Cardinal Bevilacqua was among the first leaders in the Church to recognize the spiritual potential of the year 2000; Philadelphia's preparations for the Jubilee began almost 10 years ago. The cardinal remains one of the American Church's most visible leaders, both in the United States and at the Vatican. He recently spoke with the Register's Washington Bureau Chief Joseph Esposito.
Joseph Esposito: Your Eminence, what led you to become a priest?
Anthony Cardinal Bevilaqua When I was about 5 years old, I met a young priest who greatly inspired me. He took a liking to me and I took a liking to him. He visited my family when we settled in Woodhaven, New York. He welcomed us.
I wanted to be like him, which meant being a priest. I really didn't know, at that point, what it meant to be a priest. But I idolized Father Frank [Father Andrew Klarmann.] He was a kind, saintly, very generous man.
As I got older, I came more fully to understand and appreciate what the priesthood meant. Frank and my family encouraged me and nurtured my desire for the priesthood. Eventually, it was Father Frank who guided me into the preparatory seminary.
Who else had the greatest influence on your life?
My parents, who came to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs. They raised 11 sons and daughters. My father could not read or write, and my mother had the equivalent of a third-grade education, but they were very wise people.
Your Eminence, you've addressed a number of urban issues. You had a town meeting a few months ago to discuss violence, crime, racism, and poverty. You've also spoken out on gun safety.
What are concerns here that Catholics should understand?
We are concerned about violence towards young people and by young people. In September, I was in a march for peace where pictures were presented of the young people who had been killed in the past year. There were about 17 of them—mostly young teen-agers. Many of them were victims of drugs.
We have to realize in Philadelphia, as elsewhere, that the responsibility to address this problem falls on everyone. If we're going to eliminate crime and achieve peace in our cities, we have to reach people who aren't even in crime areas, not living in cities. We must overcome prejudice and racism.
You referred to the town meeting, which was at Norristown, Pa., in a suburban county adjacent to Philadelphia. They have problems there, too, but not as intense as in the city. But we have to let each person there understand that everyone is created in the image and likeness of God.
Violence comes from a dislike, an alienation toward others of all races, all ethnics groups. We're trying to make everyone realize they have a responsibility to face this problem—both in the city and the suburbs.
Another important urban issue is Catholic schools. The Philadelphia Archdiocese runs one of the largest school systems in the country. What do you see as the importance of Catholic education today?
It's very interesting that in the last few years we are getting many, many requests for parishes in the suburbs to build new schools and authorize additions. In the last year and a half, I've received about 15 requests from parishes, and more are coming in. More people are encouraging parishes to have schools.
Why do they want them? Because they realize more and more that education is not just knowledge, it's also about acquiring moral values to direct how we live. It's not just learning what to do in an occupation, but how to be a better human being.
They want their children to have religious and moral values. They also see in Catholic schools a place where they can trust that their children will get the reasonable discipline of learning respect for authority and their peers. They're seeing everything they want their children to be as preserved, maintained, and supported in Catholic schools.
They know there is a greater assurance in Catholic schools that their children will succeed. Our [standardized test] scores are always higher than in other schools, and the parents are seeing the great benefits. So they are willng to sacrifice to pay for these schools.
That's why we're always pushing for vouchers in Pennsylvania to assist parents. There are many parents who just can't afford to send their children to our schools.
You've been a leader on the voucher issue. What will it take to get government leaders on the state and national levels to be more supportive of this concept?
We need to overcome the pressure that leaders feel when they are beholden to many special interests, especially the public school teachers' union. I'm a public school product, and there are many wonderful public schools and teachers. But the teachers' union is very adamant against schools vouchers—they see it as losing a monopoly.
Many legislators are supported in their campaigns by the union. What has to be done is to mobilize our parents. We're doing it more and more.
In addition, we need support from the business community. They see the value of having this competition among schools, especially in the cities.
Between parents seeing their responsibility at the polls to vote for the right candidate and the business community bringing pressure, I think we can get vouchers. And I am positive it will be constitutional. So, I have absolutely no doubt that we'll eventually be successful.
You have spoken forcefully on Philadelphia's domestic partners law, which was adopted in May. Can you restate for our readers what are your concerns and what you expect to do to change the law?
First of all, domestic partnership is a euphemism. There are people who don't know what it means. It means that a political jurisdiction enacts a law in which benefits are given to homosexuals who live together in the same manner as those who are married. This includes tax credits, pension benefits, and real estate tax relief.
To us, this is the beginning of the end of marriage as a sacred institution. The homosexuals aren't interested in the money involved here; they're not getting that much, and they're a very affluent group.
The intent of domestic partner legislation is to gain acceptability, to gain the recognition that homosexual couples are the same as married people. When that happens, we're truly destroying marriage and the family. That's my great fear.
The same thing happened with this legislation as in the partial-birth abortion vote. A number of legislators, claiming to be faithful Catholics, voted for domestic partner benefits. I tell them it is injurious, but they reject it. They don't see the implications.
Are you challenging the law in the courts?
No, but there is a Christian group which is. We keep working and educating our people. We hope that through the ballot box, we can replace City Council members and eventually overturn the law.
Let's turn to a few national issues. Clearly the most contentious has been the Clinton scandal. Rather than rehash the issue itself, perhaps we can discuss a broader concern. What should we expect and demand of our public officials?
I believe the nation is strong when its moral values are strong. That's been true since the very beginning of our country. The Declaration of Independence mentions our Creator. Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness exist only because God gave us those inalienable rights.
Washington, Adams, Madison, and Jefferson all believed the nation wouldn't survive without moral values. They mentioned religious values, too.
So a leader—even the leader of the nation—can't get up and say, “I'm just your political leader.” These officials must exemplify moral values, which are the foundation of this nation.
If leaders flout moral values, it weakens the nation. The president must be an exemplar of leadership in all the social and political aspects of the United States. But the president must also exemplify the importance of the moral foundations of the country.
This fall one truly uplifting event was the 20th anniversary of the pontificate of John Paul II. What are your thoughts on his impact on the Church, the world, and history?
Pope John Paul II will certainly go down as one of the greatest Popes of the Church in its 2,000 years. Already some are advocating that he be called John Paul the Great because he has, in so many ways, significantly affected the life of the Church.
He has made the Church again a great moral barometer, a great moral institution. He has been very forthright in determining the things that are right and wrong.
He started his pontificate with those words “Be not afraid,” and he has never shown any fear. While some people may disagree with him, they respect him. He has credibility as a strong, saintly person. This brings great weight to everything he says.
The Holy Father's vision of the Church is going to go on into the next millenium. He has brought to the forefront—probably more than any other Pope—the sacred obligation that every single Catholic has to be an evangelizer, who witnesses the faith and brings the good news of Jesus Christ into every single place in the world.
He has stimulated lay people to see their responsibility in the marketplace, courtrooms, hospitals, politics, and at home. You name the field, he has spoken on it. In every area of life, he has come out and brought the moral values to every issue that affects our lives.
Both you and the Holy Father were ordained in the 1940s. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of your ordination. Obviously, the Church and society have changed a great deal in that time. What do you see as the compelling reasons that attract men to the priesthood today?
First, we are going to see an increase of young men entering seminaries. It's beginning to happen, and the numbers are going to continue to increase. One reason for this is that young people today realize they have an obligation to make this a better world.
They are very much involved in the environment. hey want to ensure that the material aspects of the earth are preserved for future generations. But they've begun to realize that there is more than just the physical environment, there's human life.
They've become disillusioned with the siren calls coming from the media about what's going to make them happy. Sexual permissiveness, the latest fashions, the material aspects of life—the glitter and grandeur—is not fulfilling happiness.
With this disillusionment, some are looking for happiness elsewhere. An increasing number are turning toward the Church, turning toward Jesus Christ.
I see more and more young men interested in giving their lives to help others, and one of the finest ways is through the priesthood.
Some even reach this point later in life. They've tried other things. Now they feel they want to be part of the Church and become leaders in forming better people and a better society.
You're the only Cardinal with a radio call-in program. What have you learned from having such a program and from being able to talk directly to people through this medium?
I hear from people who are hungry for the truth. They want to know more about their faith. They want to know how to become holier people. They want to know more about the Church. And even non-Catholics call in.
The radio is a major instrument of evangelizing. We have to take advantage of it. If Jesus Christ were alive today, he would be on the radio and other media. If he would do it, then I should, too.
Christ didn't wait for people to come to him. He went out and sent his apostles to many towns and villages. We have to do so in our ways. And one of those ways we can get out to the people is through radio.
You're obviously involved in so many activities. Do you have any free time to read? I was wondering whether you could recommend a recent book to us.
I've just finished reading all the works of St. John of the Cross. That sounds like a huge work, but it's all in one volume. He didn't write that much, yet what he has written has affected me a great deal.
Especially valuable are his thoughts on how to pray and contemplate, on mystical prayer, and on surrendering oneself to God. You may not understand everything and you have to read him slowly, but it's written rather simply.
St. John of the Cross suffered a great deal, just as we do today. When you read about his life at the beginning of the book, you see that being united with God can bring a great deal of comfort.