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Obedience the Hickey way

NCR Staff

A grouping of framed pictures on the wall of Cardinal James Aloysius Hickey’s chapel tells much of his story. Certainly the pictures illuminate the character of a man who, because of his many friends in Rome, wields possibly more power than anyone else in the U.S. church.

In one of the frames is just a few lines in French that Hickey, archbishop of Washington, had painted on a page after discovering them in a spiritual diary. The diary was the legacy of a former rector of the Salesian seminary whose buildings now serve as the power hub of Hickey’s archdiocese.

The lines within the frame read: Obéir à Dieu sans retard, sans réserve, sans retour. Translated, they mean: “To obey God without hesitation, without reservation, without turning back.”

“When I discovered the words, they impressed me so much,” said Hickey, twice a seminary rector himself. “It’s what we are about as consecrated priests and religious.”

Many of Hickey’s associates said, in so many words, that those lines describe what drives Hickey -- with the understanding that to the cardinal, obedience to church authority equals obedience to God.

Hickey has made and broken many a church career. His name will be linked in history, for instance, with that of Fr. Charles Curran, the highly respected theologian who was ousted from The Catholic University of America on Hickey’s watch. Hickey has raised up nine bishops for other dioceses. He has also been a strong supporter of black priests, including Fr. George Stallings and former Archbishop Eugene Marino, both of whom, according to some who know Hickey well, subsequently let him down.

On the same wall as the rector’s words in Hickey’s chapel are photographs of two women who died while working with the poor of El Salvador: Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, a 27-year-old lay worker. The names are well-known to many Catholic activists. Kazel and Donovan were in El Salvador under the auspices of the Cleveland diocese when Hickey was appointed bishop there in 1974. They persuaded him to allow them to stay on after the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.

Those pictures, anchored by a colorful Latin American crucifix, round out the story. Hickey the power broker is a man of deep compassion.

Hickey up close is different from the Hickey of the headlines. For a man so often cast as rather one-dimensional -- a sort of chief of the Vatican’s police force in the United States -- contradictions abound.

He is unyielding on principle, associates say, flexible on tactics. He is a statesman who dislikes messy confrontations yet has been thrust into the limelight on some of the most controversial national issues in the church. He works in the most political of environments but generally shuns national politics. He is a voracious reader of newspapers but avoids the press. In a city that thrives on wealth and power, he lives modestly and is a good friend to the poor, architect of an impressive network of social services in one of the nation’s most troubled cities.

He is likable but feared -- “a really great guy and, boy, just a vigilant watchdog,” in the words of one Washington priest.

Three of Hickey’s top 10 staff members are laypeople, two are nuns -- four women in all, including Jacqueline Wilson, who has headed Washington’s office for black Catholics for nearly 20 years. Hickey meets weekly with his staff -- a highly competent group, observers say. The cardinal dislikes “yes” people and expects his staff to be prepared for give and take.

“I found with Hickey that once you won his confidence you had a lot of support,” said John Carr, Hickey’s secretary for social concerns from 1981 to 1990, and now secretary for social development and world peace for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He added, “I found that whatever I gave him, he had already read.”

“His style is very collaborative,” said Dan Curtin, Hickey’s secretary for Catholic education. “He wants to hear it all, the good and the nasty, all sides of a question. He doesn’t like to make decisions in isolation.”

Hickey, showing a reporter the massive wood conference table where his staff holds weekly meetings, said, “I don’t want you to think we gamble in here.” He grinned as he held up a squeegee for cleaning windows that someone had given him for pushing papers across the table.

No photo-ops

“His national reputation as an enforcer is not who he is,” said Carr. “There’s a pastoral side to him that a lot of people don’t see.” In part, Carr said, that’s because Hickey abhors photo-opportunities. “I went to the prisons with him every Christmas for eight years, and he never invited the press.” Carr said. “It’s just not his style.”

Hickey, perhaps demonstrating the kind of obedience he values, remains in his post, though he is now three years past the 75-year mandatory retirement mark and the second-oldest cardinal in the U.S. church. Hickey submitted his resignation, as required by canon law, when he turned 75 -- “as publicly and personally as I possibly could,” he said, by traveling to Rome and putting it in the hands of the pope.

Three weeks later Hickey had his answer: Pope John Paul II asked him to stay on until further notice, as the pope had previously asked of Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York, who is 10 months older than Hickey. Though weakened by recent health problems, Hickey said he would continue to build the Washington archdiocese.

Hickey, obedient, compassionate and powerful, is also a man who wants to get it right. Nicknamed “Picky Hickey” in Cleveland, he is given to fussing over small details -- once, for instance, he sent out a memo on how lemons should be cut for removing oil from the bishop’s hands after confirmation. And he agonizes when important decisions turn out to be wrong.

That’s what Hickey believes happened in 1980, when things were getting rough in El Salvador. He thought the women missioners should come home. He went to El Salvador to attend the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a controversial spokesman for human rights who had been shot by an assassin as he celebrated evening Mass. He also wanted to determine whether it was safe enough for the women to remain. Unfortunately, he now says, he allowed himself to be persuaded to let them stay.

“When the wolf attacks the flock,” he recalled that Kazel had told him, “the shepherd doesn’t leave.”

Nine months later, Hickey’s charges were among four women slain, two of them raped, in one of countless gruesome episodes in El Salvador’s civil war. Hickey said their fate haunts him now, 18 years later. “I think that was too simplistic an interpretation of scripture,” he said.

Hickey readily granted a reporter’s wish to see his chapel, a shrine, really, to the Salvadoran workers. From there, he guided a tour of the top floor of the pastoral center, which has been converted to a modestly but tastefully decorated living quarters where he can comfortably accommodate four guests. Hickey lived there for 10 years, from 1981, when he sold a large home bought by his predecessor, Cardinal William Baum. Baum, who headed the Washington archdiocese from 1973 until 1980, was appointed prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Education.

Hickey had been concerned that Baum’s controversial home -- situated in the exclusive Rockwood Parkway area and valued at $1.2 million when the church sold it -- would isolate him “from the people.” He is proud of the pastoral center, where he collected archdiocesan offices formerly scattered around the city. The center is situated in a low-income neighborhood in Hyattsville, Md., a block from the District of Columbia line.

In 1991, Hickey moved again, when his doctor recommended that he put more distance between work and home. He now lives in the 13-room former residence of Baum’s predecessor, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle. Hickey still uses the living quarters at the pastoral center when he has more than one guest, moving there himself to be with them.

“The bishops of South America are often housed here when they come up,” giving him privileged time, he said, with the likes of Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez of Chile, whom he describes as “that great worker for rights of the people.”

The walls of the pastoral center are a creamy yellow, the carpet a rich orange. The atmosphere is bright and congenial, less clerical in feeling than archdiocesan headquarters often are. Hickey himself pointed up the contrast between the pleasant surroundings and his public image. “At least the walls can be pleasant,” he said, “even if some of the things we do aren’t regarded as exactly pleasant.”

Obedience flows naturally

“He’ll charm you,” a source had assured this reporter. In a two-hour interview he spoke softly and kindly, often with quiet humor, sometimes directed at himself.

Undeniably, though, Hickey knows how to use power. He is well-connected with Vatican officials, in part through his years as rector of the North American College in Rome. He is deeply loyal to Pope John Paul II and respected in return. In 1988 he was invited to give a retreat for the pope and papal household.

Hickey is aware of the seeming contradictions. “To me, the unifying force is the church,” he said. “I personally believe in the church. I never doubted what she taught. Within that framework, I would hope people would see some consistency.

“It’s the image of the church as the mystical body of Christ that pulls everything together,” he added. “Obedience to the Holy Father flows quite naturally from that.”

Undoubtedly though, Hickey’s upbringing also nurtured a respect for hierarchy. He grew up in Midland, Mich., where life centers on the major corporate citizen, Dow Chemical. Hickey was surrounded by corporate types, team players who know their roles. He was the second child, “surprising everyone” when he came along, he said. James Peter Hickey, a dentist, and Agnes Marie Ryan Hickey, daughter of a local businessman, had just one other child, a daughter 13 years older than James.

According to an extensive profile by Laura Sessions Stepp, published in The Washington Post on May 21, 1989, Hickey’s parents had high expectations for their son, turning him at an early age into a young adult. But Hickey said it wasn’t true that his parents were tough. “I got away with a lot,” he said. During the Depression, young Hickey watched as his father cared for his patients even when they were unable to pay. His mother regularly took supplies to a needy family.

Religion was a given. “I feel very privileged to have grown up in a very Catholic home where the sacraments were a part of our regular week,” Hickey told NCR. “Every Saturday night we went to church for confession, every Sunday morning at 8 or 10 o’clock for Mass. There were only two in those simple little days,” he said with a smile.

At 13, Hickey entered the seminary and earned a reputation for an ability to follow rules that governed every aspect of daily life. Asked if he’d ever had a rebellious streak, he said, “I kept it well in check.” He graduated in 1942 as valedictorian of his class, studied theology at The Catholic University of America and was ordained a priest in Saginaw, Mich., in 1946.

Hickey’s concern for the poor developed in Saginaw. He wrote an article for his college newspaper about the plight of migrant sugar beet pickers in the Saginaw Valley. He now regards the article as “somewhat sophomoric,” but it caught the eye of Bishop William P. Murphy, who challenged the newly ordained Hickey to see what he could do to help. Hickey traveled with the workers for several seasons, learning firsthand a lesson he never forgot: the realities of grinding poverty.

In 1947, Hickey was sent to Rome to study. He earned doctorates in canon law and moral theology, returned to the United States to serve for nine years as secretary to Bishop Stephen S. Woznicki in Saginaw. Hickey helped to establish St. Paul Seminary in Saginaw and served as its first rector. He experienced one of his rare moments of feeling betrayed by the church, he said, when just nine years after it opened, the seminary was closed.

In 1967, he was named auxiliary bishop. Two years later he was appointed rector of the North American College in Rome, where the best and brightest seminarians from U.S. dioceses are sent to study. Five years later, in 1974, he was named bishop of Cleveland. He was assigned to Washington in 1980, where he serves both as archbishop and as chancellor of The Catholic University.

Today, in addition to overseeing affairs of 500,000 Catholics in the District of Colombia, including 80,000 black Catholics, and five Maryland counties, Hickey serves on four Vatican congregations. They include the Congregation for Catholic Education, headed by Baum, and the powerful Congregation for Clergy. Hickey also serves on the Pontifical Council for the Family.

When called upon to serve as Vatican disciplinarian, Hickey complies but insists he doesn’t relish the role. “I don’t get any joy out of those kinds of situations,” he said. “If I didn’t see it as my duty, I would probably try to sidestep.”

The Curran controversy

The most memorable for many Catholics was the protracted conflict over Fr. Charles Curran, former professor of moral theology at The Catholic University who disagrees with church teaching in several areas of sexual ethics. Hickey was a key player in Curran’s ouster, saying he had “no choice” but to take the steps leading to Curran’s suspension in 1987. Curran lost a breach of contract suit against the university.

At one point, Curran said, he had worked out a compromise with Hickey and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago that would have allowed him to teach in an area of The Catholic University that did not grant pontifical degrees. Hickey took the compromise to Rome, “in good faith,” Curran believes, though he suspects that Bernardin would have pushed it harder. The compromise was rejected in Rome.

Jesuit Fr. Ed Glynn, former Jesuit provincial in Maryland, suspects Hickey may have blocked a major career move for him. Glynn was denied the Vatican approval needed to become president of Weston School of Theology in 1996. He speculated that approval was withheld because in 1991, when officials allowed an abortion rights student group to meet on the campus at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, Glynn had refused Hickey’s request that the provincial intervene. “I suspect some bishops may have some concerns that I may not be sufficiently cooperative,” Glynn said.

Fr. William Callahan, a former Jesuit, concurs that it can be hard to tell where Hickey’s hand has been. “Cardinal Hickey doesn’t leave many fingerprints,” said Callahan, coordinator of Priests for Equality in Washington. Callahan, who has challenged church teaching in some areas and U.S. government policy in Latin America, was ousted from the Jesuits after he refused to comply with demands that he suspects originated with Hickey.

Hickey’s efforts to influence events at Georgetown have continued. New Ways Ministry, a Washington-based Catholic advocacy group for homosexuals, organized a debate there last year, inviting three theologians to present contending views, including the church’s teaching that gays and lesbians should abstain from sex. Hickey was unsuccessful in getting Georgetown officials to cancel the program.

Hickey is often regarded as unsympathetic to gays. In 1987, he persuaded the late Jesuit Fr. Timothy Healy, Georgetown’s then-president, to ban its chapter of Dignity, another Catholic organization for gays, from holding Mass on campus.

The Washington-based New Ways ministry came under attack in 1981, when, over Hickey’s opposition, the organization sponsored a national symposium on homosexuality and the church. New Ways founders, School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick and Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent, though no longer affiliated with New Ways, have been under formal Vatican investigation for a decade.

On the other hand, when Fr. Michael Peterson, the Washington priest who founded St. Luke’s Institute for troubled priests, was rumored to be dying of AIDS, Hickey was remarkable in his show of kindness. Never asking Peterson how he had contracted AIDS, careful to avoid coercion, Hickey encouraged Peterson to allow the nature of his illness to be revealed after his death. To Hickey, truth cloaked in compassion was preferable to rumors that might undermine Peterson’s work.

After Peterson’s death, Hickey announced that Peterson had died of complications from AIDS, marking the first time any U.S. bishop had publicly acknowledged a priest’s death from AIDS. Hickey led 180 priests in concelebrating Peterson’s funeral Mass.

With a couple of notable exceptions, in contrast to Hickey’s high profile nationally, he has faced few public controversies involving his diocesan priests. In part, longtime residents say, the relative calm derives from a predecessor’s heavy hand. In 1968, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle curbed dissent by suspending priestly faculties of more than 40 Washington priests who signed a statement declaring that birth control was a matter of conscience between husband and wife.

George Stallings is one of the notable exceptions. Stallings, a popular black priest, had been a student at the North American College in Rome when Hickey was rector. When Stallings was ordained in 1974, Hickey supported Stallings’ wish to be a priest of the Washington diocese. “I vouched for him,” Hickey said -- another of his decisions gone wrong. The defiant Stallings was suspended by Hickey, then declared excommunicated after he established a movement for black Catholics outside the church. It was a complex situation in which Stallings had been accused of sexual abuse and Hickey had urged him to go to a center in New Mexico for treatment. Hickey has two words for his reaction to the loss. “It hurt,” he said.

A close associate of Hickey’s said simply, “Stallings and Marino broke his heart.” Eugene Marino, Hickey’s former auxiliary bishop in Washington, appointed archbishop of Atlanta with Hickey’s support, resigned that post in 1990 after news broke of his romantic alliance with a young woman.

Another exception locally was Hickey’s decision to investigate Holy Trinity Catholic Church, a progressive and prominent Jesuit parish in the Georgetown district. Threatening to remove church leaders, including Jesuit Fr. Lawrence Madden, the pastor, Hickey commissioned investigators following reports that a Lutheran woman had presided over an Ash Wednesday service in 1997 and had also preached.

In a nine-page letter to Madden underscoring Hickey’s commitment to orthodoxy, he cited violations ranging from gender-inclusive language in the liturgy to allowing laity to preach at vespers. One of the investigators was Auxiliary Bishop William E. Lori, a hardworking, feisty Italian who has Hickey’s complete trust. Parish leaders complained of what they described as Lori’s “inquisitional tactics.” Lori, who also serves as vicar general and moderator of the archdiocesan curia, said the problems had been resolved. A source who requested anonymity said “a veneer of compliance” had kept Holy Trinity’s leaders in place.

Hickey has also, by some reports, kept a tight rein on The Catholic University’s theological faculties and, of late, has been nudging the university to become a model of conformity with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Vatican document stressing the importance of Catholic identity for church-related schools. In November, the new president of The Catholic University, Vincentian Fr. David O’Connell, broke with previous tradition by publicly reciting a loyalty oath at his inauguration. It is a Vatican-pleasing step most other university presidents would be loathe to take.

During Hickey’s first five years in Washington, he reshaped The Catholic University’s religion curriculum. In 1985, he vetoed the university’s choice for theology department head, Fr. John Boyle, supporting Dominican Fr. William Cenkner instead.

But Jesuit Fr. William Byron, who served as Catholic University president under Hickey, said it would be a mistake to think of Hickey as a heavy-handed chancellor. “I could count on one hand the number of phone calls I got from him in the 10 years I was president,” Byron said. Hickey’s decisions on candidates for pontifical faculties couldn’t be “automatically predicted,” he said.

“He’s very concerned on some of the issues about the reputation of the church,” Byron said, “but I wouldn’t want to convey the impression that he’s hovering over the place. He’s really a very fine person totally dedicated to the welfare of his people and the church.”

In Washington’s political world, Hickey has kept a low profile, leaving national issues to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and speaking to Congress only where he thinks a personal perspective might count: El Salvador, for instance, or abortion or the needs of the poor. “I always said you won’t find me skulking down the halls of Congress,” he said. “I don’t see that as my role.”

What Hickey does see as his role, as a key component of his fidelity, is service to the poor. “He can outline the social encyclicals,” said Carr. “If someone asks him why the church supports unions, he doesn’t need note cards to talk about it.”

“He’s very much a risk taker when it comes to providing social services,” said Charity Sr. Carol Keehan, president of Providence Hospital in Washington. “If there’s a big enough need, he’s going to push until he finds a way to get it done.”

Extensive social services

Msgr. Ralph Keuhner, archdiocesan secretary for social concerns, can tick off a long list of services demonstrating the difference Hickey has made to Washington. They include 12 homeless shelters, a health care network of volunteer medical professionals that handles some 2,800 referrals a year, a network of 250 volunteer attorneys who do pro bono work for about 2,000 people a year. Share, a program Hickey started with the Knights of Malta, has distributed over a million pounds of food to some 70,000 families. Substance abuse treatment, housing for the elderly, refugee resettlement and free birthing services for women with crisis pregnancies are part of the mix. The Kennedy Institute, which deals with developmental disabilities, has boosted its budget from $1 million to $11 million under Hickey, its staff from 53 to 340.

Other social services are provided by the Spanish Catholic Center, which helped some 7,840 people last year, Keuhner said. A related dental clinic served 30,000.

The cardinal lives by Matthew 25, Carr said: “Whatever you did for one of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” A person once told the cardinal that archdiocesan homeless services didn’t seem very spiritual because “we don’t pray with those folks,” Carr said. The cardinal offered his philosophy in reply: “We don’t serve the homeless because they’re Catholic. We serve them because we’re Catholic.”

Curtin said Hickey has steadfastly refused to close any of the city’s 16 inner-city elementary schools, instead meeting declining enrollments with a head-on program of marketing, fund-raising and professional development for teachers. After one year, the program has produced a 7 percent enrollment increase, Curtin said.

For relaxation, Hickey, a Civil War buff, enjoys visiting historic sites and shopping malls, mostly for window shopping, he said, a pastime he attributes to growing up in the Depression. In retirement, he hopes to organize his papers “so somebody who follows after me will know what I tried to do,” perhaps write his autobiography, give some retreats.

What he hopes to be remembered for -- still -- are the same things he told a reporter for The Washington Post a decade ago: loyalty to the church and serving the needs of the poor. “It’s a package,” he said. “If there’s enough stone,” he’d add a third piece, he said: support of Catholic education.

What keeps him going, Hickey said, is his vision of the church as spirit-filled -- though, he added, “the church doesn’t always have a sense of its being spirit-filled.”

Do divisions worry him?

“Not in the sense that the church would ever cease to exist,” he said. But, he wonders, as he holds the reins of orthodoxy firmly, “could I do more to heal them?”

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999