Sunday, September 25, 2005

Lending a Hand

As promised, the Sunday Inquirer's extensive coverage of what it's calling the "Sins of the Fathers" (how original) included a lengthy piece on Cardinal Bevilacqua, with input from friendly and not-so-friendly voices.

Your humble writer was in the first group.

Rocco Palmo, a 22-year-old free-lance writer, said that from the time he was a child, he would try to attend Mass so that he could get close to the man he admired. They struck up a friendship and exchanged nearly 100 notes over the years.

When Palmo was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, the cardinal helped him get into an oversubscribed course taught by John DiIulio.

And that's the fruit of a half-hour long interview. Suffice it to say, I tried. But the piece was well-done, with quotes from former collaborators, a smattering of friends, Tom Doyle and Rita Schwartz, the head of the teachers' union of the archdiocesan high school schools, who was never an enthusiastic Bevy-fan to begin with and, at one point, was banned from the Chancery for a year.

For my part, I tried to contextualize the Cardinal's life. The reporter on this story works in the Inky's Image section and isn't usually exposed to the minutiae of things Catholic, so I spent some time talking about the Boss' childhood, the priest who inspired him to consider his vocation, Bevilacqua's long-standing aversion to cheese, his love of exercise, mystery novels and the company of others and how he was never one for the sight of blood -- when one of his brothers (who later became a doctor) dissected a mouse at home in their younger days, young Tony fainted.

But I raised the DiIulio story -- which was, to be honest, a small detail of the interview on the whole -- as an example to the Cardinal's longstanding love of learning in all its forms. (I wrote about this two weeks ago, when the Seminary library was dedicated in his name.)

Try not to get bored, but the actual story goes something like this: In November 2001, the Cardinal rushed back from DC (where the USCCB Plenary had wrapped up) to speak at a daylong symposium at Penn on Faith-Based Community Initiatives, one of many policy-heavy areas of service dear to his heart. The panels were organized by John DiIulio, a career academic and specialist in the field who had just returned from a stint in Washington setting up the Office for Faith-Based Initiatives in the first months of the Bush administration. The next semester would mark DiIulio's return to teaching, and the jockeying was fierce to get into his seminar for the Introduction to American Politics.

As I had some time between classes, I popped over to the backstage door of Irvine Auditorium and tapped on it. Admittedly, I wasn't dressed to receive dignitaries -- a couple days' shadow, jeans, sneakers and a sweatjacket, but the Boss enjoyed my company for my intellect, not my fine tailoring.

The door opened. A pretty officious looking member of the crew popped his head out, seemingly irked and asked, "Yes?!"

"Hi," I replied, "is Cardinal Bevilacqua there?"

"Why?" he asked.

Somewhat humbled, I said, "Just tell him Rocco's here."

The door slammed shut.

I waited about 15 seconds and the door opened again. Somewhere along the line, the crewman had shed his arrogance and asked, sheepishly, "Mr. Palmo?"

I nodded.

"Please come with me," he said.

I was led backstage to see the Cardinal -- who was facing away -- engaged in a discussion with DiIulio, E.J. Dionne (a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Vatican correspondent for the NYTimes) and Wilson Goode, the former mayor of Philadelphia who was ordained a Baptist minister after he left office. Dionne was talking about Roman memories and a contact who went to the diplomatic school which was located over some shop.

Though outside the circle, as I tend to do in such situations, I piped up: "It's not just any shop, E.J. -- it's Gammarelli."

And the Cardinal turned around, beaming.

"You got back quick, eh?" I asked him. He smiled.

We pulled over and he proceeded to brief me on the doings of the meeting which, unbeknownst to either of us, would be the last ho-hum gathering of the American bishops before the tsunami of sex abuse hit. Wilton Gregory was elected president of the Conference that morning, and I was asking for vote totals, how many ballots, who made noteworthy interventions, who got VP ("Skylstad"), and other business conducted earlier in the week.

Suffice it to say, he raised me right as a churchman.

"You know, I was elected chairman of a committee, too," he let slip. He couldn't stop smiling. I asked which one. "Pro-Life," he replied.

As I congratulated him, knowing that this was for him a singular affirmation of all his work in defense of life issues through the years, we both knew that he wouldn't serve a complete term as his 80th birthday loomed nineteen months ahead. But it was still a very happy moment, and a great moment of pride for the both of us.

As DiIulio and Dionne kept chatting away, I whispered, "Can you help me out with something?"

The quick reply was, as always, "Of course. What is it?"

So I told him about the jockeying for the DiIulio course and how, having the Prof right here in front of me, maybe a good word from a prince of the church would help.

He immediately waved DiIulio down -- "John! John!" Gesturing toward me with his hand, he said, "Come meet Rocco Palmo, my good friend. He's gonna be in your class next semester."

Admittedly, I turned a little red. DiIulio came over, introduced himself and asked, "Yeah? Which class are you in?"

So I explained my difficulties with the bureaucracy of the Registrar's office and that I really wanted to have it on my schedule.

"Drop me a line," he replied, "and it's done."

And it was. And what a class it was.

So that was just one example, not one of the more emotive or life-affirming ones, but just one story of many of the good Cardinal's goodness to me and so many others through the years.

The Bevilacqua I've known for a decade and a half is one who has been exceedingly loyal, remarkably kind and fiercely in love with his priesthood and his church. This week has shown that the record has not been a perfect one, a realization which has been a moment of great sadness.

But those of us who have known the man, who have loved him and in turn have been loved by him, can't just sit by and watch a ministry which has accomplished much good and yielded so much faith and so many blessings be completely tarnished by one tragic flaw for which there are no words.



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