WASHINGTON, D.C., MAR. 5, 2001 (Zenit.org).- At the Mass of thanksgiving in his honor, Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick began his sermon Sunday with a description of the Feb. 21 Vatican ceremony when he became a cardinal. Then he went into the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent, the temptation of Jesus in the desert.
In the cardinal´s hands, this familiar story about the lure of wealth, power and glory took on a pronounced flavor of Washington and the temptations facing the last standing superpower, according to an account in The New York Times.
“In a way the devil was saying, ´Don´t try to make the world better, just take it over,´” said Cardinal McCarrick. “That´s a temptation we all have to fight, trying to take control of other countries or people instead of cooperating and seeking counsel.”
Trying to improve the world step by step is the vocation of this a cardinal who insists that his focus on human rights overseas and against sweatshops and homelessness in the United States are as much a part of his job as celebrating Mass, the Times said.
“I don´t want to come across as some high-class holy person,” Cardinal McCarrick said after the Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. “I don´t do it as well as I´d like to do it, but this is all real to me.”
Sweatshops, homelessness and displaced people have been real to him since his childhood in Manhattan during the Depression. His seafaring father died of tuberculosis when he was 3 years old, forcing his mother, Margaret McLaughlin McCarrick, to find work at a Bronx factory making automobile parts and to live with various relatives in an extended Irish-American clan, the Times said.
In this boyhood, the cardinal said his strongest identity was with his parish and school, not his New York neighborhood, Washington Heights. “When people asked me where I was from, I´d say Incarnation,” he told the Times. “I´d give them the name of my parish.”
When priests walked into those schools and asked who was going to become a priest, “80% of us raised our hands,” the cardinal said. “We all wanted to be like them.”
Then adolescence struck. The young Ted McCarrick started dating and lost any sense of a priestly vocation until his senior year at the Fordham Preparatory School, when he started thinking, “maybe God will allow me to become a priest.”
After graduation, a school friend invited him to spend a year in Switzerland — an unheard-of luxury made possible by his friend´s family. Europe and the study of history and languages gave him time to become convinced of his vocation.
After studying at Fordham University and at St. Joseph´s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, he was ordained a priest in 1958. By 1965 he was president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico. He returned to New York and rose to become vicar of East Manhattan and the Harlems, eventually becoming archbishop of Newark, New Jersey.
At the same time, he became a leading Catholic voice on international issues, pursuing economic and social programs in countries like Haiti, Yugoslavia and Rwanda and seeking debt relief for poor nations. He toured China on behalf of the Clinton administration to discuss religious freedom and human rights.
His arrival as archbishop of Washington at the beginning of the year seemed a natural fit. Days after he took office, he dined with President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, at the archbishop´s home.
Oddly, at that dinner the president did not mention his plans to expand the role of religious organizations in assisting the needy. If he had, Cardinal McCarrick said he would have told Bush of his fear that the government would get out of needed social assistance and hand it over to the religious groups.
“It can´t be what´s happened in the past, with the federal government saying the churches can carry it for the poor,” he told the Times.
Instead, the dinner talk was all about foreign affairs, with the cardinal speaking up for some of his pet causes, the Times said. One of the most urgent was the need for more aid after the Jan. 13 earthquake in El Salvador. With more than 100,000 Salvadoran parishioners in his archdiocese, the cardinal said he felt as if the disaster had affected his own family.
A few days after that dinner, he made a quick trip to El Salvador, taking money for those displaced by the earthquake. He also asked that the thousands of Salvadorans living illegally in the United States be allowed to stay and work for at least a year to send back money to help their families, and their country, recover. Last week Bush agreed and gave temporary protected status to those Salvadorans.
“You can´t separate your work by just helping on the inside of the Church,” the cardinal said Sunday. “All of the teaching we have is to change the world for the better on the inside and the outside.”