THE CHURCHMAN OF THE YEAR: The Reluctant Prince
Archbishop of Galveston-Houston
"Se ve. Se siente. DiNardo está presente."
"You see it. You feel it. DiNardo is here."
Just six weeks ago, that was the word from Rome. The surroundings might've been Italian, the chant Spanish, but its voice was catholic as, by the hundreds, a diverse group from the American South stormed the Vatican to mark their arrival on the stage of the global church.
From relative obscurity (at least, in the public mind), the Pope had tapped Archbishop Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston -- head of the US' youngest archdiocese, 31st in rank of the 34 archbishops -- to enter the papal senate. In a church where seniority and precedent often trump all else, the move has continued to find not a few of its establishment claiming "surprise," as states of shock or confounded silences continue to linger on the scene.
From every angle, however, it was a destiny years in the making.
In barely three decades, the mother see of Texas -- home to the nation's fourth-largest city, an emerging capital of international transport, migration and commerce -- had rocketed to a place among the nation's ten largest dioceses by population, its Catholic presence quadrupling to 1.5 million. The last American see to receive its first cardinal was Washington, where Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle received his red hat in 1967. The scarlet hadn't traveled to a new region of the country since 1953, when Los Angeles' James Francis McIntyre became the "Cardinal of the West." And among the chronicle of American Catholicism's 46 princes of the church since New York's John McCloskey was called to the college in 1875, a Southern prelate's induction into the Roman clergy joins the elevations of McCloskey, McIntyre and the 1924 rise of the first "Western" cardinal -- Chicago's George Mundelein -- as the watershed moments when the faith's pilgrimage across a continent earned its vanguards a place on the universal scene.
At the audience for his newly-created lieutenants, Benedict XVI might've told DiNardo that "Texas needed a cardinal." But its fruition was the climactic stroke of a Roman design a decade in the works.
Its script: to catapult the Curialist who picked parish ministry over a Vatican post from his founding pastorate in suburban Pittsburgh to an elector's seat in the conclave.
It all happened before his 60th birthday. And little of it as the wiry, unassuming cleric would've wished.
Lone Star Country needed a cardinal before 2007. Rome just bided its time 'til its choice got there. And, in a rare triumph of Vatican clairvoyance, the bet has paid off spectacularly.
They say that "everything's bigger in Texas," and the customary bounce of energy that a local church gets from the red hat is no exception. According to the locals, the elevation "has breathed new life" into an already booming, energized fold. Since arriving home, the new cardinal has been welcomed by crowds of thousands at every turn, his post-liturgy reception lines running into the early hours of the morning. A stronger sense of identity and unity is already being felt among the multiethnic mega-flock, and several parishes have noticed a curious uptick of calls about RCIA programs in the weeks following the November consistory.
The Houston press -- which had, according to one local, primarily "covered [the archdiocese] when the news was bad" -- provided acres and hours of the finest, most enthusiastic elevation coverage ever seen on these shores. And most significantly of all, in the very city where the first Catholic president sought to assuage panicked Protestant clergymen that the White House wouldn't take its lead from the Apostolic Palace, some of the most effusive testimonies to the advent of a Roman prince have come from H-Town's ecumenical and interfaith communities.
Texas -- and Houston in particular -- likes to view itself as the "New America," and not without reason. With Catholics recently edging out Evangelicals as the state's largest religious group, the new America has bred a model of American Church gaining in strength, size and reputation, an ascendancy now recognized with the elevation of a new breed of American Cardinal -- the post-institutional prince of the church.
Some might still be stunned, but it all happened in plain view. It just took a flash of scarlet to emerge to the fore.
And to think: it's only just beginning.
At mid-morning on 15 October, DiNardo was checking out of an Oklahoma City hotel when the papal nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, reached the Texas prelate on his cell-phone.
Due to a calcium buildup that requires hearing-aids in both his ears, DiNardo rarely uses his mobile; it mostly collects his messages, which he checks intermittently on a land-line.
Seeing the nunciature number, however, he picked up.
Having sat, Sambi dropped the bomb, telling him to return immediately to Houston. And everything afterward became a blur.
The announcement would be made 40 hours later. He told no one. By 11am Wednesday, five hours after Benedict revealed his list of 23 new cardinals during his weekly General Audience, the phone messages had already piled up by the hundreds at the Houston chancery.
Literally overnight, the quiet, relatively low-key life DiNardo loved was over.
Slight but intense, in contrast to some of his more overpowering peers, the cardinal cuts an inconspicuous figure. This was the prelate who, after a long day at last year's November Meeting, sat quietly with his usual Pinot Grigio in a corner of the Baltimore Marriott lounge, clad in a plaid button-down shirt and khaki Tommy Hilfiger windbreaker as, at the center of the room, a score of his confreres held court in their day-dress of collars, suits and pectoral crosses.
The hearing-aids were turned down, and the lone figure -- indistinguishable were it not for the same iconographic gold band he'd worn since his episcopal ordination -- almost seemed to be at prayer.
He's not one to seek out attention. But seek him out and, like a light switch, the "nervous energy" jump-starts itself.
He's a figure of wild contrasts: the Basselin Scholar given to earthy, dynamic preaching from the middle of church aisles; fluent in Latin but devoted to the spirituality of the Eastern tradition; loved in the Curia but wary of the trappings of high office; the staunch defender of Summorum Pontificum who spent a whole week last summer "singing his head off" and mixing with attendees at the Indianapolis conference of the National Pastoral Musicians, of which he's episcopal liaison. (A music fan who's spoken of singing as "the elevation of the human voice," DiNardo's motto -- "Ave Crux Spes Unica" ("Hail, O Cross, Our Only Hope") -- is taken from a sixth-century Roman hymn.)
The catch-all nature has baffled more than a few. At his 1997 ordination as coadjutor-bishop of Sioux City, the clergy of the Iowa diocese attempted the standard practice of figuring out their boss-in-waiting from his choices of co-consecrators and attending chaplains.
The "read" might usually be a reliable indicator. On this occasion, however -- and to the frustration of the local clergy -- the exercise proved futile.
Assisting then-Siouxland Bishop Lawrence Soens were DiNardo's former ordinary, then-Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, and the new bishop's classmate and longtime friend, then-Bishop Raymond Burke of LaCrosse.
The chaplains made for an even harder read. At one side stood the delicate, straight-laced Msgr Leonard Blair of Detroit, the onetime secretary of Cardinal Edmund Szoka and current bishop of Toledo. On the other was his best friend since high school -- the ponytailed, Harley-riding Fr Lou Vallone of Pittsburgh, known in the South for his proficiency at giving Black church revivals.
In the place he's spoken of as "14,000 square miles of cornfields, that just happened to contain 93,000 Catholics," the Iowans eventually came to recognize their bishop as "the most gifted man of the church we have ever experienced."
It was something they only would learn, however, once he hit the ground running.
The straight, unlit drags through cornfields were a far cry from his hometown of Pittsburgh, and even further removed from the cramped and winding streets of Rome. But, so he says, it was in the Heartland that the onetime director of the English desk at the Congregation for Bishops actually learned how to be one.
In 1984, the newly-arrived bishop of Pittsburgh, Anthony Bevilacqua, found a request from the Vatican dicastery requesting one of his priests for a five-year tour of duty.
Bevilacqua's predecessor, Bishop Vincent Leonard -- who ordained DiNardo six years earlier -- invariably refused the feelers from Central Office. But the Brooklyn-born, Rome-trained canonist -- who would, in time, go on to become cardinal-archbishop of Philadelphia -- was more given to the bigger picture of the church than Leonard, a native son who, DiNardo said, "taught me the value of being local, of belonging to a place."
After a canvass of his senior staff, the bishop offered the assignment to DiNardo, then 34 and doing double-duty as vice-chancellor and a professor at St Paul Seminary.
Marked out from his high school days as a standout talent, he was no stranger to the Eternal City, having spent his seminary days at the Pontifical North American College, studying in turns at the Gregorian and the Augustinianum, where he earned his licentiate in Patristics. The timing of his return, however, would prove fortuitous.
In a historic move months earlier, Pope John Paul II had appointed Cardinal Bernardin Gantin to head the congregation. Born in Benin, Gantin was the first African ever named to lead one of the nine top-level offices overseeing the internal matters of the worldwide church.
As minutante, or desk officer, DiNardo was responsible for processing the case-files pertaining to episcopal appointments in the US, Canada, Britain and Australia. The reports would then go to the body's membership of cardinals, who would vote on a nominee to recommend to the Pope.
Since the dicastery's work was a topic of intense focus around the globe, the job didn't just require a work ethic diligent enough to pore through ceaseless reams of documentation -- the 1985 selection of a new archbishop of Los Angeles, for example, saw a dossier that measured some two feet high dropped on his desk -- but the utmost discretion, to boot.
Every public, and some not-so-public, details of candidates' lives and careers lay on the junior cleric's desk, and whatever he saw would have to go with him to the grave. And, day after day, the files gave their reader a unique glimpse into the church's universality. Even more usefully for the road ahead, it allowed him to see that the church in the States was less a monolith than a tapestry of cultures, administrative models, pastoral ideas and the faithful's needs. As if the day job (on the usual curial schedule of six days a week) wasn't enough, he took on two other commitments: the directorate of Villa Stritch, the residence for American priests in the Vatican apparatus, and an adjunct position on the faculty of the NAC.
Both on the job and off, DiNardo's qualities of mind and spirit won a keen admirer in Gantin, among other curial chiefs and staffers. As 1989 approached and the early birds outside the walls began speculating on possibilities for John Paul's successor, the African cardinal had appeared on not a few lists of papabili. More concretely, however, his American aide's five-year term was ending.
It could've been renewed, and seemingly would've been without a flinch. If not, that is, for one minor issue: having served his stint, the Pittsburgher wanted to go home, back to the life of a parish priest.
"Dan will obey, but he'll say what he wants," a friend noted. The almost unheard-of wish to bolt Rome for the trenches was something of a brutta figura move -- if anything, most curialists would give anything to spend their lives in the Vatican offices, a quality especially true of non-Italians. Then again, honesty was one of the traits that won him his superiors' regard to begin with, even if it cut both ways.
It took a year of resisting the attempts to keep him from leaving, but his bosses realized he wouldn't be changing his mind. In 1990, Wuerl -- who had succeeded Bevilacqua in the Steel City two years earlier -- named DiNardo co-pastor of an Italian parish, Madonna del Castello, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.
At the time, friends recall him saying that "I've got everything I want in my life."
But there was more. Alongside the parish duties, he was named the diocese's #2 official in Wuerl's specialty area: education. DiNardo shared his bishop's devotion to catechesis -- one that, the former said, could only be rooted in "knowing the face of Christ" if it sought to be effective -- and to the formation of the young.
While Wuerl built a national following as the "education bishop," the younger official who ended up leapfrogging him to the Sacred College was honing his approach on ground level.
After four years juggling his first pastorate and the office, the teacher-prelate handed his lieutenant a new lesson.
Twenty miles outside Pittsburgh, the suburban community of Marshall Township was expanding at a rapid clip. In early 1994, Wuerl announced that 12 acres there would be home to a new parish, Saints John and Paul. Named in tribute to the then-pontiff -- who had ordained Wuerl to the episcopacy eight years earlier -- it also evoked the Passionist church on Rome's Coelian Hill (which, since 1946, has been the titular parish of the archbishops of New York). Appropriately, DiNardo was tapped to found it.
In his Whispers interview, the newly-named designate said that, among his models of ministry, one of the most powerful came from the pastor of his first parish assignment.
Fr Tom Marpes would always be on the lookout out for regulars who were missing from Sunday Mass. Without fail, the next afternoon found the Lebanese priest at the table in the rectory kitchen as he called the absentees -- not to chide, but simply to make sure they were OK.
"It might sound unusual today," his former associate said, "but it was his way of showing that he cared."
The example proved particularly useful in keeping tabs on a new community's growth. No buildings existed on the parish plot, so "Father Dan" -- though made a monsignor in Rome, he shirked the title -- and a core group from his 650 families began tracking down a starter site for Masses and offices, eventually nabbing a 300-seat makeshift "chapel" and two smaller rooms on the lower level of a local office complex.
While DiNardo came to realize the one easy part of founding a parish -- "you don't hear 'But, Father, we've done it this way for years' for the first six months" -- every so often, the ghost of Rome would reappear and see if he was still enjoying himself at home.
Just in case he wasn't, "something" -- most likely an episcopal appointment in the Curia -- could always be arranged. Gladly.
The pastor was happy and the parish was growing -- a return trip wasn't wanted or needed. But his fans along the Tiber hadn't given up finding something he'd finally see fit to accept.
No curial don leaves office without shepherding a handful of cherished projects to fruition, and the Dean from Benin was no exception. His friend from Pittsburgh had been given seven years to live the dream and work quietly on the ground at home, but the reserved cardinal known for his prayerful spirit and gentle touch wouldn't go until he ensured that his former aide's talents had been put to the church's wider service.
By then, the task DiNardo once performed alone required not one Pennsylvanian, but two. The staff was on board, as were the four American cardinals who sat on the congregation's voting membership. And, in a facet that wouldn't come to full bloom until a decade later, undoubtedly aware of -- and sharing in -- the departing prefect's esteem for the Pittsburgher was the cardinal who was the congregation's best-prepared, most observant member: Gantin's closest ally in the Curia's top rank, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger.
Knowing of the candidate's fondness for intense study before acting, the pitch was sweetened by making his appointment not a direct one to the bishop's chair, but as successor-in-waiting to a cooperative 71 year-old ordinary, providing a learning period that would allow for the most seamless transition possible.
In the dead of summer, as much of Pittsburgh was making its annual pilgrimages to South Carolina and Stone Harbor, the call was placed to Marshall.
A year earlier, Fr Dan had overseen the completion of a multi-use building of classrooms, offices, a temporary church and pastor's apartment, and had the project's debt paid off within months.
The nominee had to check his atlas to find Sioux City. But this time, he accepted.
"We knew he wouldn't be here long," one Siouxlander said. As for what the new arrival brought to the table in a place that was "certainly not the center of the universal church," a local priest brimmed to overflowing.
"His intelligence, wit, and ability to passionately and persuasively preach the Gospel are unmatched," the cleric said.
"He is also a genuinely humble man -- there's no way that he could be unaware of his gifts, [but] he never made a fuss over himself, and was visibly uncomfortable when other people did.
"Before all else, he is a shepherd."
Without fail, the bishop cris-crossed the diocese relentlessly: present at every function, taking time with every person, sometimes getting an earful (and doing what he could about it), keeping contacts across the turf, and sticking around 'til the last person had gone. (The only people he was known to avoid: politicians... who tend to be especially abundant in Iowa every fourth winter.) The priests' monthly deanery meetings would be a double-bill of business and down-time with the Boss, small-group dinners were routine at the simple house in a suburban development he called home and, with his distaste for handlers, his entourage was never more than himself.
The mark of the pastor, however, lay away from the big-print. While churchfolk can easily be tempted to measure leadership by the yardsticks of grand initiatives, big numbers or public flourishes, the record shows none of these. A pastor knows that the commission to teach and preach -- to lead and give life -- isn't done in the wholesale, nor through policies, nor at the desk, but one by one, person to person. The policy is the Gospel, the most priceless asset is faith; live by and invest in those, and the rest just has a way of working itself out.
(The closest thing to a diocesan initiative DiNardo sought in Sioux City was an effort to train his priests in spiritual direction, with the hope that his clergy and the people could easily find regular, sound guidance.)
The bishop's interest in a low profile extended practically to everything outside his diocese. The congregation, however, kept its eye on Iowa, and barely five years after succeeding Soens as diocesan bishop, another phone call was being prepared.
By late 2003 -- after a spate of rumors had the Siouxland prelate in the mix for the bishopric of Brooklyn -- Gantin had gone home, replaced by his former second-in-command, Giovanni Battista Re. Ratzinger was still at the table, as were the four Americans. In the wake of the abuse earthquake of 2002, the nation's bishops felt under siege and, with American cases being placed under a closer microscope, the appointment process had started to go beyond the usual six to nine month time frame.
One succession, however, was settled before it could even be broached.
A leader of the US church's "good-governance" wing, as Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston approached his 73rd birthday in early 2004, he sent a letter to the congregation advising that it might want to start considering the appointment of a coadjutor for Texas' largest diocese.
The flock was booming at a staggering rate, with domestic transplants and an international mix of immigrants pouring in to an extent that the church was hard-pressed to keep pace with. A former president of the US bishops, Fiorenza often mused that he could open seven parishes the next morning -- if he had the priests to staff them. Religious and foreign clergy outnumbered the incardinated presbyterate by about 2 to 1. And on top of all that, already sharing the episcopal duties with two auxiliaries, the coming of an heir apparent would make the burden easier still.
Just two months after Fiorenza's note to Re, the native-son bishop was reportedly taken aback when the congregation sent word that his coadjutor had been named.
The bishop of Sioux City had never set foot in the Lone Star State. Heading to the home of the nation's second-largest Hispanic community, he couldn't speak Spanish extemporaneously.
But yet again, the vote of confidence was there where it counted -- and, yet again, the chattering circles registered barely a ripple as the design to make Houston the church's Southern hub had rolled into full gear.
There would be no dark roads in Southeast Texas. If anything, quite the opposite.
Nine months after DiNardo's Texan welcome -- held in a large parish church as the 600-seat Houston co-cathedral was deemed too small -- the future came into an even wider view.
During the Christmas Octave of 2004, as John Paul's declining health loomed ominously over the Catholic world, the state's longtime metropolitan, Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio, retired, with the Denver auxiliary Jose Gomez (a longtime Houston hand before his appointment to the Rockies) named to succeed him. But simultaneously, for the first time since 1980, an American province was split up -- San Antonio would keep the western seven suffragans of what had been the global church's largest metropolitan jurisdiction as the eastern six were siphoned off to the newly-elevated archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
Within a matter of years, a chain of events unseen in US Catholicism since the overnight explosions of the dioceses of Los Angeles and Detroit in the early 1940s quickly became evident: first, the population rose, then the caliber of leadership, a pallium appeared... and the rest -- i.e. the red -- would soon follow.
Having visited all but a few of the new archdiocese's 149 parishes over the course of his two-year apprenticeship, on Mardi Gras 2006 -- ironically enough, also Opening Day of the city's biggest annual event: the renowned Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo -- DiNardo became the second archbishop as the newly-elected Benedict XVI accepted Fiorenza's retirement. To mark the transition, the new chief issued a video message via the archdiocesan website and set out immediately to work.
His journey to the corner office completed, the mental notes he'd been taking quickly became action items. Gently, but firmly, they came to light: insufficiently reverent tabernacle placements were to be rectified, and liturgical norms adhered to more faithfully; permanent deacons would start receiving assignments to archdiocesan ministries in addition to their parish duties; even more resources would be poured into young adult ministry -- and, especially given the dearth of homegrown clergy, priests belonged in the parishes, not the chancery.
The venue might've changed, his profile raised mightily, but the man and his hallmarks stayed the same: never an MC, driver, or priest-secretary hovering over him, no desire for a national profile or responsibilities outside the diocese (except NPM), out among the people whenever possible, appraised of the doings in the office but not immersed in them; and, when his presence was sought, seldom (if ever) saying "no."
As in Sioux City, following his succession the archbishop took up residence at another simple, small house, this time at St Mary's Seminary. (His first Houston home, however, was humbler still; Fiorenza had allotted his coadjutor a spartan two-room flat on the chancery's top floor.) Reflecting its occupant's Eastern affinity, iconography now decorates the chapel of the traditional Archbishop's Residence, which boasts just one accoutrement not often seen in his parishes -- a chalice veil.
His collaborators have described him in turns as "a gift of God," "a truly holy man," and "one who personifies Christ's love for the church." But that doesn't mean the experience has been without its bumps.
At a priests' gathering shortly after taking the reins from Fiorenza, DiNardo made a point of underscoring his seriousness about rubrics and well-celebrated liturgy. Channeling Dirty Harry, those who did otherwise were, he said, welcome to "make my day."
The remark sparked outrage among segments of the presbyterate. When asked about it at a subsequent convocation, he apologized. In the end, his ability to admit an error ended up earning more goodwill than the initial quote could've drained. Two years later, after pressure from his staff forced the naming of a priest-secretary on his elevation, he apologized again to his presbyteral council for drawing on the archdiocese's clerical resources. (The choice of aide fell on Fr Gerald Goodrum, who Fiorenza ordained in 2005.)
Not the greatest enthusiast for the administrative end of the office, the reshuffle of the archdiocese's central staff is ongoing. Keeping with the aim to not place any further strain on the already-stretched demand for clergy, Bishop Joe Vasquez -- the lone active auxiliary -- serves as chancellor and, in a first, DiNardo named a laywoman, Christina Deajon, as Vasquez's deputy on his first day in office. (A former assistant counsel to the archdiocese, Deajon is believed to be the highest-ranking African-American layperson serving in a US chancery.) At present, the archdiocese's top two financial posts are in the process of being filled.
He delegates authority willingly and expects the best -- and as one aide who's seen him in office mode put it, were anything less delivered, "I wouldn't want to be on his bad side."
That firmness, however, finds its flip-side in creativity. While many of his confreres either panicked at or turned a blind eye to the 2006 Vatican ruling revoking the permission for lay liturgical ministers to participate in the purification of vessels, the now-cardinal came up with a "third way" solution that both complied with the policy while avoiding post-Communion chaos, establishing a diocesan program for the formation of acolytes. Married men can be admitted to the order, and instituted acolytes were still permitted to care for the vessels by universal law.
While the predominant response sought to criticize the policy-change as pastorally insensitive or excessively rigid, a practical solution was present in the rubrics all along, it just took a bit of investment at the outset.
The Houston prelate saw the opening and ran with it. How many others did is anyone's guess.
Never one to forget a name or face, Benedict XVI first met the young priest from Pittsburgh as he took notes for Gantin at the bilateral meetings between the top officials of the CDF and Bishops. The staff's job was to remain inconspicuous. Clearly, though, enough of an impression had been made.
Back in the States, the names proffered for the red hat were primarily the old guard of the church: Washington, St Louis, Baltimore. Not a few advocated San Antonio -- US Catholicism's Hispanic seat -- and Gomez as the more likely choice should a red hat travel. But in the end, alongside the chiefs of the Curia and the heads of the marquee sees of Paris, Bombay, Nairobi and Barcelona, it was Galveston-Houston's chief pastor who got the nod, completing its rapid ascent to the top tier of the global church.
But some things were still more important -- at least, for the figure at the center of the storm. As the chaos of Announcement Day bore down and cameras swarmed the chancery for a hastily-called, exuberant press conference (fullvideo), DiNardo kept a commitment to attend the installation of a Protestant pastor in the city. The following afternoon, with the frantic plans for the unprecedented consistory pilgrimage just beginning to take shape, he refused to miss a priest's funeral.
Twice a coadjutor, one thing DiNardo never had was a proper installation as a diocesan bishop. He ended up with a coronation instead as, over Thanksgiving Weekend, the threads of his life converged in the Eternal City.
To the amusement of Vallone's longtime sidekick, the sight of a cassocked cleric with a ponytail provided enough of an attraction to keep the crowd under control as almost a thousand well-wishers queued up for a moment with the new cardinal at the traditional post-consistory reception in the Apostolic Palace. And earlier that day, as the bareheaded cardinal-designate processed down the main aisle of St Peter's with the other 22 honorees, another pilgrim took to shouting "Hey, DiNardo!" over the basilica's barricades.
On his way to be inducted into the Roman clergy, the voice of Marshall was calling.
Since departing his founding pastorate for Sioux City, Fr Dan's initial flock of 650 families had more than tripled at Sts. John and Paul, and Fr Joe McCaffrey had been tasked with the construction of a permanent church.
Spotted by his onetime spiritual director, "he shouted back," McCaffrey told a local paper, "asking how things are at the parish."
Led by his twin sister, Peg, his three siblings and their families were there, as was his ordination classmate David Zubik, now Pittsburgh's 12th bishop, with a planeload from the Steel City. A low-profile retirement couldn't keep Bevilacqua from seeing the first of his proteges to don the "sacred purple" alongside him, and from the Heartland where he learned what episcopal ministry was all about, a group of 40 from Sioux City -- including his successor, Bishop Walker Nickless -- descended to honor the first American cardinal whose road wound through Iowa.
But for all these, the week belonged to the upwards of 700 Texans. The group's diversity and excitement turned heads even among their fellow cheering-sections, and as their chants bounced off the city's walls, one longtime Vatican hand said the "radiant" Houston crowd had provided the natives with a much-appreciated sign -- that, for all the bad headlines of recent years, "the church in America is still very much alive."
The show of unity wasn't a one-off occurrence. "Everyone really gets along here," DiNardo said shortly after the elevation was announced, ticking off a list of the archdiocese's cultural groups: the Hispanic majority, a historically prominent African-American contingent, vibrant Vietnamese and Filipino communities, the world's largest concentration of Nigerians outside their home country, and more.
Almost since the beginning, tensions between rival ethnic factions have been a mainstay of the church's American journey... that is, until the Southwest.
The region's newest honor isn't just papal recognition of a metropolis and its momentum, but of the energized, collaborative model that, following generations of Establishment suspicion, earned Southern Catholicism a place at the civic table not through confrontation, coercion or compromise, but a commitment to the common good and the credibility of its witness.
"Congratulations, Cardinal," it said. "Now get to work."
Just when he thought his 2008 plans were "worked out," DiNardo told his flock that "a number of things have now been turned topsy-turvy.
"It should be an interesting time in the year ahead," he said. "I really need your prayers!"
As it wasn't just a matter of weeks ago, the ecclesiastical spotlight now rests squarely on what its new prince has termed the "happy chaos" of Houston, of Texas and the wider South.
The archdiocese's marquee event of the year -- the early April dedication of its first permanent Houston hub, the $64 million, 2,000-seat Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart -- now takes on the dynamics of a national, even international, event.
From near and far, the invites and requests have already increased, as has his public prominence on the local circuit, the once-averted political niceties included.
Earlier this week, DiNardo offered the invocation as Houston Mayor Bill White was sworn in for his third term. In mid-December, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry hosted a "private" lunch for 400 to welcome the new cardinal home, the guest of honor used the statewide coverage of the Austin event to tackle the controversial topic of immigration, advocating the moral imperative of family reunification and saying that "punitive measures alone" to the end of protecting the nation's borders "are going to be ultimately ineffective and, I think, counterproductive."
But, again, the ride is just beginning.
At 58, the youngest American cardinal elevated in nearly two decades has another 22 years of eligibility in a conclave. With 15 of the US' 17 red-hats now older than 71, his seniority in the top rank will accrue quickly. What's more, as the undisputed head of the Stateside church's most dynamic region and leader of the second-largest state grouping of the nation's Catholics, his potential degree of national influence -- already evidenced by the deference accorded him at November's USCCB plenary -- could be without peer.
Well, to the degree he seeks to use it. Time is, after all, on his side.
Seemingly overnight, much has changed for the pastor-turned-"Cardinardo." But the mind and approach of his parish roots remain unscathed.
Keen to put one on his rectory wall, a Houston priest recently asked his boss when his formal portrait in the scarlet would be ready. Never a fan of flashbulbs, DiNardo told him there were bigger things to think about -- even in the purple, he said "it's still me." (Six weeks since the consistory, the shot has remained untaken.)
And as he preached from the aisle to a group of young people, another of his clerics was overheard muttering that "This guy should be teaching high school religious ed., not running a diocese."
The line was intended as a slight. But as the nation's hierarchy struggles to restore its credibility, an American cardinal couldn't ask for a better compliment.
PHOTOS: AP/Pier Paolo Cito; Getty Images; Sts. John and Paul Parish, Marshall Pa.; Loggiarazzi; Smiley N. Pool/(Removed by order of the) Houston Chronicle