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McCarrick named to Washington see

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Newark, N.J.

An elderly, globe-trotting, multi-lingual church leader who is conservative in theology and sexual ethics but progressive in matters of justice and human rights has been appointed to head the Washington archdiocese.

If that description of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick also fits Pope John Paul II, it’s probably not coincidental. A mutual admiration abounds between the pope and McCarrick, 70, who has headed the Newark archdiocese for the past 14 years.

One can hear the admiration in the frequent references McCarrick makes to “our Holy Father.” Correspondingly, the pope’s eyes lit up five years ago in Rome when this NCR reporter asked him about McCarrick’s invitation to visit Newark. “Newark, Newark,” the pope said haltingly, but with a wide smile. “I hope so, I hope so. Pray that the pope can come to Newark,” John Paul said on a day in May 1995 when his hand trembled and his speech was slurred.

McCarrick, a skilled diplomat with expertise in domestic and foreign affairs, is well suited to the Washington post, though an appointment to such a prominent see at his age is unusual. It is also unusual for an archbishop to be transferred to another diocese. McCarrick, already influential in Washington, has an affinity for politics, unlike his predecessor, Cardinal James Hickey, who was an infrequent and reluctant player in the nation’s political life. Hickey, 80, and in failing health, turned in his resignation to the pope at age 75, as is required of bishops, but the pope kept him on another five years.

The new archbishop, who hails from one of the most multicultural and multiethnic archdioceses in America, is certain to bring his love of diverse peoples and their personal piety to his new assignment. Among the 510,000 Catholics in Washington are 200,000 Hispanics and 80,000 African-Americans who belong to parishes in the District of Columbia and in the five northern counties of Maryland.

In Newark, daily Mass is celebrated in 17 languages. Catholics come from poor, crime-sotted neighborhoods in Newark, Jersey City and Elizabeth, as well as from affluent suburbs in Bergen and Union counties. McCarrick has welcomed the diversity, often employing his linguistic gifts in Spanish, Italian, French and German. He speaks some Portuguese, Polish and Creole and writes a weekly column in Spanish. The fact that “he’s got a good handle on the church and the world” will be an asset in his new post, Newark’s Auxiliary Bishop Arthur Seratelli said.

McCarrick is no stranger to Washington or to the ways of government. He has been to the White House, the Hill and countless times to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception protesting the Supreme Court’s legalizing of abortion.

The anti-abortion cause is one of the archbishop’s top concerns. When McCarrick arrived in Newark in 1986, he said he would maket the crusade against abortion a top prioirty. He later suggested Catholics should not support political candidates who dissent from the church’s view.

McCarrick, to be installed at the National Shrine Jan. 4, 2001, is already one of the most familiar figures at the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington. He has led the bishops’ committees on migration, international policy and on aid for the church in Central and Eastern Europe. He was the first U.S. leader to convene a major gathering of the heads of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and leaders of some of the poorest African and Latin American nations on the issue of Third World debt relief. He chose to use the Jubilee Year to forgive the debt owed by several parishes and schools to the archdiocese.

As an international troubleshooter, McCarrick has traveled to China, Cuba, Rwanda and many parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, advocating on behalf of justice, religious freedom and human rights. Three years ago he went to Switzerland to talk with its leaders about the role Swiss bankers had played during and after World War II with the assets of Holocaust victims.

“I know the church in many parts of the world,” McCarrick told NCR. While he will spend his first year in Washington visiting its 140 parishes -- he’s been known to stop at four or five parishes on a weekend in New Jersey -- he hoped he could continue to be involved in political hot spots. “My friends, for instance, in the Balkans, are not going to let me forget them.”

The archbishop, a self-described workaholic, rises at 5 a.m. daily and retires by 11 p.m. He starts his day with 10 minutes of stretches and he walks “as often as I can,” he told NCR. “This morning I weighed myself. I was 162 pounds,” he said, only four pounds heavier than on the day the late Cardinal Francis Spellman ordained him for the New York archdiocese in 1958. “See, my suits all still fit me,” McCarrick said, adding, “but they’re so old.”

Moving from Newark, the seventh largest see in the United States, to Washington, which has 60 percent fewer Catholics, is nonetheless a move up. It deserves a new suit and will most likely also bring McCarrick a red hat and a chance to vote for John Paul’s successor. America’s six other cardinals, besides Hickey -- who at 80 is ineligible to vote in the next conclave -- range in age from 64 for Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Francis George of Chicago to 77 for Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia.

Bishop Edward Egan of Bridgeport, Conn., was 68 in May when, following the death of Cardinal John O’Connor, he was appointed archbishop of New York. Egan also is expected to be named a cardinal soon. The pope is expected to appoint up to 25 new cardinals in February, filling vacancies in preparation for the next papal election.

McCarrick is notable for his attention to younger priests. His archdiocese holds the record for new priests, with McCarrick having ordained 171 in 14 years. He has ordained 200 priests since becoming a bishop 23 years ago. While visiting parishes, he has often told a young man, “I’m not retiring until I’ve ordained you.”

Many of the newly ordained come neither from the 240 parishes in the four-county archdiocese nor from greater New Jersey, but increasingly from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

McCarrick is known to be concerned about the health of the 1,000 priests in his diocese -- including the 244 religious order priests. Several years ago, he organized a workshop on nutrition attended by parish housekeepers. Some priests considered it meddling.

Known as one of the church’s best fundraisers, a role that McCarrick said he’s not been able to escape in 42 years as a priest, the archbishop helped to found The Papal Foundation, a U.S. Catholic organization that has raised more than $142 million for projects deemed essential to the Holy See. McCarrick also completed a $50 million capital campaign during 1990-91, a time of economic recession, and directed a substantial portion of the funds toward endowing Newark’s Catholic schools. []

[In the four-county archiocese, 79.7 percent of the elemenarty school students and 78 percent of high schoolers are Catholic. In Catholic high schools in the city of Newark, non-Catholic students represent a small majority at 52 percent. In the city's Catholic elementary schools, 49 percent of the students are not Catholic.]

McCarrick’s decision in 1986 to live in the Sacred Heart Cathedral rectory in Newark’s rough North Ward remained fixed even after thieves stole his car at a time when the city was America’s auto theft capital. He erected a $13 million Archdiocesan Center next door to the cathedral. Thousands of Newark’s poor residents cheered Pope John Paul when he visited the cathedral in October 1995 and designated it a basilica.

“I can never think of the church of Newark without the deepest affection,” McCarrick said. “Many good things happened there in my time -- not because of me but because of the deep faith and extraordinary charity of the faithful.”

McCarrick’s appointment to Washington was a surprise, even to him, because of his age. While “everyone needs a new challenge, at 70 maybe I didn’t think I would get this big a challenge.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000 [corrected 12/22/2000]