Bevilacqua's birthday: End of an era Many of his duties cease today, as he turns 80. There is speculation that a new Phila. archbishop has been chosen.

Posted: June 17, 2003

After 15 years as the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua turns 80 today, a birthday that marks the beginning of his retirement from church leadership.

Under church law, he ceases today to be a papal elector - meaning he may not participate in the conclave of cardinals that will choose the next Pope - and he relinquishes his seat on four Vatican councils and congregations.

Eighty is also the age at which Pope John Paul II typically retires his cardinals. The fact that the archdiocese has announced a July 16 Mass and reception "in celebration of gratitude" for Bevilacqua's years of leadership here has prompted speculation that Rome may already have chosen Philadelphia's new archbishop.

There were strong rumors several months ago that Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh was the leading candidate, but attention has focused lately on Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis and Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, head of Catholic military chaplains in the United States.

Bevilacqua, a cordial but private man who lives alone, will mark his birthday privately, according to the archdiocese.

He declined to be interviewed about his birthday or the prospect of retirement, but told the archdiocesan newspaper last week that he was "grateful to God for the opportunity to celebrate my 80th birthday in reasonably good health."

Bevilacqua will retain his episcopal authority over the archdiocese until his successor's installation, and shows no signs of slowing down.

He will keep the rank of cardinal after his retirement, and remains chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Office of Pro-Life Activities.

Bevilacqua is scheduled to fly to St. Louis for the start tomorrow of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' semiannual meeting, which continues through Saturday.

Recent weeks have been busy as well. Since the end of May, Bevilacqua has:

Decreed the implementation of 83 archdiocesan policies emanating from the archdiocesan synod, or special conference, he convened last fall.

Issued guidelines for all archdiocesan clergy, employees, and adult volunteers, designed to protect children from sexual misconduct.

Hailed the U.S. House of Representatives passage of a ban on partial-birth abortions, legislation for which he had lobbied as the bishops' pro-life chairman.

On Sunday, he celebrated Mass at Holy Trinity parish in Phoenixville to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its founding.

"It was a beautiful, momentous day," the Rev. Michael Rzonca, pastor of Holy Trinity, said yesterday. "He called us to be committed to the teachings of the church and to look forward to the future." After the Mass, Bevilacqua greeted parishioners and handed out religious medals to the children.

Asked how he thought the people will remember the cardinal, Rzonca replied: "That he was available. That he would listen to them, and was in communication with the people of the archdiocese."

The question of where the cardinal will live after he retires has been matter of speculation and controversy.

In December, the archdiocese sought and received permission from Lower Merion Township's zoning board to build a 4,800-square-foot home for Bevilacqua on the grounds of St. Charles Seminary in Wynnewood. The construction costs were to be donated by wealthy friends and admirers.

The size and cost of the project drew broad criticism from lay Catholics and even some clergy, and the archdiocese appears to have backed away from the plan. Construction has not begun, and Lower Merion's building department reported last week that the archdiocese has not sought an extension of the construction permit, which expires this month.

A diocesan spokeswoman said last week that the matter "has not been decided."

Philadelphia is a "cardinalatial see," meaning the next archbishop will likely be elevated one day to the rank of cardinal, making him an adviser to the Pope, a member of the College of Cardinals, and a papal elector.

Although Bevilacqua is generally credited with shielding the archdiocese from major scandal during last year's explosive revelations of child sex abuse in the Catholic church, his successor might find himself coping with controversy. A Philadelphia grand jury is investigating the archdiocese's handling of past abuse cases, and its report is due late this year.

Catherine Rossi, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the cardinal would have no comment on yesterday's abrupt resignation of Frank Keating, chairman of the special lay review board monitoring diocesan compliance of the bishops' mandatory sex-abuse policies.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or

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