Saturday, March 22, 2008

Conversi ad Fiddle-Back

(Easter Night; 11.35pm) Well, it would appear that the Pope's vestments have made an early landing in Gotham....

Already circulating among the New York clergy are shots of Cardinal Edward Egan wearing an old Roman-style chasuble at tonight's Easter Vigil in St Patrick's Cathedral.

For the record, however, the set didn't come from Rome, but France. As the Big Apple church marks its bicentennial year, the Fra Angelico-inspired hand-embroidered "fiddle-back" depicting the Pietá was commissioned for the centennial of the archdiocese's founding by then-Archbishop John Farley, who became New York's second cardinal in 1911.

The set also includes four dalmatics depicting other scenes from the Passion and the encounter on the road to Emmaus. Worn by successive archbishops in the pre-Conciliar era, the chasuble was resurrected by John Cardinal O'Connor, who even made use of it one Christmas.

Pope Benedict will, of course, lead a semi-private liturgy for the nation's priests and religious in the Midtown cathedral -- where the traditional ticket-only crowd of close to 3,000 will pack the house for Easter morning's Pontifical Mass at 10.15 -- on the penultimate day of his 15-20 April trek to the East Coast. Despite three prior papal visits to St Pat's, the liturgy on the third anniversary of the B16's election will be the first Eucharist celebrated by a Roman pontiff in Catholic America's "capitol" church.

As for Egan -- who reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 last April -- this Easter is thought to be the cardinal's last in the New York post, with the first-ever transition from a living Gotham archbishop to his successor widely expected to take place later in the year.

While Archbishops Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, John Myers of Newark, the Bronx-born Henry Mansell of Hartford and hometown auxiliary Bishops Gerry Walsh and Dennis Sullivan remain the most-mentioned of the crowded field of contenders for the keys to 452 Madison and, with them, American Catholicism's most storied pulpit, an increasing focus in recent months has fallen upon two unprecedented (read: non-Irish) possibilities: Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson and Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta.

A systematic theologian, Scripture scholar, and now the US bishops' point-man on the liturgy, Serratelli is a protégé of retired DC Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who ordained the Paterson prelate as his auxiliary bishop in Newark in 2000.

Wildly popular among the press corps and widely cherished for his down-home approachability, Serratelli's four years in the West Jersey diocese have seen its number of seminarians spike from single-digits to almost 40. Prior to taking the helm of the newly-rechristened Committee for Divine Worship last November, the bishop previously led another high-profile USCCB arm, rising to the chairmanship of its Doctrine Committee after then-Archbishop William Levada was called to Rome to succeed the former Cardinal Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A veteran of the classroom and priestly formation -- two mission-fields well-known to high-profile B16 appointees -- Serratelli turns 64 in early April.

One of the most savvy, battle-tested and well-regarded Stateside prelates of any stripe, Gregory marked his 60th birthday in December. A Chicago native and mentee of the late Windy City Cardinal Joseph Bernardin -- who ordained him a bishop days after his 36th birthday -- the first African-American to lead the nation's hierarchy won high marks for restoring trust in the abuse-scarred diocese of Belleville, where he was sent in 1993, before unexpectedly returning to the task on a wider level weeks after his election as USCCB president in late 2001. While Gregory's head-on response to the coast-to-coast revelations of clergy sex-abuse and chancery cover-up initially aroused palpable anxiety both from significant Roman constituencies and influential pockets of the US church, the approach's effectiveness gradually (and genuinely) converted its early critics.

One of the few bishops to enjoy "rockstar" status on a wide stage, the trained liturgist is said to be "in love" with the booming Hotlanta church, where he arrived in early 2005. But not even Gregory's affinity for Georgia has hindered a top-level push for the prelate of Peachtree Street to end up with a Big Apple instead.

But -- and it's a big "but" -- don't jump to any conclusions just yet.

While tradition-shattering directions are under consideration, quite possibly to an extent unseen before, the gravitational pull of precedent still can't be underestimated. Of the eight archbishops since "Dagger John" Hughes, but one -- the Boston-bred Francis Spellman -- lacked any sort of "Powerhouse" exposure, whether as a priest, auxiliary bishop, suffragan, or all of the above. (Spellman had, however, spent his undergrad days at Fordham, then as now within the archdiocese's boundaries.) Given the scope of the archbishopric and the complexities of the shop, the tradition of tapping experienced hands for New York has withstood even those periods when native-son appointments were elsewhere verboten.

What's more, though the process' groundwork is well underway, the appointment to the "Capital of the World" is one of the few top-shelf calls into which every Pope faced with the decision has invested a significant amount of his own time and consideration... from which, suffice it to say, surprises have sometimes sprung.

Bottom line: Papa Ratzi might be exerting a lot more energy into the dossiers than did his predecessor, but a quote oft attributed to John Paul II is no less true today.

After the death of Cardinal Terence Cooke in 1983, the Polish pontiff was widely reported to have spread the word that "I want a man like me in New York." And, well, so it goes.

As previously noted, Kelly Clarkson's playing at the Halftime Show... for whatever might follow, stay tuned.