The Rockies' Golden Prince
A son of the Premier See, following his ordination in Rome and two years at Catholic University in Washington, where he earned his master's in social work, Cardinal Lawrence Shehan entrusted his young protege with responsibility for the church's charitable efforts; Stafford spent many years leading Baltimore's Catholic Charities before being named an auxiliary there at the age of 43.
After three years as bishop of Memphis and a memorable decade in Denver -- highlighted by the 1993 World Youth Day that spurred a new birth, both for the triennial event and the local church that hosted it -- John Paul II brought the warm, scholarly cleric to Rome in 1996 as president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, giving him primary oversight for the planning of the "Catholic Woodstock" that was Papa Wojtyla's pride and joy. He received the red hat two years later, and in 2003 was named to the Penitentiary, the Roman tribunal that oversees matters pertaining to the "internal forum" -- indulgences, questions of conscience, and the forgiveness of those sins reserved to the Holy See.
Aside from his main post in the Curia, the cardinal sits on the key Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, Bishops, and the Evangelization of Peoples. Last year, in a personal milestone, he got to return to his hometown as the specially-appointed papal legate for the rededication of Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption, the first American cathedral.
To note the anniversary in his adopted home, Jean Torkelson of the Rocky Mountain News pitched the proverbial "five questions" Stafford's way.
Q: How is being a priest different from what you thought it would be at your ordination 50 years ago?
A: In the beginning of my priesthood, I recall having found God's love as imaged in people, in my work, in creation. Furthermore, God's love is embodied in Christ Jesus and God's love is sacramentally present in the Church. Now at the end of 50 years it isn't different; Only the awareness of God's love has deepened and it is full of more surprises. I know God's love more profoundly in each of those areas, in people, in creation, in Jesus and in the Church. And because of that my gratitude is fuller and richer. So the beginning and the ending are one. The only difference is in the quality of the love that I experience in God and in Christ and in the Church.
One way that God's love as imaged in people has grown more visible in my life is in the nobility of elderly people. They are noble in the sense of the profound dignity of their lives even in great pain or increasing weakness. Their humanity shows humility through gentleness, through generosity, through humor. I also have a much keener sense of what God the Father has done for us in sending his only Son to die for us.
And in the Church, I've met some great persons in my life, holy persons. Archbishop Helder Camara, Arcbishop of Recife, Brazil, was visiting the archdiocese in late 80's and was staying at my home. He was like entertaining St. Francis of Assisi in his simplicity and in his perfection. Mother Teresa, in the darkness of her night for so many decades, became a light for us in Denver. I remember when she came in the late 80's and stayed at St. Walburga Abbey, then in Boulder. She was passing down a corridor, saw an image of the crucified Christ, and stopping in deep meditation, she said one word "sitio" (I thirst), one of the last words of Jesus on the Cross. And that happened in the period of her dark night.
Q: What's the most significant change in the Catholic Church in the last 50 years?
A: On the positive side, lay people are actively in search of holiness; not a cheap holiness, not a holiness that comes from an inexpensive grace. Wallace Stevens, one of the great poets of the 20th century and a convert to Catholicism on his death bed, wrote, and I paraphrase: Sanctity is produced out of the condition of winter, that is a wintry cold climate. He describes a holiness produced out of a mind of winter....
On the negative side, what has changed is the self-inflicted and mortal wound of many Catholic universities and colleges that have attempted to live in two diametrically opposed cultural worlds; one, a culture based upon freedom as the pursuit of excellence and the other, freedom of indifference. The first is from the tradition of St. Augustine and St. Thomas and the other is from the period of the Enlightenment beginning with Kant.
Q: What's the best thing and the worst thing about living in Rome?
A: The best thing is that the city has a tradition of holiness that is still living. Invariably you can go into churches and see lay men and women praying and you know that they are contemplatives or close to it; they inherited that from their parents and grandparents, and, even further, from undisclosed past generations.
The worse thing is that Rome is losing its coherent image of being the Eternal City. It's fast. Traffic is mortally dangerous. It is increasingly becoming an acquisitive, instrumentalizing, and commercial city. People become instruments that are limiting their freedom, dignity, interior beauty and goodness. In the past, pilgrims came to Rome to visit the grave of the Apostle Peter and would cross the Bernini bridge in front of Castel St. Angelo and on that bridge they would meditate on the passion of Christ. Now they are invited to much baser passions through advertisements and through public media as they travel through the streets of modern Rome.
Q: How much do you interact with Pope Benedict on Church business and on social occasions?...
I've known Pope Benedict XVI personally since 1988-89 and as a friend he is one of the greatest blessings of my life. Now he is Peter. I have known him as a friend, yes, but also as the one who has been given the keys of the kingdom and whose faith is the foundation of the Church. I've been at the Sistine chapel with the Pope and a limited number of persons for a choir concert. I've been with him at dinners that were more public than private. His life is filled with tension-creating events that require his decisions. We all recognize he has immense gifts for the Church. To use those gifts requires that he conserve his strength. We respect that. I can write to him personally and he reads the letter and always sends a response. That is my contact with him outside of work....
Q: The world was both puzzled and fascinated by the accounts of Blessed Mother Teresa's "dark night of the soul" — not that she lost her faith, but that she lost the comforting feelings that God was there. Have you ever experienced that, and if so, how was it resolved?
A: When I was a young priest I read and memorized part of the 13th chapter of the Ascent of Carmel by St. John the Cross. It has remained a foundation for my life. In sum, it says, "To come to be all, desire to be nothing. To come to know all, desire to know nothing etc." It is that kind of distinction that John of the Cross has made that is foundational to understanding the spiritual life of Mother Teresa.
I have been fascinated with the descriptive drawing of St. John of the Cross of his poem, the Ascent of Mt. Carmel. The ascent is made by a series of steps and on each of the steps is written "nada", "nada", "nada", five times—"nada." Nothing. No desire for joy, or happiness, or peace as one climbs these steps. When one goes up to the last step, again John has written "nothing." On the summit St. John again writes "nothing" with the essential addition of the words "the honor and glory of God." That's the kind of knowledge that Mother Teresa had been given. Even though spiritual writers call it the dark night, even in such darkness there is special light, a unique light that surpasses in brilliance everything else. We have forgotten this experience today. What the Church must learn anew is this mystical night.
Early on the afternoon of Archbishop Edwin O'Brien's recent installation in the Premier See, Stafford was spotted in an extended moment of private prayer before the tomb of his mentor, Cardinal Shehan.
Noting afterward to friends that he had been praying intently for the newcomer's successful ministry in his hometown, the cardinal let slip that he'd also made a quiet pilgrimage to Emmitsburg's Shrine of St Elizabeth Ann Seton to that end. As the sons of Baltimore's saint were Navy men, he thought, hopefully she'd keep a special eye out for the former pastor of the nation's military -- another New Yorker who, like her, found his way to Maryland.
Most of his fellow red-hats had already left the grounds of the "New Cathedral," but the native son held court, standing on a quiet side lawn for well over an hour.
Still clad in his choir dress, the understated figure's scarlet robes stood out. But even so, no entourage trailed him, no fanfare nor frills -- just old friends, new stories, a stream of smiles and warm conversations that stretched into the early evening.
And looking on, you could tell it was just how he liked it.