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Parading papal candidates

NCR Staff

A Vatican decree of April 18, 1909, stipulates that anyone who kisses the ring of a cardinal with “filial devotion” automatically earns an indulgence of 50 days.

Indulgences, in traditional Catholic theology, cut one’s time in Purgatory. While they have gone out of fashion in recent years, anyone wanting a lesser sentence could have done no better than to be in Rome in late February, when Pope John Paul II elevated 44 men, the largest crop in history, into the ranks of cardinals.

Theoretically -- if all those new cardinals’ rings could be kissed -- it would mean 2,200 days, just over 65 years, off Purgatory time. The new crop of cardinals will receive gold rings in a Feb. 22 Mass concelebrated with the pope and the other cardinals of the world.

After the Feb. 21 consistory, the ceremony in which new cardinals were created, the Catholic church has the largest total number of cardinals in its history, 184, and the most ever eligible to vote for the pope. Of the 184, 135 cardinals are under the age of 80, the cutoff age for papal electors. (See related article: Perspective.)

Among those inducted were three Americans: Edward Egan, 68, of the archdiocese of New York; Theodore McCarrick, 70, of Washington and theologian and Jesuit Avery Dulles, 82, of Fordham University.

Consistories happen once every two or three years, assuming normal rhythms hold, and they resemble a sort of hybrid between a debutante ball and the Iowa presidential caucuses. It is one part gala: a weeklong series of receptions, buffet dinners, cocktail parties and Masses, both private and public, to fete the new members of the pope’s inner circle.

A consistory is also a time when cardinals are paraded before the TV cameras of the world, a lineup of candidates for the next pope. While no one puts out position papers -- decorum prevents talk of a transition while the current pope is still in office -- the cardinals’ words and gestures are measured carefully for indications of where they might stand and what kind of pope they might make.

ýEven by grandiose Roman standards, the social dimensions of this consistory were impressive. Egan’s delegation of 850, for example, had to rent out the tony Grand Hotel ballroom two nights in a row -- Friday, Feb. 22, and Saturday, Feb. 23 Ñ because organizers were unable to find a hall big enough to hold them all at once.

Egan was so in demand, in fact, that he skipped some dinners scheduled in his honor, such as one at Rome’s Centro Pro Unione. It was hosted by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, based in Graymoor, N.Y.

Among the Americans, Egan brought the largest crowd. More joined him in Rome, friends from his 13 years as a judge on the Roman Rota, the curial tribunal that hears marriage cases.

McCarrick said he had 700 people in tow. Approximately 200 family, friends and fellow Jesuits accompanied Dulles the scholar.

The majority of all three delegations were New Yorkers, since Egan and Dulles reside there and McCarrick has deep Empire State roots. He was ordained a priest of New York by Cardinal Francis Spellman in 1958, and later served as secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke. The pectoral cross McCarrick wore during the consistory was given to him by Cooke, who had received it as a gift from his brother and sister.

The week’s festivities did not come cheap. Based on figures supplied to NCR by press officers and travel agencies, the outlay just for hotels, airfare, and a few meals for the American presence in Rome was an estimated $3.1 million.

A McCarrick spokesperson told NCR that the average travel package for the delegation cost $1,800. Representatives of Best Catholic Pilgrimages in Chicago, the firm that handled travel arrangements for members of the Egan and Dulles delegations, said they had offered four different packages, of which the median cost including airfare was approximately $1755.

The estimate of $3.1 million represents the cost of these packages multiplied by the number of people in each delegation.

Most participants covered these expenses themselves. Only a handful were funded from church coffers. “Obviously the archdiocese picked up the tab for the cardinal, for example,” Egan spokesperson Joe Zwilling told NCR.

Given the dollar amounts involved, some people on the margins of the consistory were inevitably wealthy contributors. Egan’s lodging at the five-star Crowne Plaza Hotel in the Piazza Minerva, for example, was picked up by the chairman of the hotel board, an old Egan chum.

Yet some in Rome defied the fat-cat stereotype.

Jennee Chin, for example, the main receptionist at the Washington archdiocese, buzzes in visitors who arrive at the chancery’s front door. “It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things,” she said, explaining her decision to make the trip, her first out of the United States.

Holy Cross Fr. Bartley MacPhaidin of New York also made the trip on a tight budget. “I wanted to be here for this occasion, and to tell them what I think they ought to do,” he said. His message to the new cardinals was simple: “Stay humble.”

McCarrick, at least, seemed determined to follow that counsel. During his opening Mass at the North American College Feb. 20, he was a model of self-deprecating humor.

“I hope you’ll say to yourselves over these next few days, ‘We don’t have the smartest fellow in the College of Cardinals. We don’t have the best, but he’s ours and we’ve got to love him,’ ” he said.

The relentless media attention focused on the cardinals during consistory week, did little to encourage such modesty. The Americans, especially Egan, were celebrities, with packs of TV cameras following their every move.

Dulles spent a cold morning atop the Jesuit curia building Feb. 20 following sound bite with sound bite, St. Peter’s dome visible over his shoulder. At one point a camera crew from NBC was packing up on the roof while ABC shot an interview, with Fox and a New England regional cable service waiting in the wings.

Dulles used the exposure to argue that John Paul II was the pope of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), suggesting that those who believe the pope has “rolled back” the council’s vision don’t fully understand it.

In terms of papal sweepstakes, many observers agreed that one of the most impressive debuts came from Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga from Honduras. His candid, articulate statements to the press turned heads. Maradiaga, 58, encouraged the idea of a Latin American as papabile (a candidate to become pope).

“There are good people, good priests, good bishops and good cardinals in Latin America,” he told CNN, speaking in flawless English. “Why couldn’t we offer a good pope?”

The Latin American hypothesis was floated by new Cardinal Ignacio Velasco García of Venezuela. “I think it’s likely,” Velasco García told reporters. “But it’s just a guess, because in a conclave many things happen.”

“There certainly will be some votes,” Velasco García said, raising his hand to indicate he could be among those voting for a Latin American.

Other new cardinals who garnered notice as papabile included Giovanni Battista Re, 67, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, who had the honor of delivering thanks on behalf of all the new cardinals to the pope during the consistory.

Re set some tongues wagging by referring indirectly to the pope’s health in those remarks, suggesting that as John Paul’s physical capacity diminishes, it is a reminder that “it is Christ who guides his church.”

Germans Karl Lehmann, 64, and Walter Kasper, 67, are both considered contenders in a papal election. Both are moderates with strong theological backgrounds.

At least one cardinal, however, thinks such talk is premature.

The 70-year-old McCarrick told reporters after the consistory that he did not expect to vote for the next pope. “I’ve got nine and a half years left,” he said, referring to the rule that cardinals over 80 cannot participate in a conclave.

“I think this pope is good for another nine and a half years,” McCarrick said.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001