Sunday, December 17, 2017

“A Quiet Departure” – In Cardinal Law’s Last Days, Boston (and Rome) Braces

SVILUPPO (10pm ET, Tuesday 19 December): Per reports from three senior Whispers ops, Bernard Cardinal Law died shortly after Midnight Wednesday, 20 December, in Rome.

While the Archdiocese of Boston has yet to release a formal announcement of the passing, according to custom, Roman Noon (6am Eastern) will see the release of the usual condolence telegram from Pope Francis upon the death of a cardinal.

According to the ops, the traditional funeral rites in St Peter's Basilica could be held as soon as Friday. (Ed.: Update with Wednesday's developments.)

For the many late to the story, it's all explained below – here's Sunday night's first report on what's now come to pass, and what happens from here.

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(Sunday, 17 December – 9pm Eastern)  

Even with the Pope’s 81st birthday – and the usual attempts at controversies – dominating center stage in this run-up to Christmas, per usual, the story you're not hearing about is the most significant of them all.

Fifteen years to the week since his resignation as archbishop of Boston amid the fallout of a scandal that would spread across the global church, Cardinal Bernard Law is facing his final illness in a Roman hospital, according to several Whispers ops informed of the situation.

Said to be undergoing “a slow, steady decline,” several of his devoted aides at his bedside, church officials on both sides of the Atlantic are in active preparation for the death of the 86 year-old prelate – a day long dreaded given the ongoing fury the cardinal evokes as the perceived emblematic figure of a cover-up for abusive priests, a tragedy whose local reporting in 2002 sparked the greatest crisis American Catholicism has ever known.

As one authoritative source relayed to Whispers before the weekend, “anything can happen at any time.”

Whenever it does, much as the moment is bound to bring a “media circus” to the American city Law bestrode as a colossus for close to two decades, according to long-determined plans, none of the eventual sendoff will take place in Boston. Instead, the cardinal’s farewell is expected to follow the customary ritual for a top-level hierarch resident in Rome – one which would take place within hours of his passing, and will inevitably involve the presence of the Pope, who traditionally enters St Peter’s Basilica at the close of a Mass to lead the Final Commendation at the Altar of the Chair. (In addition, as with the death of every cardinal, Francis will issue a telegram of condolence, the wording of which will prove especially sensitive – not to mention closely watched – in this case.)

Though the venue would reflect the cardinal’s radioactive standing in the US’ public eye, it nonetheless serves to underscore the equally heated reaction to John Paul II’s 2004 appointment of Law as archpriest of St Mary Major, a sinecure which made him the pontiff’s delegate to one of Rome’s four principal basilicas. In light of that role (from which he was retired by then-Pope Benedict XVI within days of turning 80 in 2011), Law will be buried in the crypt beneath the Liberian Basilica – Christendom’s oldest church dedicated to the Mother of God, the gold adorning its ceilings said to have been brought back by Christopher Columbus from his journeys to the “new world.”

Even if the focus will be in Rome, among other unresolved questions is the role Law’s successor, Cardinal Seán O’Malley OFM Cap., will take upon the announcement. Having returned from the Vatican on Saturday from this week’s meetings of Francis’ “Gang of 9” on the reform of the Curia, the presence of the Pope’s principal North American adviser at the Roman rites would ostensibly be contingent on his schedule, which is less flexible than usual given the Christmas cycle of commitments at home: a marathon that runs through to one of his most cherished events of the year – his annual Mass in Kreyol for Haiti's Independence Day on January 1st.

Whatever the case, while the Capuchin is likely to offer a comment shortly after the news emerges, the moment of his predecessor’s passing is virtually certain to make for O’Malley’s most challenging bout at the helm of the 1.9 million-member Boston church since late 2004, when the merger of almost 70 parishes in the wake of the abuse disclosures spurred a fresh outpouring of anger and protests. (Shortly after taking the reins of the archdiocese in mid-2003, O'Malley settled 550 lawsuits for $85 million, all filed over the prior year of the scandals' outbreak.)

Long dogged by health issues – and, indeed, a forced loneliness born of the circumstances – Law returned to the US on but a handful of occasions since his resignation at 71 was accepted in person (above) on 13 December 2002, mostly for off-the-radar visits with old friends far from New England.

In his last open appearance on American soil, the cardinal concelebrated the August 2015 funeral of his close confidant, the longtime Curial Cardinal William Wakefield Baum, in Washington’s St Matthew’s Cathedral, his presence attracting scant notice in the sparse crowd, but garnering warm greetings from the prelates in attendance, several of whom Law championed during his two decades as a voting member of the Congregation for Bishops.

With no shortage of Law’s proteges and favorites still in the thick of active ministry, many are already weighing an overseas trip to join the farewell. As one resolved to making the journey put it, “What can I say? I have a great affection for a very flawed human being.”

Asked for a formal comment on the matter, the Boston Chancery spokesman Terry Donilon has not replied. In his absence, it can be reported that several Boston ops have relayed word of a significant push over recent days to finalize a "balanced" statement to mark Law's passing, aiming to recognize both the cardinal's global contributions across several decades – most notably his diplomatic success in securing John Paul's historic 1998 visit to Cuba and the genesis of what would become the Catechism of the Catholic Church – and the enduring toll of his failures of governance at home, above all in the lives of victim-survivors and their families.

Sensitive as the moment might feel with Christmas at hand, it merely echoes the beginning of the dramatic arc now approaching its close. On Epiphany Sunday 2002, the Boston Globe's Spotlight desk unleashed its first report on the serial predator John Geoghan, whose abuse of 130 boys across several parish assignments over the tenures of three archbishops resulted in convictions shortly after the pieces made print.

After a year of the paper's coverage and its repercussions across the wider church resulted in Law's resignation (which he had offered to John Paul early in 2002, only for it to be declined for months), the Globe went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service – the most prestigious category of journalism's top accolade – and, in time, a Hollywood depiction of the investigative team's story was given the Academy Award for Best Picture, notably to the applause of a new generation of the nation's Catholic leadership.

In his last public word in English – released as his exit from office took effect – Law gave the following statement:
I am profoundly grateful to the Holy Father for having accepted my resignation as Archbishop of Boston.

It is my fervent prayer that this action may help the Archdiocese of Boston to experience the healing, reconciliation and unity which are so desperately needed.

To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness.

To the bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity, with whom I have been privileged to work in our efforts to fulfil the Church's mission, I express my deep gratitude. My gratitude extends as well to so many others with whom I have been associated in serving the common good; these include those from the ecumenical, Jewish, and wider interreligious communities as well as public officials and others in the civil society.

The particular circumstances of this time suggest a quiet departure. Please keep me in your prayers.