Monday, November 21, 2011

For Cardinal Law, the End of the Line

Hard as it is to believe, five weeks hence will mark a decade since the Boston Globe's first reporting of abuse and cover-up in New England's marquee church blew open the greatest crisis American Catholicism has ever known. And as the eerie milestone nears, the figure who -- fairly or not -- has come to be viewed as the scandals' emblematic figure has reached his final act.

At Roman Noon today, Cardinal Bernard Law was quietly retired as archpriest of St Mary Major -- the Pope's representative to the Liberian Basilica, where his 2004 appointment has long been cited as an enduring symbol of the Vatican's failure to grasp the magnitude of the crisis.

Law was given the Roman sinecure some 18 months after his resignation as archbishop of Boston, amid an unrelenting firestorm birthed by a year of revelations over the handling of accused priests on the part of his predecessors and early in his own 18-year governance of the nation's onetime "flagship" see.

Notably, the move comes just two weeks after the cardinal's 80th birthday, at which point he aged-out of his memberships on several key dicasteries, most significantly his longtime spot on the Congregation for Bishops. Yet while a prelate's assignments in the Roman Curia automatically cease when he completes his eighth decade, the same rule doesn't carry over to the basilica posts, and Law's departure from the oldest church in the world dedicated to the Mother of God has actually come several years earlier than other recent cardinal-archpriests, both at Mary Major and elsewhere.

The cardinal's own predecessor, Cardinal Carlo Furno, remained the basilica's ceremonial head until he was nearly 83; his predecessor, Cardinal Ugo Poletti, held the post until his death at 82, and Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza de Montezemolo served as the first-ever archpriest at St Paul's Outside the Walls until just shy of his 84th birthday in 2009.

Unusually, the Vatican's midday release announcing Law's retirement didn't include the cardinal's name nor notice of his resignation, instead merely stating that Pope Benedict had named Spanish Archbishop Santos Abril y Castelló, 76, as the new archpriest.

A veteran Vatican diplomat, Abril has served as nuncio to Argentina and the former Yugoslavia, among other postings. With the move, the Archpriest's Suite adjoining the basilica that Law has occupied since 2004 now goes to the title's new holder, so the cardinal will have to find a new Roman base.

Whether or not it was a preparation for his fully-retired life, earlier this year Law was understood to have quietly returned to the US for an extended trip, believed to be his first since his "exile" began. Besides spending time with a handful of the cadre of friends who've remained staunchly supportive and loyal to him through the years, the cardinal reportedly presided at the funeral of a friend in Mississippi, where he spent his priesthood.

Over recent months, it's likewise emerged that Law -- who once bestrode the earth as a top Vatican mediator -- has remained involved in geopolitical work on the Holy See's behalf, in at least one instance. Unearthed in September by WikiLeaks, a series of diplomatic cables laid out the significant role that the cardinal played in improving the Vatican's relations with Vietnam, which paved the way toward an unprecedented late 2010 meeting between Benedict XVI and the Communist country's president, in addition to the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two states.

In his greatest diplomatic triumph, the cardinal -- who met with Fidel Castro from as early as 1990 -- is believed to have had a key part in setting the stage for Blessed John Paul II's seismic January 1998 visit to Cuba, an encore of which is currently in Benedict's plans for the coming Spring.

Earlier this month, a party held for Law in a Roman hotel on his birthday made days of angry front-page headlines in Boston. While the event coincided with the ad limina visit of the New England bishops to the city, his successor as archbishop, Cardinal Seán O'Malley OFM Cap., did not attend.

Further underscoring the continued emotions the cardinal evokes on his onetime turf, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper removed a biographical piece on Law, which ran in its 4 November edition, from its website amid an outcry from survivors.

While referring at length to the abuse scandals, the article in The Pilot ended with the words, "Happy Birthday, Your Eminence."

The piece was the second to be yanked by the nation's oldest Catholic paper in as many weeks, following the controversial October column linking same-sex attraction to "the devil," written by a defense of marriage staffer for the US bishops who quickly resigned amid the fallout of his commentary.

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Beyond its heightened domestic resonance, today's appointment automatically places the new Archpriest in line to receive the cardinal's red hat at the next consistory, which is predominantly expected to come this time next year.

By that point, barring deaths, the College of Cardinals will be reduced to 98 electors in a hypothetical conclave, 22 shy of the group's maximum complement of 120.

Of the open slots, four will have been vacated by American cardinals who turned 80 since the last consistory was held a year ago this week -- besides Law, Baltimore's retired William Keeler reached the ineligibility age last April, as will New York's emeritus Edward Egan on 2 April, followed by the Balto-born Curialist Francis Stafford on 26 July. Given the higher-than usual churn of Stateside red-hats from the electoral ranks, it is reasonable to expect that the American presence in the next class will be augmented beyond each consistory's traditional quota of two new cardinals for these shores.

Currently topping the US' Scarlet Queue are Archbishops Timothy Dolan of New York and Edwin O'Brien, the freshly-named Grand Master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, as a result of his August appointment to the Rome-based post.