National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 31, 2003

U.S. cardinals flock to festivities

While the Americans had only one new cardinal in the Oct. 21 consistory, a sizeable percentage of the American hierarchy was nevertheless present in Rome during mid-October to join the 25th anniversary celebration of John Paul’s pontificate.

All the American cardinals, the president and vice president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and a number of other prelates were on hand, with most swelling the normal population of the North American College, the residence for U.S. seminarians in Rome. In fact, Msgr. Kevin McCoy, the college rector, told NCR that one challenge this week was to keep seminarians focused on prayer and study amid all the hoopla.

America’s new cardinal, Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, comes out of the Vatican diplomatic service and is legendary for rarely putting a public word out of place. He largely lived up to that image this week, making only brief and usually anodyne statements to the press.

To be a cardinal, Rigali said after a thanksgiving Mass at the Church of Santa Susanna Oct. 21, is “an honor that has a role. The cardinals are called on to collaborate with the pope” as well as, ultimately, to choose a new pope.

Rigali said one key task facing him is “to bring Christianity to the modern world.”

“Obviously, circumstances change at every moment in the church,” Rigali said. But he vowed to pursue the “countercultural” gospel message that means living in a way that is “not necessarily easy to human nature.”

Other Americans had a bit more to say.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, in an exclusive Oct. 21 interview with NCR, acknowledged that the pope’s poor physical condition cannot help but beckon thoughts of a future conclave.

“I never imagined myself going in there before,” George said, referring to the Sistine Chapel, where the election of the next pope will be held. “Now I have to think about it.”

Although George stressed that “God is the primary actor” in a conclave, that doesn’t take cardinals off the hook for exercising the best personal and political judgment possible.

“We can’t be indifferent to our own concerns,” George said. “This is an act of discernment.”

George said that to prepare for the conclave, he will talk to bishops around the world, both those who come through Chicago and those he meets in Rome, about the challenges in the various local contexts.

Would he be open to a pope from the Third World?

“The pope is the bishop of Rome, so you look first for a Roman or Italian, out of courtesy if nothing else,” George said. “Then you look to places where the church’s mission is strong, where it has something to tell us. From that point of view, the developing world would make sense.”

Asked to list the mega-challenges that will face the next pope, George identified secularization, religiously insurgent Islam and the campaign for universal justice.

George said that one traditional criterion used to assess potential popes, age, didn’t mean much to him.

“It’s not a primary concern,” he said. “We need somebody who can meet the challenges.”

George also said that he was impatient with questions about papal resignation or incapacitation.

“I trust this pope’s relationship with God,” he said. “If God wants him to resign, he’ll know that and he will.”

At the same time, George said, he believes John Paul is offering a powerful example that is not obstructing the church’s message.

“Think of the last days of Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin, in which the focus was exclusively on his health. It was a tremendous witness, the way he chose to share it with the world.”

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said Oct. 15 that while John Paul II is clearly weaker physically, “for all I can see, he certainly is very much in control.”

In response to an NCR question, Mahony said that when he greeted the pope, he immediately recalled his visit to Los Angeles, especially meeting with representatives of the media in Hollywood.

Mahony insisted that the cardinals were not using this gathering as a “dry run” for a future conclave.

“I have not been in a group of cardinals yet where we discussed the pope’s health in a negative way or talked about the future,” he said. “That is not what goes on.”

Asked to name the major challenges facing the church, Mahony listed: uneven growth, with some regions of the Catholic world experiencing dramatic increases, and others facing empty churches; offering the celebration of the Eucharist to all Catholics in an era of priest shortages; and promoting a spirit of “new evangelization.”

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington spoke with NCR in an exclusive interview Oct. 9.

McCarrick said that he distinguishes between the pope’s impact ad intra and ad extra. Inside the church, he said, John Paul “captured the real spirit of Vatican II,” on issues such as collegiality, dialogue with the modern world and the proper role of the laity as agents of transformation in the world.

Outside the church, McCarrick said, John Paul has been a relentless champion of the dignity of the human person, which has made him an advocate of human rights, of religious freedom, of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.

When he was made a cardinal in February 2001, at the age of 70, McCarrick said that he never expected to participate in a conclave, meaning the election of a pope. He was suggesting that John Paul could live until McCarrick turned 80 in 2011.

Does he still feel that way?

“There’s always the possibility,” he said. He noted that the pope has ups and downs, and that sometimes he appears rejuvenated.

“I’m praying for the Holy Father to have the strength and wisdom to guide the church,” McCarrick said.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: