The head of the Catholic diocese in Raleigh, N.C., has been tapped by Pope Francis to lead the Diocese of Arlington, a center of theologically and politically conservative Catholicism that spans 21 counties in Northern Virginia.

Bishop Michael Burbidge, 59, is replacing Bishop Paul Loverde, who is retiring after 17 years in the role. During his tenure, Lo­ver­de’s challenge was to keep the many conservatives among his 600,000-member flock satisfied while not alienating more-liberal parishioners.

The diocese — which counted Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia a member until his death earlier this year — required Catholic schoolteachers to sign “fidelity oaths” submitting to church teachings as part of a larger churchwide push to revive orthodoxy, a move that sharply divided Catholics. It was also the second to the last in the nation to accept altar girls.

Burbidge, who was born and raised in the Philadelphia area, is a cautious conservative with a Pope Francis-like pastoral touch and a desire to bridge divides, according to some observers of the Catholic Church.

Earlier this year, he published a statement distancing himself from the North Carolina Catholic conference’s support of the state law restricting transgender people from using restrooms of their preferred gender. Instead, Burbidge urged “another remedy.”

“The bottom line was no one should feel unwelcome,” said Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based writer who blogs on the inner workings of the Catholic Church. “That was very striking. That was not the governor’s line. Burbidge’s conservatism is cautious by nature.”

Burbidge’s move reflects the growing influence of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington, who has emerged as a leading force in reshaping the hierarchy of the U.S. church to better align with Francis’s call for bishops to dispense mercy and not to “take refuge in rigidity” or launch “vain crusades.”

In Raleigh, Burbidge had a reputation as a pastoral administrator who enjoyed spending time with church members and traveling to events such as Catholic school opening Masses and antiabortion prayer vigils. The Diocese of Raleigh stretches over 32,000 square miles, from the center of the state to the Outer Banks. The Diocese of Arlington, while populous, is only a fifth that size.

The Rev. Michael Clay, associate dean for seminary and ministerial studies at Catholic University, served as a priest in the Diocese of Raleigh under Burbidge. Clay said he expects the extroverted Burbidge to be highly engaged with people.

“He has boundless energy,” he said. “He’s not the kind of person who would be sitting behind a desk.”

When he arrived in Raleigh, Burbidge did not know how to speak Spanish, but he worked with a tutor every week to learn the language and now can celebrate Mass in Spanish, Clay said.

Burbidge spent much time with North Carolina’s prominent Hispanic community, which is heavily Catholic. The Arlington diocese also has a growing Hispanic population, and Catholic Charities there is the largest nongovernmental provider of services for immigrants and refugees.

Before his appointment in Raleigh, Burbidge served as the rector of Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and was named an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

Burbidge was popular during his time in Philadelphia, Palmo said — so much so that he would sometimes go incognito to the Jersey Shore with his family, wearing a hat and sunglasses so he could have time away.

Burbidge said he plans to continue some of the priorities of his predecessor, focusing on evangelization, charitable outreach, service and bridging political, cultural and other divides.

“What unites us are not the political issues,” he said. “You could one day be in a parish that’s more traditional. The next day, you’re in a parish that’s more vibrant in its praise or worship. The church has room for all of that.”

A sports fan, Burbidge wakes up at 5 a.m. most days and spend the first part of his day exercising on either the elliptical, rowing machine or bike in his garage. He is a lifelong Eagles fan whose father had season tickets.

“I’ll be rooting for the Nationals, but I can’t give up my allegiance to the Eagles yet,” he said. “This is dangerous territory to say this, isn’t it?”

Loverde said he will retire in Annandale and continue to help Burbidge in the diocese.

Part of Loverde’s legacy was managing to engage more liberal Catholics without alienating conservative ones, said Brian Doyle, chairman of the theology/
religious studies department at Marymount University, which is in the Arlington diocese. And Doyle is hopeful that Burbidge, who has mostly avoided high-profile involvement in the culture wars, can do something similar.

“Someone who’s been in Philly and Raleigh is going to have a good handle on a mixture of Southern heritage and cosmopolitan character,” Doyle said.

He notes that the long-term impact of Pope Francis’s tenure will hinge on who he appoints and elevates within the church hierarchy.

“My hope is Burbidge will be able to walk the line between pastoring all the people in his diocese,” Doyle said. “Bishops like to make names for themselves. He does not seem to be one of them, and I think Francis likes that.”