Saturday, May 14, 2005

Nomen Est Omen

My friends will be happy to know that the 90 minutes' sleep I got going into yesterday was compensated last night. A good eight hours or more has been hard to come by these past six weeks, but it's been beautiful fun.

Much has been made of the name "Whispers in the Loggia." One commentator went so far as to call it "delicious" -- a term more at home with the singular, conservative Vaticanisti than my humble self; I don't do lace....

But I've never explained the story behind it. Yes, there is one, and this weekend is the second anniversary of the moment which gave birth to this name. So, with thanks for the cottage it spawned, let's sit 'round the fire and sing "Kumbaya" -- cons, it's not the Our Father, it's OK to hold hands....

On every second Saturday of May here in Philly, we ordain our transitional deacons in anticipation of Third Saturday, when the previous year's deacons are ordained to the priesthood. In years past, the transies were ordained in parishes so that young boys might feel the lure from the ceremony into the seminary. When it was realized that the high ritual didn't work well in concrete bowl suburban churches, the diaconate ordination was returned to the archdiocesan seminary at Overbrook, in the sumptuous St. Martin's Chapel.

My choirboy rehearsals were at St. Charles Seminary, so I've always had an affinity for the place. I'd always show up for diaconate to get back to the old stomping grounds, and of course to work the circuit and visit with friends. The "Lower Side" -- the most expensive seminary ever built when it was finished in 1928 at a cost of $5 million (~$500 mil in today's dollars) -- is connected with the chapel by means of a wide, bright, open marble hallway, a Loggia if ever there were one. On the big sem days, the place is buzzing with activity, cassocks flowing, conversations taking place along the walls, incense and organ music wafting in from the chapel narthex: in sum, a fabulous manifestation of what has been termed "the Catholic imagination."

When Charles Morris called Dennis Dougherty -- the native son who was our first cardinal, built the seminary and is universally acknowledged as the first of the Pharaohs -- an "ecclesiastical tycoon," he did not note that the accolade within the archdiocese's walls was an inherited one. Fittingly, on this day in 2003, the morning buzz had nothing to do with the ordination. Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, my mentor who had more than ably served as archbishop for 15 years, was two months off his 80th birthday, and his imminent retirement was known to all. It was a transition feared even by Bevilacqua's critics.

As Philadelphia culture is, in the depiction of one of its clansmen, "a ticking bomb living on borrowed time," the advent of a new Pharaoh causes more than the typical amount of skittishness given the centrality and power of this figure's unique place in the American Catholic context as the head of the last great diocesan empire in a post-conciliar church. It was a singular moment of anxiety for me as, having been particularly close to and protected by Bevilacqua, the end of his active ministry marked the end of the first phase of my education in the institution -- and my fortunes just as much as anyone else's would be determined by Rome's choice of the new archbishop.

Before the Mass, as I was getting reacquainted with the grounds, I came to the loggia expecting to breeze through. From the other end, I saw one of the men of the house coming my way who was an old friend. We found a spot along the wall and caught up for a couple minutes. As one would expect, the topic turned to the transition. He asked me what I had heard, and I rattled off the terna of gossip. He smiled and I couldn't help but ask, "What?"

"It's Rigali," he replied.

And there it was. Justin Rigali, the 68 year-old archbishop of St. Louis, a familiar Roman name which had surfaced for every major American appointment of the prior decade -- climaxing in a war over his potential nomination to New York, a battle royal which resulted in Egan's appointment -- had finally gotten the nod which would make him a cardinal in succession to his beloved mentor, the great Giovanni Benelli. With this appointment, the famous widows would be care of, indeed.

But I had to get this in stone -- at least, stone that wasn't Bollettino-stone. Within days, thanks to the network Bevilacqua's patronage opened to me, it was confirmed by sources in Rome and elsewhere, who told me Rigali had learned of it the Christmas before. It wouldn't be confirmed for two more months, on July 15, twelve years and a day after I first met Bevilacqua.

At 20, I had my first big story.

That transition was more than even I expected it would be, as it was a personal movement. It gave me a new life and presaged the beginning of a career, and even though the goal of the seminary which was envisaged for me was not realized, hopefully I've made something of the stellar experiences of my childhood and formative years and given back enough to show that all the investment put in me by so many wasn't for nought.

I'm descended from one cardinal by blood and from another in spirit and sonship. This is the root of my ecclesiastical sensibilities, and if I've betrayed them in any way, then I've betrayed myself.



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