Good Catholic, Good American
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George Weigel

Luis Antonio Tagle, the boyish 55-year-old archbishop of Manila, was the media star of Pope Benedict XVI’s November 24 consistory, in which six new members of the College of Cardinals were created; the Italian press and American bloggers quickly broadcast, exclaimed, or whispered that Tagle might be the first Asian pope. His Beatitude, Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal — major-archbishop of Trivandrum and head of the Syro-Malankara Church, an eastern Catholic community with ancient roots in India — won the sartorial prize for 2012’s second consistory, with a conical-shaped ecclesiastical hat that outshone even the exuberant women’s headwear sported by festive Nigerian supporters of the newly created Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja. Sober analysts of the Christian Church’s desperate situation in the Middle East hoped that the bestowal of the cardinal’s red hat would inspire Béchara Boutros Raï, the Maronite patriarch of Antioch, to a more assertive defense of civil society and elementary decency against Hezbollah aggressions in his native Lebanon; those same observers expect Bogotá’s new cardinal, Rubén Salazar Gómez, to help consolidate and deepen his country’s impressive democratization — an especially important task, what with Hugo Chávez next door.

For their part, the little people of the Vatican — the elevator operators, policemen, ushers, housekeepers, and minor office workers — probably got the greatest satisfaction from the elevation of the new cardinal who got the least media attention, James Michael Harvey, the Milwaukee native who, since 1998, had been prefect of the Papal Household: the manager of the pope’s public life and schedule. In February 1998, when Harvey was a mere monsignor (although a senior figure in the Secretariat of State), he and I were walking together through the splendidly frescoed halls of the Apostolic Palace, between visits to the just-created cardinal Francis George of Chicago and the freshly minted cardinal James Francis Stafford, former archbishop of Denver and newly named president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. In the confusions that remind visitors to Rome that “system” and “Italian” do not readily co-exist, Monsignor Harvey and I got briefly separated, and one of the Vatican ushers, sensing an opportunity to do a bit of what my evangelical friends would call witnessing, pulled me aside and said, sotto voce, “Your friend — he is the best priest here.”

Cardinal Harvey is also one of the most knowledgeable and acute observers of Catholic affairs in the world. He admired and was deeply moved by the immense physical and moral courage (and indomitable humor) of Blessed John Paul II in his later years; and like many others, he wept as the great Polish pope’s triple casket was lowered into its first resting place in the grottoes beneath St. Peter’s. His insightful appreciation of Benedict XVI, as a man and as a Christian disciple, was eloquently captured in the omaggio, the greeting of gratitude, that Harvey, as the first in precedence among the new cardinals, offered the pope in the name of all the new members of the College at the beginning of the Mass for the Solemnity of Christ the King on November 25:

“Holy Father, when you accepted the burden of the Office of Peter in 2005, the Church and the world knew you as a towering intellect, as one of the great theologians of our time. Now, after more than seven and a half years, the Church and the world have come to know you better; they have understood that your unique command of the truths of Christian doctrine, and your singular ability to make those truths come alive catechetically and homiletically, find their roots in a profound faith: and that your conviction has been deepened by a lifetime of study and teaching, guided by the regula fidei [rule of faith] and inspired by the Church’s liturgy. Your scholarly life — as priest and professor, as diocesan bishop, as curial prefect, and finally as Bishop of Rome — has been a living lesson in the truth that the most profound theology is not theology articulated at a desk, but theology done on one’s knees.

“You have shown us, Holy Father, that theology must always return to the Word of God as its ‘permanent foundation.’ For it is by reference to the Word that the science of theology, as the Second Vatican Council taught in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, ‘is most firmly strengthened and constantly rejuvenated, as it searches out, under faith, the full truth stored up in the mystery of Christ.’ By exemplifying this teaching of the Second Vatican Council in your theological work, your preaching, and your magisterium, you have embodied the Council’s call to all bishops, priests, deacons, and catechists to ‘immerse themselves in the Scriptures’ — and in so doing, to meet the divine Word who speaks to us in the Word of God, so that we may offer to others friendship with him, with his Father, and with the Holy Spirit.