Fallen-away Catholics beckoned

U.S. cardinals in Rome draw parallel in Scripture to prodigal son

A lighthearted Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, greets the media as he arrives at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to lead Mass on Sunday.
A lighthearted Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, greets the media as he arrives at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to lead Mass on Sunday.

ROME — On a day when they preached about the prodigal son who returns home after squandering inheritance granted to him early by his father, the American cardinals were in good humor as they called on fallen-away Catholics to return.

Their homilies took on added meaning as they prepare to enter the conclave Tuesday to vote on a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who abdicated on Feb. 28.

Each cardinal is assigned a church in Rome because, historically, the cardinals were the clergy of Rome. Having a titular church — for which their chief responsibility is fund-raising — allows them to be clergy of Rome.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl joked about this, saying that his parish of St. Peter in Chains is “the reason why I get into the conclave.”

All he was permitted to say about the conclave was, “We are having it,” he said.

Media outnumbered parishioners at his noon Mass, which hadn’t been publicized. The reporters included crews from his Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and his hometown Pittsburgh, where he was bishop for 18 years. When someone raised the issue of which had a better football team, he replied, “I never get into any controversial topics when I’m getting ready to go into a conclave.”

The public homilies and remarks to media didn’t violate the oath of secrecy or the promise extracted from the American cardinals last week to halt their popular news conferences.

“The cardinals were urged to use that opportunity [of Sunday Mass] … to speak to the people of their nation through television networks of that country,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said through his interpreter, the Rev. Thomas Rosica. “There has been no imposition of silence put on the cardinals.”

Cardinal Wuerl, one of the few to preach in English despite his fluent Italian, thanked the media in his opening and closing remarks.

“You are the ones making it possible for everyone at home to join us in prayer,” he said. As the cardinals enter the conclave Tuesday, “We will be greatly dependent on your prayers, on the prayers of the whole church for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit so that we might do our work, so the Holy Spirit might work through us.”

Cardinal Wuerl has been a key promoter of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s signature program, the “new evangelization” of secularized people in historically Christian nations, especially fallen-away Catholics. In October, he was the “relator,” or coordinator and summarizer, of a worldwide synod of bishops on the new evangelization. Before the American bishops were forced to stop talking to the media, he had indicated that the first priority of the church in the next papacy must be evangelization.

There were echoes of that in his homily as he called for renewal of the church through a return to the Sacrament of Confession.

The bishops of the synod “spent one month last October talking about what we need to do to bring people back to the full love of Christ,” he said.

Jesus gave the church the authority to forgive sins in his name so that “when we, like the prodigal son, recognize that we have failed and recognize that we need forgiveness, there is someplace to go to encounter the love of the father,” he said.

“The Father is always waiting. His Son is always forgiving. His church is always present.”

In another part of Rome, Our Lady of Guadalupe was packed with a standing-room-only crowd of perhaps 400 for the 11:30 a.m. Mass of Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Italians in the crowd asked each other, “Do you think he will be pope?” as he was swarmed by media.

Cardinal Dolan, who has preached life-changing homilies to countless teens at World Youth Days, kept it light for his preconclave turn, speaking only briefly and in Italian. When he was presented with a basket of sweets, he lamented that he had given them up for Lent.

“Maybe I’ll take a little package of candies into the conclave,” he added, to much applause. “Because I hear the food there isn’t so great.”

He was a bit more serious in brief interviews regarding whether contenders for the papacy are emerging.

“You know, the Italians have a beautiful saying: ‘You can only make gnocchi with the dough you have.’ So we [cardinals] have got to be good dough for the Holy Spirit to work through. I think we’re almost there,” he said.

“A week ago, we’d have said, ‘Wow, we’ve got a lot of work to do.’ But now you see a sense of resignation, trust, and faith.”

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a veteran of the 2005 conclave, sounded less certain after Mass at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Tiber Island.

“This is a momentous occasion when perhaps the will of God isn’t entirely clear to many of us. So I ask you for your prayers,” he told the people of St. Bartholomew, home to the Community of Sant’Egidio, which serves the poor and works for global peace.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who was raised in Whitehall, has had an unexpected amount of media buzz as a potential pope. Part of the charm is his brown Capuchin robes. But for his Mass at Santa Maria Della Vittoria near the Trevi Fountain, he opted for the red robes of a cardinal. The small church was packed with about 200 people, including a large media contingent. The Rev. Rocco Visca, an official of the Carmelite friars who oversee the parish, asked him to make it his first visit outside the Vatican when he is elected pope.

“I assure you that after the conclave, I will be back as your cardinal,” he responded, after joking about taking the church’s prize artwork, Bernini’s statue of St. Teresa in Ecstasy, back to Boston.

He too turned to themes of evangelizing fallen-away Catholics. He reminded his listeners that the father in the parable of the prodigal son doesn’t just tolerate the wastrel son who returns, but throws a party for him.

“Likewise,” he said, the Christian community “should show a gospel welcome to those who have strayed.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ann Rodgers is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Ann Rodgers at: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.