PHILADELPHIA — Bells tolled from St. Martin’s Chapel on the campus of Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary Jan. 31, announcing the death of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.
The 88-year-old cardinal died in his sleep in his apartment at the seminary.
With the death of Cardinal Bevilacqua, who was the retired archbishop of Philadelphia, the Church in the United States lost its second cardinal in less than two months.
Cardinal John Foley died Dec. 11 in the archdiocese’s home for retired priests.
Cardinal Bevilacqua, who fought cancer and dementia recently, led his flock of 1.5 million members from 1988 until he retired in 2003.
“I was greatly saddened to learn of the death of my predecessor, Cardinal Bevilacqua,” said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput in a statement. He called the cardinal “a servant of the Lord who loved Jesus Christ and his people.”
“Cardinal Bevilacqua’s death comes at a time when the archdiocese is facing extraordinary challenges,” Archbishop Chaput said. “During this difficult period, I invite all of our people to come together in prayer for a renewal of our Church and her mission.”
Cardinal Bevilacqua was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1923, one of 11 children. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1949 at Brooklyn’s St. James Cathedral, received a doctorate in canon law from Rome’s Gregorian University, a master’s degree in political science from Columbia, and a civil-law degree from St. John’s University. He could practice before the courts in New York and Pennsylvania, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1980, he was ordained to serve his native Brooklyn as auxiliary bishop, before becoming bishop of Pittsburgh in 1983. Four years later, Pope John Paul II appointed him archbishop of Philadelphia; and in 1991, John Paul named him a cardinal.
He became the first and only cardinal in the world to host a live, weekly radio call-in program, Live With Cardinal Bevilacqua, which aired for five years in Philadelphia.
“His happiest work over 63 years as a priest and bishop,” said Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia blog and the cardinal’s friend for 20 years, “wasn’t something he did as a bishop.” In 1970, when Pope Paul VI called for every diocese in the world to form an apostolate to care for migrants and refugees, Father Bevilacqua founded the Catholic Migration and Refugee Office in the Diocese of Brooklyn. It was the first in the world, and today, says Palmo, it’s widely regarded as the finest such service.
A Priest’s Example
Cardinal Bevilacqua said then, as he later often repeated, “We don’t do this because they’re Catholic; we do this because we’re Catholic.”
“That line underlined his ministry,” Palmo said. It was about serving the poor as the mission of the Church, regardless of race, ethnic origin and economic status. The cardinal remained director of that Migration and Refugee Office until 1983.
With the cardinal’s towering intellect and heart for migrants and refugees, it was no surprise he went back to school in his 50s to gain a civil-law degree to help a new generation of immigrants.
Pope Benedict XVI recognized this great service in his telegram of condolence to Archbishop Chaput, specifically citing Cardinal Bevilacqua’s “long-standing commitment to social justice and the pastoral care of immigrants and his expert contribution to the revision of the Church’s law in the years following the Second Vatican Council.”
For Father Bevilacqua, it was personal. When his parents sailed to America, they knew no English. They went to a church thinking all churches in America were Catholic too, as in Italy. It happened to be Episcopalian.
But a Dominican nun found them and took them to a Catholic parish with a newly ordained priest named Andrew Francis Klarmann, known as “Father Frank,” who studied in Rome and knew Italian. He helped the immigrants coming to Brooklyn.
“This was the cardinal’s inspiration to the priesthood,” Palmo said. “That’s how he saw his priesthood. By going to law school in his 50s, at night, to help migrants to realize the promise of America, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Father Frank.”
Father Klarmann had a relic of St. John Neumann in his room, and every time he passed it, he would say, “Please take care of my ‘little Tony.’” St. John Neumann was once bishop of Philadelphia.
Cardinal Bevilacqua “felt his gift for the Church was to use his mind in the service of others,” Palmo observed. “He had the most vigorous intellectual curiosity of anyone I ever met. He would pour over journals and news reports in five languages. And he was remarkably disciplined. Even in his 70s he went running five miles in the morning. He declined Italian pastries because he was watching his weight always. He joked the sash on his cassock was to keep his stomach in.
“He was very human, but because of the ecclesiology of the times he grew up in, he didn’t show it.”
Cardinal Bevilacqua used his intellectual talents in many ways.
“He was the canon lawyer of the United States,” Palmo observed. He was the American responsible for the implementation of the current Code of Canon Law in 1983 and chairman of the Canonical Affairs Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Cardinal Bevilacqua, who chaired the subcommittee of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities), was called upon to mediate the impasse between American bishops and the Holy See in regards to Ex Cordeand the mandatum for colleges and professors.
At the time, the cardinal stated: “This is a win-win situation for everyone: for our Catholic colleges and universities, for our Catholic students and their parents, and for the Church. This is a teaching document which will enhance all Catholic colleges and universities.”
Also, he was essentially the global chaplain for Legatus, the organization for Catholic CEOs; he was the bishop who worked most closely with its founder, Thomas Monaghan. In Philadelphia, he fought continuously for the education of inner-city youth and school vouchers.
“He hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for emphasizing the lay charism,” noted Palmo, who recalled that the cardinal would often empower individuals — through quiet, personal contacts — to give their best service to the Church. Palmo considers himself part of the cardinal’s legacy.
The cardinal was criticized for his alleged role in the Philadelphia clergy sex-abuse scandal that occurred during his tenure and that of Cardinal John Krol. A 2005 grand jury report alleged that Cardinal Bevilacqua transferred priests who were known sexual predators to other parishes in the archdiocese.
Palmo saw great suffering in his last 10 years, for victim survivors and families and people in the diocese. “It’s been a tragedy all around. I saw flashes of it. It may have been tempting for some to see some cold, calculating process for what was alleged. He would think of things on paper. He didn’t show his heart often. … If he had a flaw, that was it.”
He continued: “Perhaps it’s ironic, given these last years, but here in Philadelphia and elsewhere, he had a great interest and attachment to and with young people and how we try to live the faith today. I don’t think he was more comfortable than when around teens and young adults in their 20s.”
Many forget that so much of the cardinal’s ministry was, at least until recent years, a uniquely pro-life ministry, Palmo added. “One of his happiest days as a bishop — and I got to see him — was when he was elected chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities in 2001, and he held that until he retired in 2003,” he said.
His assessment of the cardinal’s life? “People were the oxygen of his ministry.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.