Saturday, May 31, 2008

Golden Ted

This afternoon, 50 years to the day of his priestly ordination, Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick will mark the milestone with a public Mass in DC's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

If the record's any indicator, the man is one of the most-accomplished Stateside prelates of the post-Conciliar era -- his tour of duty's seen him serve as secretary to the Cardinal-Archbishop of New York, dean of students at CUA and president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, auxiliary bishop of his hometown, founding ordinary of Metuchen, archbishop first of Newark, then in the nation's capital, always doubling up his plate with a boatload of other commitments, as if the day jobs alone weren't demanding enough.

But whether his audience has been heads of state or disaster victims on the road, grade-schoolers or Tim Russert at home, those who know him well and admired him from afar have always cited the cardinal's sense of simplicity and modesty -- the famous homespun kindness -- as his defining quality. Along the way, it raised untold millions for the help the church, the neediest and the common good, earned widespread affection, esteem and credibility in the public square... and, of course, brought the Pope to New Jersey... and Our Lady of Kazan to the Vatican.

Needless to say, the heights have been quite high. For most others, they'd be dizzying. But not even these could keep the prelate known to everyone from reporters to donors to his aides as "Uncle Ted" from keeping close to the ground, still buying his jackets from a Hertz Rent-a-Car closeout sale (the company's patches still sewn in the liner), shirking the French cuffs in favor of his beloved tab shirt and sweater-vest, heading out on the first plane to be present for victims of natural disasters the world over with help and consolation, or even -- as his confreres went into lockdown mode over the first waves of the abuse crisis -- pulling a couple dusty folding chairs off a stack to sit down with a reporter and talk frankly about the scandals on-record.

He's allegedly been "retired" these last two years, but for the Ted, that just means he's been freed to take on his longtime moonlighting gigs -- diplomat, humanitarian, fund-raiser, policy-wonk, pilgrim -- full-time.

Asking after the cardinal's schedule shortly after his return from a week in Greenland a couple months back, a friend heard him rattling off commitments: a Red Mass in New Hampshire, two weeks in India and Nepal, a stop in Rome on the way home. But still, he knew he couldn't miss Monday morning at the USCCB plenary, the time when the body's "seniores" -- the retired bishops -- are traditionally introduced.

"If you miss that," he said, "they think you're dead."

They'd make an exception in his case, but he made it anyway. And, sure enough, a couple minutes into the coffee break, he was on the road again.

The Canons say that, both collectively and individually, the cardinals are "especially" entrusted with "the daily care of the universal church." And, well, you'd be hard-pressed to find another among the bunch who takes the charge as seriously as the seaman's son who never knew his Dad; the slight, unimposing figure whose embrace over a half-century ended up spanning the globe.

As his global family gathers 'round in the capital, the jubliarian reminisced in the pages of DC's Catholic Standard:
The cardinal speaks in family terms of the man he asked to preach at his anniversary Mass, his successor leading the Archdiocese of Washington, Archbishop Donald Wuerl. "He's been a very gracious brother," he said.

And joining Cardinal McCarrick at the Mass will be many men that he calls his "sons" - the priests and bishops he has ordained over the years and remains close with. Since being ordained a bishop 31 years ago, he has ordained more than 320 priests and 12 bishops.

"One of the reasons the Lord has blessed us with vocations is, we all realize we're a family," he said, adding that he always tried to get to know each of his seminarians personally before he ordained them.

Fifty years later, he can smile about his own ordination day, but it wasn't so funny back in May 1958. "A disaster happened at the seminary the day before," he said, remembering that about one-half of the 32 men about to be ordained priests for the Archdiocese of New York fell deathly ill the day before, probably from food poisoning. The night prayers of the men about to be ordained took on special meaning, as the sound of ambulances could be heard at the seminary during the night.

"I was fine, thank God! Of the 32 to be ordained, some looked like death warmed over. Everybody got through," Cardinal McCarrick remembered, adding, "I was afraid when they prostrated (during the ordination), they wouldn't get up." The men were ordained that day by New York Cardinal Francis Spellman.

Humorous memories aside, moments from his ordination and the subsequent ordinations he presided at remain special to him.

He remembers at his ordination when his name was called, and he responded in Latin, "Ad sum."

"You say, 'here I am,' 'ad sum.' Now they say, 'present.' That's the real call. That's the vocation. I'm here to serve, to do whatever. That's a special moment (in the ceremony)," he said.

Lying prostrate reminds the man about to be ordained a priest that he is giving himself totally to the Lord, Cardinal McCarrick said. "I'm here because I want to give you (God) everything."

A famous prayer from St. Ignatius of Loyola remains among his favorites:
"Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,

my memory, my understanding

and my entire will,

All I have and call my own.

"You have given all to me.

To you, Lord, I return it.

"Everything is yours; do with it what you will.

Give me only your love and your grace.

That is enough for me."
Interviewed recently at Redemptoris Mater, the mission seminary in Hyattsville that he established for the Archdiocese of Washington and where he lives in his retirement, Cardinal McCarrick said he experiences God's love every day. "I'm amazed at the goodness of God, the mercy of God. Here I am, 50 years a priest."
After his ordination, he dreamed of being a parish priest, but God had other plans for him, he said. "In 50 years (since) I've been ordained, I've only had two years of parish work," he said. As a young priest, he even turned down a Rome assignment, because he thought it would take him from parish work. "There's an old saying, 'If you want to make God smile, make plans!'"...

The cardinal said his greatest surprise in his 50 years as a priest has been to see "how good God is. A priest is able to see the goodness of God in awesome ways."

When he retired in the summer of 2006, Cardinal McCarrick said he prayed that he could continue to do three things:

¥ to work for peace in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, where he continues to visit four or five times a year, working with religious leaders in that effort;

¥ to help with dialogue between Islam and the Catholic Church, which he said is "so important for peace in the world, and for the future of the world;"

¥ and to continue to serve the poor, work that he continues as a board member for Catholic Relief Services, traveling around the world on that agency's behalf. "The poor have been such extraordinary examples in my life," he said, noting he experienced the poor as a young bishop in Harlem and he witnesses the plight of immigrant families today as a retired archbishop. "These are people so close to the Lord," he said of the poor.
On his Golden Anniversary and always, God love the Eminent Jubilarian -- now and forever, our Ted.

PHOTOS: Washington Catholic Standard(1); Paul Morse/The White House(2); David Ryan/Boston Globe(3)