greet him when he entered the procession.

Three days later, in front of a significantly larger crowd, his dad, like he had done during those two decades of Eagles games, would stand by his son’s side. Only this time, it would be in spirit.