Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fr. Dan, the Pastor

Admittedly, the torrent of "surprise" expressed in practically all the rest of the media over the elevation of the American South's first prince of the church has been, well, rather confounding.

Par for the (press) corps, sure, but still....

See, even on Cardinal-designate Daniel DiNardo's first morning as head of the US' sixth-largest diocese (19 months ago), it was intimated on these pages that the red hat was already believed to be on its way to Galveston-Houston (...with the hint dropped again here nine months later).

Well, gang, at least you weren't shocked. Which means that you've been served well. I hope.

That is, after all, my job.

(On a related note, next year's Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will be held at the Colosseum.

(Just kidding... at least, as things stand -- the first prep meeting for a Texas pilgrimage was held earlier today in H-Town. At the very least, though, one'd hope that George Strait might be able to play for the Pope; given B16's prior musings on pop culture, suffice it to say he's not Dylan.

(On another related note, the news comes as the Romans -- who customarily pride themselves on having seen everything -- are still getting over the last descent of mass Texans on the Urb... which'll make things even more eventful come Consistory Week.... As if they weren't already.)

Anyway, when the historic appointment was finally confirmed by a phone call from Rome 40 minutes before the papal utterance early yesterday, after a, um, moment of emotion that a fellow product of my lineage would take his place beside our shared mentor in the Pope's Senate, I placed a westward call to congratulate one of DiNardo's nearest and dearest: Fr Lou Vallone -- sometime canonist and deep-sea diver; full-time genius, biker-priest, brain-trust, adviser and great friend to so many (this scribe included)... all on top of pastoring two parishes in suburban Pittsburgh.

A friend of the cardinal-designate from their high school days, without skipping a beat after hearing the news, Vallone fired off but one line: "I never realized our church was that smart."

And, in the coming edition of his parish bulletin, he explains the thought:
The phone call came at 5:31 AM. The words that greeted me were "It's Dan!" I groggily replied that it didn't sound like Dan. (There is only one Dan that would call me on my cell phone that early in the morning. He had done it on two other occasions, which I will refer to later.) The response was "No, I'm Rocco. It's Dan who has just been named a cardinal!"

Rocco Palmo is a blogger who is known throughout the English speaking world as a premier Vatican watcher, even though he is still shy of his 25th birthday. His intel on things Catholic is internationally sought and respected. We have been correspondents for a number of years. He was calling to inform me that Archbishop Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who started his clerical life as a fellow seminarian to me 44 years ago here in Pittsburgh at the Bishop's Latin School (a high school seminary that no longer exists) had just been made a Prince of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI at the Wednesday audience in Rome.

This was rather earth-shaking, in that he is the first cardinal to be named in the American South, is not yet 60 years old, and had only been an archbishop for less than two years. Every one had expected Archbishop Wuerl of Washington D.C. to be named, since he is shepherd of the nation's capital and that post has always had a cardinal for the past 40 years. The only other American to be named was a Philadelphian, Archbishop Foley, who has been serving in the Vatican for almost a quarter of a century. Now, Dan is one of only 120 cardinal-electors of the Catholic Church - those who vote on a new pope when one is needed, and from whose ranks popes normally come.

My next call, four minutes later, started with the same words: "It's Dan." But this time it was in fact the man himself. Twice before, when he was named bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, then later transferred to become coadjutor bishop of Galveston-Houston, he called at an early hour to inform me. When he was named an archbishop at the raising of his diocese to metropolitan status, he also told me the news equally early. But on that occasion it was over our first cup of coffee in the morning prior to celebrating Mass at the Church at St. Mary's here at St. John of God Parish.

That's right - our own parishioners are well acquainted with this brilliant, but self-effacing servant of God and His people because he frequently stays at our rectory; and when he does, he delights in celebrating daily Mass. In fact, many more of our people may remember less than two months ago when we were short a priest, that he took both the anticipated Masses for the Assumption Holy Day at the Chapel at Mother of Sorrows. (After which he strolled the grounds of our festival, eating, drinking, and spending his money while meeting and greeting the people.) He also celebrated the Saturday evening Mass at the Church of St. Mary so that I didn't have to try to rush back from St. Catherine's to do it. He loves to stay here. His parents are deceased - more the pity now that he has been so honored in testimony to their upbringing. He treats this as his Pittsburgh home because while here he is once again merely “Fr. Dan” – a Pastor, which is the only ambition he has ever had in life, though the Church has consistently seen fit to assign him other tasks.

Just one story to prove the last point: every time he stays here, he tries to give me money to pay for his expenses, which I of course refuse. Invariably, he leaves behind a check made out to the Parish, but specified for the Parish Share Program. Only a real pastor knows that doing it that way saves the 17.6 % diocesan tax and is therefore doubly appreciated.
In the cardinal-to-be's former diocese -- where he lived in a simple suburban house -- the Siouxlanders spent yesterday recalling DiNardo's "talent, wisdom and humor":
The Rev. Brad Pelzel, vocations director for the diocese, was ordained by DiNardo in August 2002.

Pelzel, who served as a priest in what is now the Holy Trinity Parish in Webster County for four years until last summer, said he experienced DiNardo’s generosity literally from the beginning of his priesthood.

‘‘At the time of my ordination, my mother was ill with cancer and had been hospitalized the night before,’’ Pelzel said. ‘‘The bishop delayed the start of my ordination almost an hour so that my mom could come. That doesn’t often happen.’’

Before Pelzel was ordained, he said, DiNardo shared some of wisdom that he had gained over the years.

‘‘He told me that, if I was going to make a mistake in my priestly duties to err on the side of compassion,’’ Pelzel said.

Jason Swedlund, who became acquainted with DiNardo as director of music at Sacred Heart Church, characterized the cardinal-elect as very generous and very humble.

‘‘My impressions were that he was a very gifted man pastorally,’’ Swedlund said. ‘‘He is very good with children. ... He believes a lot in our youth.’’
...and more from Iowa:
"He took a very strong interest in the rural economy, caring for the land and all sorts of issues that are important to Iowans," said Eaton, 62, of Sioux City. "He saw Iowans as independent people, not easily swayed or led astray."

Marilyn Christiansen, 72, of Dakota Dunes, S.D., was honored when DiNardo officiated the 2000 funeral mass for her husband, Russell, who was retired chief executive officer of MidAmerican Energy.

"He was so holy and so fun," Christiansen said of DiNardo. "Probably one of the best homilists I ever heard. He also had a very good sense of humor."

DiNardo told Christiansen a story about a phone conversation he had with his ailing mother before Easter one year. She asked him if he could come home for the holiday, but DiNardo reminded her he would be very busy during the week leading up to the holiday.

"She said, 'Why don't you talk to your bishop?' He said, 'Mother, I am the bishop,' " Christiansen said.

Dick Billings, 48, a deacon at Blessed Sacrament in Sioux City, said DiNardo is a good administrator and a good spiritual guide. "He could speak about the saints or the issues of the day, but in a way that the average Catholic could understand," Billings said...
...just like the Pope who elevated him.

In 1924, Archbishop George Mundelein of Chicago became the "Cardinal of the West." In 1953, Pope Pius XII's elevation of Archbishop James McIntyre of Los Angeles pushed that boundary further, signaling the arrival to prominence of the church on the Pacific Coast.

And now, finally, 54 years later, Texas can boast the "Cardinal of the South"... who, in a sign of the times, sat for the Whispers Interview earlier today.

For that and everything else, stay tuned.

PHOTO: Nick de la Torre/Houston Chronicle