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Analysis: Will next red hat in the Big Apple have St. Louis connections?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: As Cardinal Edward Egan of New York approaches retirement, the names of two former St. Louis-area bishops are being bandied about as possible replacements. The first is Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, 60, the former bishop of Belleville who left in 2004. If Gregory were named, he would become the first African-American cardinal.

Another beloved former St. Louis region bishop is also being mentioned  -- Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, 58, who left St. Louis in 2002. For years, church leaders have expected this joyful priest to be named to an archdiocese where he would be named a cardinal.

Some astute Vatican watchers say Gregory tops the list of American archbishops that Pope Benedict XVI might chose to lead the New York archdiocese's 2.56 million Catholics.

The pope may not have made his decision yet. If he has, the announcement could come as soon at Tuesday noon, Rome time. Highly placed sources who declined to be named expect an announcement by mid-June. However, anticipation might extend until the pope returns from his summer vacation.

This appointment of the archbishop to the world's media capital, the seat of the United Nations, might be the most influential that Benedict will make.

Make It In New York

On May 11, Egan, 76 marked his eighth anniversary as New York archbishop. Each Catholic bishop in the world must offer the pope his resignation on his 75th birthday. Egan had that birthday, April 2, 2007. No one expected Egan's resignation to be accepted until after the recent papal visit and until Egan has had a few weeks to host thank-you parties for the visit's volunteers.

The next New York archbishop would work without being named a cardinal until Benedict again confers red hats at a religious ceremony called a consistory. That likely would occur in 2009 or later in Rome. On June 29 in Rome at a lower-key assembly, Benedict will bestow the wool white and black pallium, the strap-like shoulder insignia of a metropolitan archbishop, on archbishops from around the world who have been appointed since last July. If the New York post is filled by then, the new man would be among them.

Leadership in a Crucible

Gregory proved himself a gifted leader in the worst of times. He bravely led U.S. bishops -- many kicking and screaming -- through the 2002 clerical sex abuse crisis. As the elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the scandal's critical years of 2001-2004, he met with victims of priests' sex abuse.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the pope, was Gregory's most helpful Vatican supporter in the crisis. The Boston Globe published its exhaustive Pulitzer Prize winning investigation of sexual abuse in that archdiocese in the first months of 2002. That February, Gregory flew from St. Louis to Rome and spoke about the widespread findings of abuse investigations to cardinals who headed 12 different Vatican departments. That month he described those conversations as being "without nuance."

One of those cardinals was Ratzinger. He and Gregory got the ailing Pope John Paul II to underline the seriousness of the sex abuse crisis by calling all the U.S. cardinals to Rome for a "summit." In March, the pope told the cardinals that there was "no place in the church" for those who would harm children.

That June at the national bishops' conference meeting in Dallas, Gregory worked with a committee to write and approve the conference's Charter to Protect Children and Youth. By fall, he had gotten the Vatican to make the charter's policies binding under canon (church) law for this country. He set up a blue-ribbon lay board, including a sex abuse survivor, and hired former top FBI leaders to advise bishops and see that bishops complied with policies to clean up what Benedict calls "the filth in the church."

A Great Mentor

In the 1980s, as the youngest American Catholic bishop, Gregory saw how transparency helped heal survivors and cleaned out abusive priests.

His mentor and bishop, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, had a policy to swiftly remove men who had been accused of abusing children. Bernardin repeatedly asked for all abuse victims to come forward. Bernardin and Gregory learned, quickly and tragically, that abusers were usually addicted to this criminal activity. As victims told their stories, Bernardin and Gregory found that many criminal priests had multiple accusers.

In the 1993, when Gregory was appointed bishop of Belleville, he adopted Bernardin's policy. Within a couple of years, 10 percent of the diocese's priests were removed for sexual misconduct.

In 2002 and 2003, when Gregory took his policy nationally, many ecclesiastical nay-sayers predicted that Gregory would get bad marks from the Vatican. They particularly objected to his insistence that one incident of sexual abuse of a minor was sufficient to remove a man from his priestly ministry. In the white heat of the crisis, some priests and bishops disdainfully started their sentences "that Gregory...."

Gregory initially met resistance from Egan and others for asking them to take advice from a blue ribbon panel of Catholics, including a governor, judge, former Cabinet member, university presidents and newspaper editor. Other bishops were upset that he had hired -- with the majority of bishops' approval -- the FBI's third-ranking official to run the bishops' charter compliance unit.

His peers' castigations quieted, especially after Benedict publicly mentioned the scandal each day of his recent U.S. visit. Gregory is admired by lay Catholics and thousands of American priests for the way he stood up to naive or indifferent bishops. In 2002 in the Newark airport after the summit, as he changed planes for St. Louis, strangers including non-Catholics, thanked him for his efforts to protect children.

The seminarians' leader

Dolan, a St. Louis native, grew up in Ballwin, and served in St. Louis as a parish priest, seminary vice rector and St. Louis auxiliary bishop.

As a young priest he came to national attention during his five-year assignment in the offices of the papal representative -- the nuncio -- in Washington. Later, after serving as vice-rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury, he became rector of the bishops' Pontifical North American College in Rome. It's the residential seminary for American men studying for the priesthood at Vatican universities. His hospitable style and gregarious personality made him beloved by the seminarians and their visiting parents.

Many of his former seminarians showed their gratitude in August 2001 by coming to St. Louis for his ordination as a St. Louis auxiliary bishop. They swelled the exuberant crowd of more than 2,500 and filled the balconies of the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica for his ordination as a St. Louis auxiliary bishop. It was the largest crowd in the church since the funeral of Cardinal John Glennon. For the first six months of 2002, though he was just an auxiliary, Dolan was assigned to deal with the sex abuse crisis here. That summer, the pope made him archbishop in Milwaukee.

Months ago, Dolan, a respected church historian and former St. Louis University professor, was mentioned as a possible new archbishop of Baltimore, the oldest U.S. Catholic diocese. When the pope filled that post, some hoped it signaled that Dolan was being saved for something ever bigger: New York.

When Dolan went to Milwaukee, he had to clean up the sex abuse mess other prelates had ignored. The waves of settlements to victims pushed his Milwaukee diocese into financial crisis. This spring, Dolan's plan to finance the debt by selling church property to an eager developer fell through in the 11th hour. The bursting of the real estate bubble hit the budget. Now more than one-third of his archdiocesan employees face layoffs. To transfer Dolan now would distress Milwaukee Catholics, one Midwestern church official said.

Two Men of the People

Both Gregory and Dolan hold one key to New York. They are both bright, eloquent and at ease in front of television cameras.

Dolan is a cradle Catholic, who grew up in Ballwin. Gregory, the son of Protestants, told a nun at his Catholic grade school that he wanted to be a priest. He jokes about how she said he'd have to become a Catholic first. He did and went to Chicago seminaries for high school and college. Dolan graduated from high school and college seminary in Shrewsbury. Both men got Ph.Ds. Both studied in Rome and have taught in seminaries.

Gregory and Dolan have been called bishops "of the people," who easily relate to everyday lives of those in the pews. At parish confirmations each archbishop has the reputation of lingering until the last parents and their child have chatted and taken all the photos they want with the bishop.

"Bishop Gregory was so warm and welcoming," said Cathy Pyatt, youth minister at St. Bruno Church in Pinckneyville, Ill. When he visited for confirmation, "no one felt intimidated by him. He really carried out the bishop's role of being a servant to the people. And the kids adored him."

In Belleville's expansive mostly rural diocese, Gregory's gift of time meant that he had to drive his black car -- with his Illinois plates "Wilton" -- two hours back to his Belleville home after evening confirmations.

For years Marylou Tyrell, a parishioner at Blessed Sacrament in Belleville and her family, volunteered at his annual Christmas dinner for the Illinois needy. His kindness and concern as he talked to the needy were inspiring. She said what is repeated widely in the diocese: "How much we love Bishop Gregory!"

Dolan evokes similar expressions of affection. 

"Archbishop Dolan is so holy, you just feel that when he speaks," said Mary Hutson, a parishioner at Holy Infant in Ballwin, where Dolan grew up and attended the parish grade school. He returns every few years and still parishioners find him unassuming, she said.

He's a big fellow who gives out bear hugs unsparingly. When he moved to Rome, one St. Louis family was so disappointed that he could not officiate at their daughter's wedding that the whole family and their guests took the wedding to Rome. He is in demand as a serious church historian, but he can talk about the baseball Cardinals as easily as he does Catholic cardinals.

"A lot of people here call him Timmy, Bishop Timmy," Hutson said. He enjoys the affection in such familiarity, she said.

Beata Gordon, Holy Infant parish office manager, believes Dolan successfully brings people to a deeper relationship with God.

"He smiles when he talks about God. He's a true evangelist who brings people back to God," Gordon said.

Oddsmakers Aren't Playing 

Other bishops' names are being tossed into the air for New York, mostly Middle Atlantic prelates, but these two consistently are mentioned sotte voce in Roman cafes near the Vatican's Santa Anna gate.

Over the past two years, one American writer has predicted U.S. bishop appointments correctly a day or so in advance. He has not predicted this one, so far.

"Gregory and Dolan fit the bill in terms of key qualities: They are good with priests, good with the press and would be able to restore the traditional role of the archbishop of New York's voice in the public square," said Rocco Palmo, who reports on Catholic church politics on his daily news website: Whispers in the Loggia. "Remember, this pope doesn't just green light the Congregation for Bishops' recommendations. He spends much more time on the appointment of bishops. He knows that his bishops have to lead, that he can't do all the leading. His choices have been moderate men from the middle. His appointments show that he understands that his bishops should not polarize the church."

Some watch the game but won't play.

"I've given up on playing Jimmy the Greek and predicting who is going to be named bishop," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit political scientist at the Woodstock School of Theology at Georgetown University and author of a definitive book on the topic called "Archbishop."

"Most of the time those who know don't talk, and those who don't know speculate," Reese said.

The process

Traditionally, bishops forward names to the papal nuncio who, along with his American staff, checks references and conducts interviews. (Dolan used to work in that office.) Since 2002, the candidates' vetting has been more intense. Eventually, a bishops' committee and the nuncio come up with three names. Then, a committee of cardinals makes its recommendations.

That committee met in Rome last Thursday. Cardinal Justin F. Rigali of Philadelphia, formerly of St. Louis, attended last week's meeting. But the group's closely held discussion for New York may have been made months ago

After the pope selects a name, his secretary of state telegraphs the nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi.

The telegraph is in a code that only the nuncio and his secretary can break. In turn, Sambi telephones the nominee and offers him the job. Rigali was an exception to this process. He had been working in Rome, and Pope John Paul II called him to his office to tell him of his appointment. When he returned to his desk, the airline ticket was waiting.

The nominee can say no, but that is unusual. 

The nuncio gives the nominee a week or so to envision himself in the new post, study stats on the new diocese and in some cases find it on the map. The nuncio orders the man to keep silent. Most bishops don't tell their family or secretary until the afternoon before Rome's public announcement.

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke told his sister on Thanksgiving Day, 2004, five days before the papal announcement. Some bishops tell stories about using a public phone to make plane reservations for fear that their staff might overhear them. Of course, that was before online reservations and mobile phones.

A few days before the announcement, the nuncio will formally phone New York's current archbishop.

If the assigned diocese is not the biggest in the region, the day before an announcement, Sambi's office will fax a heads-up to the archbishop-metropolitan who leads that state or region. These faxes are "for the bishops' eyes only." Stamped on the letter are the words "pontifical secret" with the prohibition that bishops may tell no one of the decision, under pain of excommunication.

The name can be changed after the man is told he has the job, and sometimes it has.

Nothing is sure until noon of appointment day when just off St. Peter's Square, behind the white columns of the Sala Stampa  -- the Vatican Press Office -- officials hand out the announcement.

Patricia Rice has written about religion for many years. She covered the U.S. Cardinals Summit in Rome, the bishops' conference in Dallas and activities at the Pontifical North American College.

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