Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua dies at 88

Posted: February 01, 2012

Cardinal Anthony Joseph Bevilacqua, 88, whose 15 years as shepherd of the 1.5 million-member Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia was marked by both celebration and crisis, died in his sleep Tuesday night in his apartment at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.

Donna Farrell, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said he died about 9:15 p.m.

After retiring in 2003, he left the cardinal's residence on City Avenue for the apartment at the seminary and rarely appeared in public.

Cardinal Bevilacqua was emblematic of the church to which he had devoted himself since age 14: progressive on some social-justice issues, staunchly orthodox on matters of doctrine and sexuality, and unfailingly deferential to the will of Rome.

He was a private man, given to dining alone at the mansion. Yet he delighted in public appearances and was known for his personal touch with the faithful.

He paid official daylong visits to all 302 parishes in the five-county archdiocese, typically saying Mass, touring schools, visiting nursing homes, and posing for photos. He sometimes flung his zucchetto, or skullcap, Frisbee-style into a crowd, and planted his bishop's hat on youngsters' heads.

Perhaps the most joyous moment of his prelature here came Oct. 1, 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized Mother Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia banking heiress who in 1891 founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Cardinal Bevilacqua had vigorously championed her cause. He was among the hundreds of Philadelphians clutching umbrellas in Rome that rainy day as John Paul named Mother Katharine to the canon of saints and, at that moment, St. Peter's Square filled with sunlight.

His tenure, though, was also a time of unprecedented contraction for the archdiocese.

After five years at the helm, he took up a thankless task that his predecessor, Cardinal John Krol, had put off: deciding the fate of many underused parishes and schools. He wound up closing 20 parishes, six high schools, and 28 elementary schools, largely in poor city neighborhoods.

In decline since the 1970s, Mass attendance and priestly vocations continued slipping during his era - a trend afflicting many other dioceses.

His most agonizing period was surely the clergy sex-abuse crisis that erupted in 2002 and culminated three years later in a searing indictment of his leadership.

In September 2005, after a 40-month grand jury investigation into clergy sex abuse in the archdiocese, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office issued a report excoriating Cardinals Bevilacqua and Krol for systematically allowing hundreds of abuser priests to go unpunished and ignoring the victims.

The report named 63 priests working in the archdiocese who had abused children during the previous 50 years, and surmised there might have been 100 more whose crimes were concealed by murky record-keeping.

"Sexually abusive priests were left quietly in place or 'recycled' to unsuspecting new parishes - vastly expanding the number of children who were abused," the 418-page report concluded.

Cardinal Bevilacqua did not respond publicly to the charges. His successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, called the report "very unfair" for not addressing abuse in other religious denominations and public institutions.

Acquaintances described Cardinal Bevilacqua, already suffering some depression after his retirement, as devastated by the report. He rarely appeared in public afterward and granted no interviews.

Just this week, a Common Pleas Court judge reaffirmed an earlier ruling that Cardinal Bevilacqua, though described as "moderately senile," was legally competent to testify in the forthcoming trial of three priests accused of abuse.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. on June 17, 1923, "Tony" Bevilacqua was the ninth of 11 children of poor Italian immigrants who could barely read or speak English. They inadvertently joined an Episcopal parish upon arriving, thinking it was Catholic.

His father, Luigi, a stone cutter and cobbler, moved the family to working-class Woodhaven, Queens. Tony so admired the parish pastor there, the Rev. Andrew Francis Carmen, that he entered the diocesan junior seminary, Cathedral College, at age 14.

At 26, he graduated from Immaculate Conception Seminary, the senior seminary, and was ordained a priest on June 11, 1949. Mindful of his parents' struggles, he devoted himself to the immigrant cause throughout his career, beginning in the ethnically diverse Diocese of Brooklyn.

In 1971, while still a priest, he established that diocese's Catholic Migration and Refugee Office, one of the first of its kind in the country. Decades later, as a cardinal, he would sit on the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant People.

"We don't help people because they are Catholic," he often said. "We help them because we are Catholic."

By the time he was made a monsignor in 1976, he had earned advanced degrees in church law (from the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome), civil law (from St. John's University Law School in Queens) and political science (from Columbia University). That year he became chancellor, or chief legal officer, of the Brooklyn diocese.

Four years later, he was named an auxiliary bishop of the diocese. With about 1.5 million members, then and now, it is larger than many archdioceses and rivals Philadelphia in size.

In 1983, John Paul II made him bishop of the 900,000-member Pittsburgh Diocese.

Within three years, he had made headlines by ending his predecessor's practice of including women in the traditional Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony, reasoning that Jesus had washed only his male apostles' feet.

Public demonstrations followed. Bishop Bevilacqua asked the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for its opinion. When its liturgy committee concluded it was appropriate to include women, he relented.

That maelstrom notwithstanding, Bishop Bevilacqua became known for his frequent pastoral visits to parishes and his outreach to Jews. He led interfaith efforts targeting unemployment in Pittsburgh's struggling economy, while opposing the school district's plan to set up health clinics that would address contraception and abortion.

Late in 1987, John Paul named him the 11th bishop and seventh archbishop of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which also comprises Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties. On Feb. 11, 1988, he officially succeeded Krol, who had been archbishop exactly 27 years.

(The latter not only remained in the cardinal's residence during retirement but kept its master bedroom until his death in 1996. The two prelates were not close.)

In his first homily at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, the new archbishop exhorted the 1,800 worshipers: "Like Christ, I need you to drive out demons of all kinds: injustice, racism, unjust discrimination, abortion, pornography and all kinds of immorality, sin of every sort, drug abuse, violence, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, ignorance, and so many other demons whose name is legion."

Later that year, he called on priests and laity to undertake a Period of Renewal, to begin in 1991 - coincident with his elevation to cardinal - and culminate in the millennial celebration year 2000. Each year would have a theme, such as prayer, family life or evangelization, which parishes and parishioners were encouraged to emphasize.

As the Period of Renewal approached a close, however, Cardinal Bevilacqua acknowledged that it had not evidenced itself in increases in priestly vocations or Sunday Mass attendance.

"But I never feel frustration," he said. "Frustration is the beginning of despair. So I just face the reality of what has happened and ask, 'How do we get people back? How do we get their loyalty?' "

Answers were elusive. Sunday Mass attendance, which decades earlier averaged nearly 90 percent, today stands at about 30 percent.

During Cardinal Bevilacqua's leadership, the ranks of diocesan priests dropped from 907 to 743. The number of elementary schools shrank from 244 to 216, high schools from 28 to 22, and parishes from 302 to 282. Many other dioceses in the Northeast experienced similar declines.

In response to a dwindling supply of newly ordained clergy, he increased lay involvement by instituting parish pastoral and finance councils and placing lay people in key administrative posts.

Cardinal Bevilacqua served on five Vatican congregations (Clergy, Saints, Cor Unum, Consecrated Life and Migrants) and traveled to Rome several times a year. But he was never the Vatican insider or papal intimate that Cardinal Krol had been.

With degrees in both church and civil law (he was a member of the New York and Pennsylvania bars and qualified to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court), he sometimes played legal adviser to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and was head of its Pro-Life Office for three years.

Still, his ecclesial horizons were mostly bound by the five counties of the archdiocese. Early on, he decentralized its administration into secretariats and geographical "vicariates" so he could spend more time with his flock.

But some of the goodwill he enjoyed early on eroded in 1993. That spring he announced - after little public consultation - that he was closing nine parishes and five parochial schools in North Philadelphia and closing six parishes in Chester. It stirred cries of racism and public demonstrations, including a mock "exorcism" of archdiocesan headquarters.

Surprised and embarrassed, the cardinal later devised a consultative process called "cluster planning," in which priests and laity of neighboring parishes sat down to discuss the best use of shared resources - including whether to merge or close parishes. Cluster planning became a model for other dioceses, although Cardinal Bevilacqua's successor, Cardinal Rigali, did not employ it.

In 1996, he made headlines with a campaign against Mayor Ed Rendell's plan to extend same-sex benefits to city workers. Although 35,000 parishioners signed archdiocesan-distributed postcards condemning the plan, Rendell did not back down.

In 1998, Cardinal Bevilacqua called on then-Gov. Tom Ridge to fund food stamps for the state's legal immigrants shut out by federal welfare reform. The next year, he challenged area firms to help welfare recipients who risked cutoffs if they did not work 20 hours a week.

His administration also set up service centers for African American and Latino Catholics and launched a Spanish-language radio show.

For many years, however, he irked some in the black community by refusing to order archdiocesan schools and offices to close on Martin Luther King Day. He reasoned that children could better honor King in the classroom than at home.

The policy was unpopular at parochial and diocesan schools in Philadelphia, many of whose students are minorities, and in 1998 he rescinded it. Later that year, he penned an eloquent pastoral letter condemning racism as an "evil that violates Christ's command to love your neighbor as yourself."

"Racism and Christian life are incompatible," he declared in the letter, which won him high praise from the black community.

In the mid-1990s, Cardinal Bevilacqua became concerned by what he saw as the liberal drift of some Catholic universities and began campaigning for a policy giving local bishops authority over what theologians taught in their dioceses.

Although unpopular with the universities, the policy, called Ex Corde Ecclesia, had the backing of Rome. The bishops' conference adopted it in 1999 by a wide margin.

In April 2002 - at the start of the national clergy sex abuse scandal but before it fully erupted here - Cardinal Bevilacqua further enhanced his reputation for conservatism by declaring that men with a homosexual orientation are unfit to be priests.

When a heterosexual man accepts celibacy to become a priest, "he's giving up a very good thing, and that is a family and children," he said. "That would not be true about a homosexual-oriented candidate . . . By his orientation he's not giving up family and marriage. He's giving up what the church considers an aberration, a moral evil."

He was condemned by civil rights groups but cheered by some Catholics who blamed the clergy sex abuse scandal on the church's tolerance of gay priests.

In his last year as archbishop, Cardinal Bevilacqua created an office for community development to help blighted neighborhoods. The archdiocese, Pennsylvania's largest social-service provider, also launched a $41 million human-services construction program.

Its seven projects included a 50-acre complex in Bensalem for troubled youths and a 120-bed home for the aged in Downingtown, along with improvements to such existing facilities as residences for the homeless, abused women and children, and court-adjudicated youth.

But the first finished was the $5.2-million Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center, dedicated in November 2003 on the site of a Kensington playground where drug dealers and prostitutes had trafficked.

"The community center might also be called the Hope Center," the newly retired cardinal told the crowd of 200. "Today's dedication marks the realization of what was once a dream."

Funeral arrangements were pending Wednesday morning.


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly

at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

Former staff writer Jim Remsen contributed to this article.

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