The American Cardinals

McCarrick, Unassuming And Folksy, Gains Notice

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005

VATICAN CITY, April 6 -- When they speak in public about choosing a successor to Pope John Paul II -- if they speak about it at all -- the cardinals gathering here from around the world seem to vie with one another to use the loftiest language.

Then there's Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, who calls his fellow cardinals "the fellas" and freely admits that the prospect of entering the Sistine Chapel on April 18 to vote on a new pope is "kind of scary."

With his frank and self-deprecating manner, McCarrick, 74, has become the most visible of the 11 U.S. cardinals who will take part in the conclave. Since his arrival here Monday, he has been besieged by television, radio and print reporters from around the world.

"He wears his robes lightly," said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), a member of the House delegation to John Paul's funeral on Friday. "There's an openness and accessibility about him that is immediately appealing."

McCarrick grants only a few interviews, no more than many other cardinals do. He is careful to speak just for himself. He does not claim to have any influence in the College of Cardinals.

And therein may lie his clout, both with the news media and among his peers. Accustomed to a job in Washington that requires him to be both pastor and politician, McCarrick wields humor and humility as his primary instruments.

"I'm still one of the junior cardinals. I'm 118 out of 183," he said Wednesday, flipping through the Vatican's official list of prelates in order of seniority. "I'm not on the last page, which is good. I'm on the next-to-last page."

If the other American cardinals resent McCarrick's prominence here, they have not shown it. They come and go together, chatting as they emerge from the walled seminary where most of them are staying, and duck into limousines with SCV (the Italian initials for Vatican City State) license plates for the short ride to the Vatican, where they again disappear behind high walls.

They have taken an oath not to divulge anything that goes on in their meetings leading up to the conclave. The secrecy will rise another notch during the conclave, when the 117 cardinals who are younger than 80 -- and therefore eligible to vote -- will be sequestered in the Vatican, day and night, until they reach a decision.

Asked what age and nationality he would consider ideal for the next pope, McCarrick said, "I can't go there. There are 117 folks in the world who are forbidden by law to speculate, and that's too close to speculating."

But his answers are also laced with humor. Asked about a Brazilian cardinal's prediction that the conclave will be short because the College of Cardinals already has a good idea where it's headed, McCarrick feigned confusion. "I haven't received his instructions yet," he said.

Like other cardinals, McCarrick is willing to talk about the major issues he thinks will face the next pope. In his view, they include a "crisis of spiritual apathy" in developed countries; a need for continuing dialogue with other faiths, particularly Islam; and global economic imbalances that are growing, not shrinking.


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