Early morning Mass with a cardinal-designate

When I am restless in my 30th floor apartment in Manhattan in predawn hours, I read online Italian newspapers about Vatican gossip. All of the big Roman papers have full time vaticanisti reporters stationed there to cover the unique sociological world of the Holy See much like our Washington press corps. (I keep telling the editors that the Star Herald should follow suit, but to no avail — yet.)

I was doing so on Jan. 6th and was delighted to read that Pope Benedict had made the decision to name Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York a cardinal.

This was a rather surprising choice, as it is highly unusual for one city to have multiple cardinal-electors under the age of 80, which New York now will for a short time until Cardinal Egan “ages out” and can no longer participate in a future conclave.

New York may be a lot of things — expensive, difficult in bad weather, touristy (go heart your own city), but monotonous isn’t one of them. I have always loved the feast of the Epiphany — which most of the world still celebrates on Jan 6 — and so I made a snap decision to start my day walking the 15 blocks uptown to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the dark and attend Dolan’s first Mass as cardinal-designate, before I had to rush off to Grand Central to catch my train to Fairfield.

The church was quiet at that early hour, and as I sat for a few minutes before the Mass, I saw a number of what I assumed to be regular worshippers filing in.

Cardinal-designate Dolan is without doubt a giant in the American church. The barrel-chested prelate is the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and could well be the most recognizable Catholic in the country. While I do not know him very well, our paths have crossed through Cardinal Avery Dulles and theologian Beth Johnson, and we have studied under some of the same great theologians, including my own dissertation subject and mentor Father Francis A. Sullivan of the Gregorian University in Rome and Boston College, who also taught Cardinal Levada, the current head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Cardinal-designate Dolan was gracious in accepting the applause for the announcement and asked for “solidarity in prayer” in a day he said he would remember for the rest of his life. After the consistory in February, he will be addressed as Your Eminence instead of Your Excellency, and he joked “that does sound pretty good.”

I vividly recall looking at his hands during the consecration and thinking, “They will forever be a part of history when he sits under Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and writes the name of his choice for pope on those little cards.” They’re preprinted with Eligio in Summum Pontificem (I elect for Supreme Pontiff) with a blank line and Catholics believe their results will, for good or for ill, be remembered for time immemorial. While the white smoke and pomp and circumstance are all somehow so cool, it’s a responsibility I’m glad doesn’t fall on my shoulders.

I work diligently to be sure — for my students, for the wider theological community in my academic writings, for the voiceless and marginalized at the Center for Faith and Public Life, for the Camden Diocese in these small pieces. But often, in the presence of moments like that morning, my heart resounds with the words of Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel: “And how am I so favored, that this should happen to me?”

How did I end up rubbing shoulders with princes of the church and scholars who continue to shape the future of Catholicism? How was I given the gift to live a life driven by and imbued with theology, the queen of the sciences, and blessed to be able to share that pearl of great price with others? How am I, with all my many shortcomings and petty grudges and sometimes stunning self-absorption, able in some small fashion to serve as a mouthpiece for the God who has showered me with so much while asking so little in return? In Dolan and Dulles and Johnson and Sullivan, of course — but as theologian Karl Rahner self-inquires with awe, “Can men really recognize You in me?”

I hope at least in tiny and partial ways the answer is yes.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

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