Retiring Archbishop Gives Farewell Homily

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006

He will miss it here. He will miss the nuns and the priests he has come to call friends. But shortly before Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick delivered his final homily as archbishop of Washington yesterday, he said he will most miss the people he has served the past five years.

"They became part of my family," McCarrick said. "I'll miss not having my own flock."

About 1,600 people gathered to hear the outgoing head of the Catholic church in Washington deliver his last homily yesterday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The hour-long service drew nuns, priests, prelates and laypeople from every corner of the city and the country.

Moments before the Mass began, the monumental church on Michigan Avenue NE buzzed with a bittersweet sense of excitement as many shared memories of McCarrick. Jean Bilsky, 68, said that she has seen many church leaders come and go in Washington over the past 20 years but that few have been as "down to earth" as McCarrick.

"He just brings joy to your heart when he speaks. His humility is so true," Bilsky said.

Sipihwe Mkize, a South African diplomat, said he will always remember McCarrick as someone who was not afraid to speak his mind. Mkize, 40, lauded McCarrick's handling of the priest sex scandals that swept through the archdiocese when McCarrick first began in 2001. He said he was especially impressed by the cardinal's outreach to Washington's Latino immigrant community.

"He's done so much for the church and so much for the political life of the church in Washington," Mkize said.

McCarrick submitted his resignation when he turned 75 last July, as required by church law. McCarrick, a native New Yorker, was ordained 48 years ago and served in several posts before taking up the archbishop position in Washington in January 2001.

In May, Pope Benedict XVI picked Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh to replace McCarrick, overseeing an archdiocese of 560,000 Catholics and 115 parochial schools in the District and Maryland. Wuerl, scheduled to arrive in Washington today, will deliver his first Mass as archbishop Sunday at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Northwest Washington. McCarrick said he is confident that Wuerl will have no trouble picking up where he is leaving off.

"Whatever good I had, he's going to double it, and whatever stupidity I have had, he's not going to have," McCarrick said.

As priests and prelates donned their robes in the sacristy before the Mass, McCarrick leaned casually against an altar where his vestments had been carefully placed and chatted about his plans for the future. He will continue to serve the church, he said, traveling extensively on church business over the next several months to Rome, Moscow and possibly the Middle East. He'll split his time between Washington and New Jersey, where he lived for many years, and hopes to catch up on his reading, fishing and napping. But much of his time will be spent praying and preparing for what he says is his final journey.

"I'm going to get ready to go home," he said.

Compact and energetic, with lively hazel eyes, McCarrick looked ready for anything yesterday as he strode across the polished floor of the basilica toward the dais. He paused several times as some in the audience reached out to touch him and whisper their thanks. He nodded to some and gave a jaunty wave to others as he mounted the steps to the throne one last time.

The Mass marked the end of an era for a religious leader who has been beloved but also unafraid to take controversial stands. In the final days of his tenure, McCarrick was a vocal supporter of a Senate bill to allow thousands of illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens. His longstanding work with the Latino immigrant community has drawn a mix of criticism and admiration, as was his decision to oppose conservative church leaders who said in 2004 they would bar Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry from taking communion because of Kerry's abortion rights advocacy.

It would have been hard to find critics of McCarrick yesterday among the hundreds gathered beneath the gilded dome of the basilica to hear his final words. There were no long goodbyes or lengthy speeches. McCarrick briefly thanked his fellow clergymen and women and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams for coming. Then he thanked those who had come from far and wide to see him.

"Most of all, I thank God for you -- God's people here in Washington," McCarrick said.

True to form, McCarrick delivered a simple message for a town that often seems to thrive on complexity.

"In humility, we always find hope. Hope is impossible without humility," McCarrick said. "Because to have confidence in someone else, we must be humble."

As McCarrick delivered his final words, the audience began to clap. Moments later, McCarrick, with a lei of gold and white flowers around his neck, walked down the steps of the dais for the last time and turned to wave to the people he will miss the most.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company