Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Last Man Sitting

Today marks the end of an era, as Cardinal William Wakefield Baum celebrates his 80th birthday.

Born on this date in 1926 and ordained a priest of Kansas City, the senior American prelate -- shown above at Wojtyla's farewell -- was elevated to the episcopacy in 1970, when he was named bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Promoted to the archdiocese of Washington in 1973, he was named a cardinal in advance of his 50th birthday in 1976, then brought to Rome four years later, when Pope John Paul II tapped him to serve as prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

In 1990, Cardinal Baum was transferred to the helm of the Apostolic Penitentiary, where he dispensed indulgences and guarded the integrity of the internal forum until his 2001 retirement. (The office is currently held by another American, Baltimore native Cardinal James Francis Stafford, a former archbishop of Denver.)

His eyesight long failing, the last US cardinal created by Paul VI was but one of two electors in the conclave of 2005 who had participated in a prior papal election, having helped choose both John Pauls in the twin conclaves of 1978.

Of course, the other veteran elector was Joseph Ratzinger, for whom the third time was the charm, as you know.

Despite the prestige of his main posts, it could effectively be argued that Baum's greatest force was wielded in the other dicasteries where he enjoyed membership, particularly over his more than two decades on the Congregation for Bishops, where he was subsequently joined by his Missouri successor, who became Cardinal Law of Boston.

Together with the late Cardinal John O'Connor -- a close friend with whom Baum was present at the moment of his death -- the Americans, led by Baum, formed an unprecedented gang of three weighing in on Stateside appointments. They were later joined by Cardinal Edmund Szoka, the former archbishop of Detroit recruited into the direct service of the Holy See. After O'Connor's transitus, in 2001 Stafford was named to Bishops and, last year, Cardinal William Levada joined, for an all-time high of five US cardinals on the panel that recommends episcopal nominees to the pontiff.

In accord with the norms of law and the constitution of Paul VI Ingravescentem aetatem, Baum's remaining curial memberships cease today, as does his prerogative of participating in another conclave. A frequent traveler between Rome and DC, he's likely celebrating the day at his primo Roman apartment overlooking St Peter's Square, his longtime, ubiquitous aide Msgr Jim Gillen ever dutifully behind-the-scenes.

Baum's superannuation leaves the number of voting cardinals at 115. Given Benedict XVI's keenness to keep the number at the Pauline limit of 120, and to keep the full complement regularly topped off, look for a consistory sometime in the late spring or early summer, by which time the number of cardinal-electors will fall to 107, just on account of more princes of the church hitting the big 8-0.