Rigali calls appointment as cardinal 'awesome'

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The only American among 31 men named cardinals by Pope John Paul II called the title "very awesome" Monday, given that the select group he joins will be among those likely to tap the ailing pontiff's replacement.

But Justin Rigali, the St. Louis archbishop who next week takes over the helm of Philadelphia's larger archdiocese, declined to discuss such successorship, saying it's "most appropriate not to comment on a future papal election while the pope is still alive."

Still, "it's very awesome to be a member of the College of Cardinals and to have the role of voting in an election," Rigali, a friend of 83-year-old Pope John Paul II, told reporters and about 80 well-wishers a day after it was announced he will get the ceremonial red hat.

Rigali's promotion was one of great interest to people in Southeast Missouri, because Perryville is in the St. Louis Archdiocese.

"It's a great honor to have the leader of your diocese chosen as one of the princes of the church," said the Rev. John Gagnepain, superior at St. Marys of the Barrens seminary in Perryville.

The people in Perryville are excited for Rigali, though he will soon be leaving the area, and are curious about his successor, he said.

Rigali had known of his promotion since last Thursday, when the man known for his quiet, conservative leadership and worldwide experience was told by a liaison in Washington, D.C.

"My initial reaction was that it's a great honor," said Rigali, who next week leaves the St. Louis archbishop post he has held since 1994 and becomes the spiritual leader of the Philadelphia area's 1.5 million Roman Catholics, effective Oct. 7.

And anyone who believes they know who Rigali's successor is, is likely to be wrong, Gagnepain said. Appointments from the Vatican are often held in secret until being made public. "It's usually someone who's successfully run a smaller diocese who gets offered a larger one," Gagnepain said.

Rigali, 68, is to leave for Rome on Oct. 14 as part of a previously scheduled trip to take part in a 25th anniversary celebration of the pope's election. He is to be installed a cardinal on Oct. 21.

'Also honors St. Louis'

"I still don't have anything in writing," Rigali quipped Monday, drawing laughs from the gathering that twice gave standing ovations to the cardinal-designate, who spent much of the time reflecting on his nine years in St. Louis -- and the emotional tug of leaving.

"I will always feel a tremendous bond and be deeply interested in what goes on here," he said. "I think the pope also honors St. Louis by appointing me."

People in the Perry County parishes knew of Rigali's leadership and energy. He often visited parish churches, as well as speaking to societies and organizations of the church. "They feel like they know him, because he's been to Perryville and to the smaller churches surrounding Perryville. He was very personable," Gagnepain said.

Few people were surprised about Rigali being named a cardinal, since that designation often comes with the territory in more prestigious and larger dioceses, like Philadelphia, he said.

Before arriving here, Rigali held various diplomatic and administrative Vatican positions over the previous three decades. This summer, he was named to replace Philadelphia's retiring archbishop, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua -- a fellow conservative with close Vatican ties.

Rigali, a Los Angeles native, once served as secretary of the Congregation for Bishops, which made him the No. 2 man in the office that recommends bishops to the pope for appointment worldwide. He was named to the Apostolic Nunciature in Madagascar in 1966, four years before being appointed director of the English-language section of the Secretariat of State in Rome.

As an English-language translator, he traveled often with the pope.

'The least forthcoming'

Rigali's critics include the Survivors Network of Those Accused by Priests, a support group that likened Rigali's promotion to "pouring salt in an open wound" because of his alleged failure to offer support -- or meet with -- victims of clergy abuse.

"He has been among the least forthcoming and sensitive bishops in the country," the group said. "We hope that despite this oppressive atmosphere he has fostered in St. Louis, abuse victims will find the courage to come forward and report the crimes and get the help they deserve to heal."

On Monday, Rigali suggested that such criticism chiefly was from only a handful of vocal people, and "sometimes we identify four people as being representative of a group."

Features editor Laura Johnston contributed to this report.

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