When the student body of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary was called to chapel late Monday evening, Jan. 31, by a tolling bell they knew there had to be a serious reason. There was. Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, they were informed, had died in his sleep at approximately 9:15 p.m.
As a community, along with Bishops John J. McIntyre and Timothy Senior, they immediately recited the rosary for him. The Cardinal, who was 88, had served as Archbishop of Philadelphia for more than 15 years, and then resided quietly at the seminary since his Oct. 7, 2003 retirement.
“I was greatly saddened to learn of the death of my predecessor Cardinal Bevilacqua,” said Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles J. Chaput. “I encourage all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to join me in praying for the repose of his soul and that God will comfort his family as they mourn his loss. Cardinal Bevilacqua has been called home by God; a servant of the Lord who loved Jesus Christ and His people.”
Anthony Joseph Bevilacqua was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 17, 1923, the son of immigrants, Luigi and Maria Bevilacqua. The family was extremely poor. Luigi blocked hats, shined shoes and sold newspapers, anything to support his brood of 10 children (another had died), especially during the Great Depression. When little Tony was 5 years old, the family moved to Woodhaven, N.Y., where Maria mistakenly began going to a local Episcopal church. Father Andrew Klarmann, a young assistant at St. Thomas the Apostle, heard about the family and came knocking. He became their instant friend and protector, and little Tony especially adored him. “I wanted to be what he was, not fully knowing what it meant to be a Catholic priest,” the future Cardinal later explained.
Through Father Klarmann, he was enrolled at St. Thomas School and then Cathedral College Preparatory school, which was also a minor seminary. He excelled in his studies and made the next step in the road to the priesthood at Brooklyn’s Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, and was ordained a priest by Bishop Thomas Molloy at Brooklyn’s St. James Cathedral on June 11, 1949.
This was followed by two parochial assignments and then he returned to Cathedral College, where he taught history for three years. He was then sent to Rome for three years where he earned his doctorate in canon law from the Gregorian University in 1956. This was followed by seven years on the Diocesan Tribunal, with most of the work on marriage annulments which he said “had very little human satisfaction.”
In 1968, he was appointed chancellor for the diocese, at a time when Bishop Francis Mugavero, one of the country’s most forward thinking bishops took the helm of the Brooklyn Diocese. Because Brooklyn was a diocese with many immigrants, in 1971 Father Bevilacqua, the child of immigrants, suggested there was a need for a Catholic Migration and Refugee Office. Bishop Mugavero not only accepted the suggestion, he named Father Bevilacqua its founding director, a post he held until 1983. In order to assist the immigrants he promptly enrolled at St. John’s University, where he received his juris doctor in civil law in 1975.
Retired Bishop Richard Karpinski of Lublin, Poland, was a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples when Father Bevilacqua started his immigrant work in Brooklyn. Writing from Poland, he said, “The superiors and staff, we all admired his dedication to the cause of migrants and the diocesan office he founded in Brooklyn. We were very pleased to learn that he was promoted by Blessed John Paul II, first as auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn (1980), then diocesan bishop of Pittsburgh (1983) and the archbishop of Philadelphia (1988). Personally I was very pleased when he became successor to the great John Cardinal Krol whom I knew personally. In 1997 Cardinal Bevilacqua visited Poland on the occasion of the 46th International Eucharistic Congress in Wroclow (Warsaw) and we had the occasion to exchange some ideas…. May the Merciful Jesus welcome into His kingdom the faithful servant. R.I.P.”
In 1980, then-Msgr. Bevilacqua was named bishop by Pope John Paul II and appointed auxiliary for the Diocese of Brooklyn. His chosen motto Ecclesia Mater Nostra (the Church Our Mother) clearly expressed his fidelity to the Church. As a bishop he was placed on the Pontifical Commission of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples.
Retired Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia Louis DeSimone remembers interacting with him in those early days. “I was in charge of Catholic Relief in Philadelphia and he did the same thing for Brooklyn,” he said, “and we would meet in New York.” From then on through to his career in Philadelphia, “He was a great churchman, and the Church was his source of inspiration. Maybe he tried too hard sometimes, but you can’t fault him for that.”
He was also placed on the on National Council of Catholic Bishops Committee on Canonical Affairs. This latter committee led to a delicate assignment in 1983. Mercy Sister Mary Agnes Mansour had been appointed director of social services for the state of Michigan. Because this involved her in public funding of abortion, Detroit’s Archbishop Edmond Szoka ordered her to resign and publicly disavow abortion which she refused to do.
Bishop Bevilacqua was sent to mediate the issue, and Sister Mary Agnes voluntarily asked to be relieved of her religious vows. His successful negotiation was obviously noted in the Vatican because on Oct. 18, 1983 he was appointed bishop of Pittsburgh, and installed Dec. 18 of that same year at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
He quickly reorganized the diocese into a secretariat system with four secretaries reporting to a general secretary, a pattern later replicated in Philadelphia but with the general secretary called the vicar for administration.
Bishop David A. Zubik, the current Bishop of Pittsburgh, was secretary to Bishop Bevilacqua during his tenure in that city.
“I worked with his Eminence closely during his years in Pittsburgh,” he said, “I was honored and blessed to serve as his secretary and had the opportunity to know him very well. What many did not realize is that he was a man of great compassion, dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor. There are many today who are remembering his personal kindness and faithful service – the twin pillars of his priesthood.”
Hardly anyone really sees a person in the same light as family members do. Dr. Lori Bittner Barnaby, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Newtown, remembers Cardinal Bevilacqua as Uncle Tony, “a wonderful man who was always there for us.” He was the uncle who was always willing to play with them as children, and he liked nothing better than a water fight, whether it was with water balloons or water pistols, and even jumped rope with them.
Back in the 1970s her family couldn’t afford to send her to medical school and it was Uncle Tony and her Aunt Virginia who chipped in to pay for it. He would never take the money back. “I have enough to get by,” he said, “pass on to someone else.” That is what she did by helping her brother through medical school.
“He was the kind of guy who would call and say, ‘Do you need money? I didn’t have to ask,” she said.
In his retirement years the Cardinal was a fairly regular weekend visitor at her home, and on Sunday he would celebrate Mass at the house, until this past year when he could not stay overnight because of steps. “He would pray with us and watch TV with us,” she said. “He was very orthodox in his religion.
A recurring theme of his early homilies was urging people to see “”the face of Christ” in all, particularly the disadvantaged, the young, all those who have a special need for our support, the homeless, the newcomers and the poor.”
“The Philadelphia grand jury really destroyed him,” she said. “He was tortured; they had no respect,” she said. “I hate to see what they are doing to him. He was a beautiful man, a holy priest, and God knows that.”
Bishop Bevilacqua happened to be in Rome on Oct. 30, 1987, and he was attending a garden party at the Villa Stritch, a residence for American priests; another guest was Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops. After casual conversation Cardinal Gantin asked Bishop Bevilacqua to come to a meeting the following morning. Of course, Bishop Bevilacqua agreed. The Cardinal thought a minute and then said, “Let’s do it now.” The two men found an empty room and Cardinal Gantin informed him, “I am happy to inform you the Holy Father has appointed you Archbishop of Philadelphia.”
“I am the only one I know of who received the news at a cocktail party,” Cardinal Bevilacqua later said.
The formal announcement of the appointment was not made until Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and he was installed at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul on Feb. 11, 1988, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which perhaps by no coincidence was the 27th anniversary of his predecessor, Cardinal John Krol’s appointment to Philadelphia.
“I need you to be the presence of Christ in marriage and the family, in management, in political life, in the schools, in the colleges and universities, in hospitals, in the media, in medicine, science and the arts,” he told the people in his first Philadelphia homily. His would be an administration of orthodoxy in Church teaching, but with concern for people with needs. A recurring theme of his early homilies was urging people to see “”the face of Christ” in all, particularly the disadvantaged, the young, all those who have a special need for our support, the homeless, the newcomers and the poor.”
On June 29, in Rome he received the pallium, the symbol of his office as head of an archdiocesan office from Pope John Paul II.
Although he was just a few months shy of his 65th birthday on arrival, the energy he brought to the task was obvious. Before the month was out he scheduled visitations with priests, seminarians and laity throughout the five counties of the Archdiocese, and this was followed by an ambitious program of parish visitations. In January 1989, he surprised Philadelphia’s determined pro-life cadre by accompanying them to Washington for the annual March for Life and never missed a March until his ultimate retirement.
“He was interested and supportive of pro life,” said John Stanton, who was and is a leader in the movement in the Archdiocese. “He appreciated the efforts of the people involved; a lot of our clergy had not been. Support is important and when your religious leader is favorable to you; that is important. We were pleased by his support, and it encouraged us to fight on.”
In order to free himself and his auxiliary bishops for more pastoral work, the new archbishop quickly put in place a secretarial system to take over most administrative functions, although some of the secretariats mirrored offices already in place.
First, Msgr. Edward Cullen was appointed vicar for administration and vicar general. This was followed by the appointment of Msgr. John J. Jagodzinski as Secretary for the Clergy; Joseph P. Healy as Secretary for Temporal Affairs, Bernadette A. O’Connell as Secretary for Catholic Life and Evangelization and Father Stephen P. McHenry as Secretary for Catholic Education.
A next step was the division of the Archdiocese into six vicariates; two in Philadelphia and one each in the surrounding counties. Each vicariate was headed by a full-time vicar who had oversight of the parishes and schools in his area. Each of the vicars was one of the most highly regarded priests in the Archdiocese.
A next appointment would prove extremely significant; this was Msgr. Joseph A. Marino to head the newly formed Office for Renewal of Pastoral Life, with plans under way for an archdiocesan-wide Renewal in preparation for the jubilee year, 2000.
A very pleasant early duty for Philadelphia’s new Archbishop was to lead a pilgrimage to Rome for the Nov. 20, 1988 beatification of Mother Katharine Drexel, foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament who dedicated her life and fortune to the welfare of Native and African Americans. Although all the preparatory work for the beatification had been done under Cardinal Krol, it was Cardinal Bevilacqua’s task to see the cause through to canonization on Oct. 1, 2000.
D’Mont Reese, who does photography for The Catholic Standard and Times, covered the canonization in Rome for the newspaper, and especially remembers Cardinal Bevilacqua’s gratitude for the coverage.
Afterward, “he sent me a letter thanking me for my professionalism and my extensive work before and at the canonization,” Reese said. “I will never forget that he took time to even notice the work that I was doing, and his letter opened doors for me in my business. As the commercial would say, going on a six-hour flight, photographing the canonization was great, but receiving a letter from the Cardinal was priceless.”
As Archbishop of Philadelphia Cardinal Bevilacqua made more than 2,000 pastoral visits, including but not limited to:
900 visits to parishes and elementary schools
105 visits to archdiocesan high schools
43 visits to colleges and universities
35 visits to private elementary and secondary schools
19 visits to institutions special education schools
104 visits to hospitals and nursing homes
As well as visits to synagogues, prisons and government facilities.
Archbishop Bevilacqua was raised to the rank of Cardinal by Pope John Paul II on June 28, 1991, and at that time given the titular Church of St. Alfonso in Rome. It was a Redemptorist Church and a reminder of St. John Neumann, Philadelphia’s first canonized saint who was a Redemptorist.
He was also appointed to the Pontifical Council Cor Unum (for charitable aid), the Pontifical Council for the Causes of Saints and the Congregation for the Clergy and his special love, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees.
The planned nine-year Renewal, “Catholic Faith and Life 2000,” in preparation for the 2,000th birthday of Christ, would involve every parish office organization and hopefully every individual Catholic, formally opened with a Year of Prayer on Dec. 1, 1991.
Msgr. Joseph Marino, the director in the opening years, later explained it was in response to Pope John Paul II’s call to prepare for the Third Millennium.
As time went on, he said, the nine years of the Renewal began to take on the sense of the nine months in preparation for a new birth, and the details developed over time.
Above all, Msgr. Marino said, “the whole Renewal created a sense of hope – all of the faithful – clergy and laity, in my estimation began to more deeply believe that we could effect a change in the home, in the parish and in the diocese toward holiness. We began to see ourselves as real active participants in an effort to cooperate with God in growing holiness. The Cardinal never lost his enthusiasm for the Renewal; he never stopped believing in or working for the Renewal.”
“I wasn’t looking for any kind of measure of success,” Cardinal Bevilacqua said in retrospect. “Each Renewal year was very successful in the way it was carried out. Renewal is not an end in itself; renewal is something that is constantly ongoing. It was really used to determine how much people have drawn closer to God and each other through the Church. The parish priests can evaluate that more than I.”
With that said Cardinal Bevilacqua explained he didn’t expect to see anything very dramatic in 2000.
Renewal, he said, “is successful if it continues to motivate people to love God more. That means loving Him in prayer and through the sacraments, and loving the Church more, because the Church is the mystical body of Christ. You hope that it will continue after the millennium. All one can do is pray that it succeeds.”
Indeed when evangelical events of the Renewal were held at the Cathedral or Villanova Pavilion, the seats were usually filled, and 50,000 crowded Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the Oct. 22 Eucharistic Candlelight Procession led by the Cardinal. It was a highlight of the final year.
The late Msgr. Charles Devlin, who was Vicar for Renewal and Evangelization during the last four years of the Renewal and continued on until the Cardinal’s retirement, remembered how Cardinal Bevilacqua not only encouraged, but whole-heartedly participated.
When Reconciliation Weekends were held during the Renewal he would go to a parish to hear confessions, especially the weekend of March 19, 1999, when 100,000 confessions were heard.
“He (Cardinal Bevilacqua) was very interested in bringing the compassion of Christ to his people, to the parishioners,” Msgr. Devlin said. “Long after the other priests were finished he still had a line at his box. He knew Reconciliation Weekend was a very important dimension of the Jubilee Year.”
Along with the Renewal, the ordinary work of the diocese went on, and still demanded the Cardinal’s attention.
In 1991 an ambitious fund raising drive, Catholic Life 2000, was launched and despite an economic downturn raised its goal of $100 million earmarked for high school endowments, the seminary, indigent parishes, an archival center and projects at contributing parishes. In the end the archival center was scrapped, but it did accomplish its other goals.
Meanwhile the schools, including the high schools, were facing serious declines in enrollment due to rising tuition costs. The consulting firm Coopers & Lybrand was contracted to conduct a study of the archdiocesan high schools and present recommendations. In October 1992, its findings were released and the study called for the closing of no less than eight schools. The Archdiocesan Board of Education called for closing three.
In the uproar that followed Cardinal Bevilacqua called for listening sessions at every school involved.
“No decision has been made about the future of any school because the decision should involve the input of many people,” the Cardinal said. In the end only one school, St. James High School in Chester, was closed because most Catholics had moved away from the area. Bishop Conwell and Bishop Egan, both in Bucks County, merged, as did Montgomery County’s Archbishop Kennedy and Bishop Kenrick.
In addition, all the high schools, which had been territorial, were granted open enrollment with the ability to recruit from anywhere, a privilege previously given only to Roman Catholic, the Archdiocese’s flagship high school. This meant future continuation of the schools would depend on their ability to attract students, not on assigned feeder elementary schools.
The following year parishes were examined, and after exhaustive study the six parishes of Chester were closed and replaced with one. In North Philadelphia eight parishes closed; one new parish was created and others expanded their boundaries.
Most parishes affected were in neighborhoods that had previously been Caucasian and were now African American. Because most of the African Americans were not Catholic, the parishes could not sustain themselves.
At approximately the same time the Cardinal established evangelical outreach centers especially aimed at African Americans, and Philadelphia’s largest group of new arrivals, Hispanics.
Mission outreach to Hispanics was expanded through Casa del Carmen in North Philadelphia and Misión Santa María Madre de Dios in Avondale, Chester County. Many parishes added Spanish Masses. A Spanish language radio program was also begun.
Because of the shortage of Hispanic vocations in the Archdiocese Sisters were brought in from Argentina and Puerto Rico, as well as priests from Argentina.
“Until we get more Hispanic vocations, we need others to learn the language, learn the culture, so that they can serve the people more completely,” Cardinal Bevilacqua said.
He spoke out forcefully on social justice issues. In a 1998 pastoral letter “Healing Racism through Faith and Truth,” he said, “Racism remains the unfinished business of America’s freedom.”
He urged “every individual and every organization in our community become united in a renewed serious effort to achieve the eradication of this horrible evil (racism). This is our common task. This was the dream of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. This is the will of God.”
He addressed immigration in an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer Jan. 12, 1996. “The immigrants of today are no different than those of the past,” he wrote. They may represent an ever larger number of nationalities, but they come seeking what those before them sought; a better life for their families.
“Rather than blaming them for our social and economic ills by enacting this drastic legislation, we should embrace their innovative ideas and hard work. They represent the best of what built our country and what will continue to make it strong.”
Preaching on anti-Semitism in 2000, he said, “We beseech God to forgive us who have expressed in any way prejudice and hatred against God’s chosen people, His Jewish sons and daughters.”
That same year speaking on abortion he said, “The problem of abortion far exceeds the killing of unborn children. The scourge of abortion raises questions of whether people respect other human lives equally with their own or whether self-interest demotes the value of certain lives.”
Meanwhile, a scandal was slowly growing on the issue of clergy sexual abuse of children.
In April 2001 the Cardinal took the dramatic step of appointing a blue ribbon commission of both Catholics and non-Catholics to make recommendations for changes that could give adequate protection to minors. This “Commission for the Protection of Children and Clerical Conduct” was headed by Catholic University Law Professor Helen Alvaré, and its work was a precursor to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People issued by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops in June 2002. As part of the mandate, any priest who had been credibly accused of abuse would be permanently removed from ministry, not just given an assignment away from minors.
“I have to be honest,” the Cardinal said in an interview. “It was very painful for me to support that position, but I did support it. In this instance it means the support of children and youth. It means the plight of the victims.”
As a practical archdiocesan response, Karen Becker and Martin Flick were appointed co-coordinators for victim assistance in the Archdiocese.
Before the Catholic Faith and Life 2000 Renewal ended Cardinal Bevilacqua announced an archdiocesan synod, the 10th in Philadelphia history, but the first since 1934. It met in the fall of 2002 after preparation by its director, Msgr. John E. Breslin, and his assistant, Mercy Sister Janet Baker. The synod, with half of its members lay men and women, met September through November 2002. The discussions centered on nine different topics concerning the spiritual life and discipline of the Archdiocese, and based on the recommendations, Cardinal Bevilacqua, who under canon law had final say, promulgated 83 decrees which became particular law for the Archdiocese on June 29, 2003, just two weeks before Cardinal Bevilacqua’s retirement was announced along with the appointment of Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis as 12th bishop of Philadelphia.
Cardinal Bevilacqua would remain administrator of the Archdiocese until the Oct. 7 installation of his successor. “These more than 15 years have been for the most part, years of true spiritual joy,” Cardinal Bevilacqua said at the announcement. “The spiritual happiness with which God has blessed me during my ministry flows primarily from the goodness of the faithful of this wonderful Archdiocese.”
His decision to retire to St. Charles Seminary was a natural choice, because of the warm relationship he had with the rector, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, who is now Bishop of the Raleigh Diocese.
As a priest, Bishop Burbidge served as Cardinal Bevilacqua’s administrative secretary from 1992-99, and then was made rector of the seminary. It underlines the importance of the seminary to the Cardinal that he had Bishop Burbidge remain rector even after being named bishop and auxiliary bishop for Philadelphia in 2002. He served the Archdiocese until his 2006 appointment as Bishop of Raleigh.
“I was privileged to serve for seven years as Cardinal Bevilacqua’s administrative secretary,” Bishop Burbidge said. “He ordained me Bishop. He loved Our Lord and he loved the Church, and he had boundless energy when he was visiting the people. He was a very prayerful and holy priest. We had a priest and bishop who gave his life in service of the Church.”
Although in retirement he chose to mostly stay out of the limelight, he kept a fairly active schedule.
“I was his administrative secretary from 2005-2009,” said Msgr. Joseph P. Gentili. “It was an honor. He was a kind and generous priest deeply committed to the Church. His heart was whatever was best for the Church and the faithful. He loved meeting people and serving people.
“He also loved visiting priests and people who were in the hospital. He was still involved with the Papal Foundation and I went to Rome with him several times, and through him I met the Pope.
“No one was insignificant to him, and he was always concerned that everyone be included.”
In the retirement years, his staff also included Pete Costello, his loyal driver, and Lorraine Zaccagni, who served as his secretary from 1993-2010.
Most people didn’t know it, Zaccagni said, but he was a humble man with great spiritual depth. “When my father died in 2002, he was in New Orleans for a conference, and one of the men at the conference provided him with a plane so he could fly back just to celebrate my father’s funeral Mass. He also celebrated my brother’s funeral Mass. Those things mean a lot and I will never forget that. He was good to work with, and if something wasn’t exactly what he wanted, he wouldn’t say it right out, he would say, maybe we should do it this way, and I would understand. Over the years I learned to anticipate what he would want without him telling me.”
Some of his lay friendships were developed through the various archdiocesan committees. Bob Sims, who was on several of the financial boards including the lay pension funds, said, “He always wanted to know if it was funded properly and it was. He worked hard and he was quiet, not a natural hand-shaker, and he did a lot of his work behind the scenes.”
Sims recalled once when his late wife was sick he visited her in the hospital and was surprised to see the Cardinal there ahead of him.
“I used to always kid him about never taking time off. I have a little cottage in the mountains and I offered him the use of it. Finally one day he agreed to come with me. And we went there and just sat on the porch where you can see for 20 miles. We must have talked for 12 hours.”
“The clergy scandal broke his heart,” Sims said. “What people don’t understand, as a priest you are trained to forgive; someone kneels beside you and asks for forgiveness, you give it. If I could be as good a person spiritually as he was, I wouldn’t worry about where I am going.”
David F. Girard-diCarlo, an attorney and former ambassador to Austria, was surprised when he was invited to lunch at the Cardinal’s residence.
After chatting for about an hour and a half, the Cardinal asked if he would chair Business Leaders Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), which raises funds for the schools.
“I’m not Catholic,” Girard-diCarlo said.
“That’s OK,” the Cardinal assured him. “I know you have great respect for the values Catholic schools teach.”
“I agreed to do it, and over the next five years we raised a substantial sum of money,” Girard-diCarlo said. “I got to work with him closely, and I’m honored to say he was my friend. I found him to be a remarkable human being, a man of integrity who would follow through with what he said. He could converse on anything: art, music sculpture history. He was very special and I am honored and privileged our paths crossed.”
Rocco Martino, another Philadelphia businessman, also became well acquainted with the Cardinal, especially through the Stewards of St. John Neumann and Catholic Faith and Life 2000 committee.
“He was a good man, a great leader who accomplished many things here in the Archdiocese, some of which are being overlooked,” Martino said. “He provided leadership to the Archdiocese in spirituality and reinvigorated it. In view of current controversies, whatever he did was based on the knowledge at the time, and you have to look at the entire picture, not just part of it.”
Retiring as he did at age 80, Cardinal Bevilacqua might have expected tranquil years until God called him home. In the ensuing years two Philadelphia grand Juries have harshly criticized the Archdiocese and the Cardinal himself for the alleged mishandling of allegations of child sex abuse by priests. Four priests have been indicted and are awaiting trial. These have been difficult years for the Cardinal, already dealing with the difficulties of aging, including the onset of dementia, but nothing is really black and white and only God knows the truth.
We leave you with his final request in his last interview with The Catholic Standard and Times: “Tell them I love them all.”