Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In Siouxland, the Second Coming

Prior to his elevation as the first cardinal of the American South, a wistful Dan DiNardo noted to friends that the red hat might've come his way as head of Texas' oldest and largest local church, but it was amid the cornfields of Iowa where he learned how to be a bishop.

Returning to his first diocese, where he served for seven years before his 2004 transfer to Texas, the self-described "baby cardinal" -- the first Roman prince whose path wound through Hawkeye Country -- made a sentimental pilgrimage to Siouxland yesterday for an Easter Monday jaunt the locals treated more like a "royal visit," complete with public reception, wall-to-wall coverage on several local TV stations (which interrupted hours of regular programming to cover the festivities live), and a full package of goodies from the hometown Journal.
Though an admitted "happy camper" in Houston, DiNardo said he misses the county blacktops of Northwest Iowa and the Casey's doughnuts that he enjoyed on those road trips. He travels more these days, but it's by plane, not auto. He recalled trips from Sioux City to Spencer, Iowa, that always took 2 hours and 5 minutes. It takes that long these days to visit a parish 20 miles away from his Houston office, Texas traffic being what it is....

"If you can be a good shepherd at the local level, then when you're called to ... further responsibilities in the Universal Church, you hope you don't lose that shepherd's touch with people," DiNardo said. "Sioux City people were so friendly and respectful, but never in awe, which was very important.

"The Sioux City diocese not only taught me how to be a better bishop, to be a good bishop, the people also taught me in terms of the depths of their thinking about things."...

Jim Wharton of Sioux City, who served as diocesan communications director during DiNardo's tenure, said he has never run into anybody who has had the impact in such a short period of time as DiNardo had on the diocese of Sioux City. "He's an incredible person," he said. "And to see this outpouring today. He was humbled by this. But they could have had another thousand people in here if they'd had the room."

The first person in the greeting line at the Marina Inn was Michelle Steinbach who worked with DiNardo at the chancery. "So it was really important for me to come and be able to hear him speak again. We were always excited to hear what he had to say. He brings his messages to the people's levels," she said.

Judy Wittkop of Le Mars, Iowa, said she told DiNardo that a new church was being built at St. Joseph's Parish there, the result of a process that started under his leadership. "We asked him to keep us in his prayers," she said.

"It's really wonderful to see him again," said the Rev. Laurence Burns, pastor of Sacred Heart Church at Early, Iowa. "Just to experience his presence. We all got to know him pretty well."

Before leaving Sioux City today after his brief visit, DiNardo planned to visit the Carmelite Sisters at their cloistered monastery who because of their vows could not attend the service. "They were one of my major prayer supports while I was bishop here in Sioux City," he said, not needing to add that he doesn't forget his old friends.
Riffing anew on a theme he's employed often since his November elevation, the cardinal's homily (video) to the invite-only Mass crowd of 700 focused on the theme of universal vocation, albeit with a characteristic hook.

"In all the accounts of the Risen Jesus," he said, "anybody who meets the Risen Jesus -- genuinely, always -- gets a job.

"Do you notice? No one is unemployed who meets the Risen Jesus."

At a pre-Mass press conference (fullaudio), DiNardo rattled off both his memories of the Heartland and a detailed demographic portrait of the "huge, vast" flock of 1.5 million he now heads.

While it was in Iowa where the native Pittsburgher discovered what true darkness was during late-night drives home after confirmations, the nation's fourth largest city, he said, "is the United Nations," citing one Houston parish where 23,000 parishioners speak sixteen different languages.

For all the seeming differences, the cardinal offered that the goodness and quality of faith present in both was much the same. But even so, "There aren't as many hogroasts in Houston."

* * *

Another similarity binding the two is the mutual penchant for cathedral projects on the part of DiNardo's predecessors, the benefits of which he's gotten to enjoy in spades.

Just as Sioux City's Cathedral of the Epiphany was restored shortly before then-Bishop Lawrence Soens handed off to his then-coadjutor, a week from tomorrow the cardinal will, as previously noted, dedicate his archdiocese's first permanent mother-church, Houston's new Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart -- the dream-project of Archbishop-emeritus Joseph Fiorenza, a native son who retired in 2006.

In advance of the 1,800-seat, $40 million sanctuary's debut, H-Town's ABC affiliate recently rolled out an impressive hourlong documentary on its construction and the people behind it.

Around 60 hierarchs from around the country are expected to join in the dedication festivities, which'll be streamed live over the web by the local outlets.

PHOTOS: Tim Hynds/Sioux City Journal (1,2); Smiley N. Pool (Removed by order of the) Houston Chronicle