The Spiritual Life of the Cardinal

By Jim Remsen
Philadelphia Inquirer
February 1, 2012

Bevilacqua reflects on his prayers and his service

This story was originally published by The Philadelphia Inquirer on Oct. 5, 2003.

As Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua nears the end of his 15-year tenure as Philadelphia archbishop and moves into new quarters at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, he also has moved into a reflective state of mind.

This was clear in an interview Monday that delved into the cardinal's faith life. The 80-year-old prelate spoke candidly about issues that he normally holds close: his religious devotions, his prayer strivings and struggles, his own mortality.

Sitting at archdiocesan headquarters, in the 12th-floor executive office nearly cleared of his belongings, Bevilacqua began by discussing his "theology of presence," by which he delegated many administrative tasks to free himself for pastoral visits to churches, schools, hospitals, prisons and the like - 2,330 visits over his tenure, according to an archdiocese tally.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Bevilacqua: I was impressed one time, many, many years ago, in reading the New Testament, which I have read many times, and this phrase struck me in a special way. It's in Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 9, and several other gospels. It says in His mission, Jesus went out and visited every town and village and He preached, He taught them, He healed them, and He touched each one. And that is presence.

I tried to approach that. . . . I felt as much as possible, while the archbishop has ultimate responsibility for all that happens in an archdiocese, his major task is to be the presence of Christ among his priests and religious and people, and to delegate as much as he can to others.

Question: By presence, do you mean simply by virtue of physically being there?

Answer: One of the ways you manifest is by your own physical presence, but also through the presence of others you delegate. So I tried to get out as much as possible. . . . I tried to be personally present as much as I could. That was why after an event I greeted everybody. When I went to schools, I visited every classroom. I'm going to miss that. I talked to all the children, spent the whole morning, from 8:30 to 12:30, and would greet every child afterwards, shake hands. Those are ways you make yourself present. I tried to answer every letter I got, sometimes personally with handwritten notes. . . . I don't see that as pushing myself. It's always: How do you make Christ present?

Since I can't be everywhere 24 hours a day, I established a system of vicars, regional vicars. The word vicar is "to take the place of. " They were my presence because of so many complexities to every region. If I tried to handle them myself, I would be micromanaging, and I couldn't handle everything. People would be hurt because I couldn't handle it personally. It would take too long. Same with my auxiliary bishops, and, in a sense, every parish pastor is the presence of the bishop. There are levels of presence, but I strive as much as I can to be physically present. . . .

Q: Has advancing age given you a deeper understanding of mortality?

A: It does, automatically. Age, and also the easing of responsibility. It makes me think more about my own mortality and more immediate preparations for my next life, or the continuation of this life in a different way in heaven.

Q: Can you elaborate?

A: When you are the archbishop, it is a reality that anyone who is the head of an organization says, "I don't have time to do a lot of things I would like to do. " As archbishop, it is very difficult in a large archdiocese like this to find time to pray. I do, but I would have loved to pray four, five, six hours a day, maybe more. But if I did, I couldn't fulfill my responsibility as an archbishop.

I want now to have some more time in quiet with God, in a prayerful manner, to find out what does He want me to do, even if it's just to continue praying, or are there other things You want me to do. And I will find out some way, hopefully in the next several months. I already have public obligations I have to keep that I made some while ago, but I'm going to try more and more time in the presence of God in my chapel at the seminary. . . .

Q: Do you practice Centering Prayer [a form of meditation] or any other particular prayer tradition?

A: I don't call it by any name. I just sit there in the presence of Christ. Many times, I say something like this. I'm sitting in a chair, and He's sitting in a chair opposite me, and I talk to Him. I actually say, "Good morning, Jesus, how do You feel today? Oh, I know how You feel. [Chuckle.] That's right, I know how You feel: You're in heaven. " I try to make it very personal and very friendly.

Q: Do you speak it aloud?

A: No, no, I say it in my mind.

Q: How long have you been doing this?

A: It's been this for a number of years. It wasn't always like this. I found it difficult to pray years ago. Not that you always get full satisfaction out of it. The important thing in prayer is to try to maintain it as a very loving, personal relationship with the Lord. But it doesn't mean that you get great satisfaction out of it. The important thing is that you've got to keep trying.

Mother Teresa, who's going to be beatified, summarized it: "You know, our life is not so much in succeeding but in being faithful by trying. " St. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross have said that. It's not that easy always to pray. You may find a darkness, in fact. But keep praying, especially when you don't feel like praying. And that's to maintain a personal relationship. Our blessed Lord told His apostles, "I no longer call you servants, I call you friends," and that's what He wants.

Don't think I have reached the summit. Far from it. I'm still trying, trying very hard. Sometimes, I don't think I've advanced very far. I'm serious. But I know what it should be. If only we could realize the infinity of love and mercy God has for each one of us as individuals. If we can achieve that in prayer, then we will have achieved a great deal. And that will lead us to loving others. Because to me, it's all summarized in the one phrase our Lord said, and this is the greatest of all commandments: "Love God with your whole mind, heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. "

That's what all life is about. There is no more. And that's what makes you happy. The most important thing is loving God. But how do I know God loves me, and how do I know I love God? That can be very difficult.

Q: You say prayer was difficult. What led to it being easier?

A: At times, it's still difficult. Because there are so many distractions. Especially when you are active. So many distractions, I'm talking hundreds and thousands, that keep encroaching upon you.

I got one consolation out of a spiritual writer when he wrote, "Don't get too much worried about distractions because, remember, every time you realize you are distracted and you come back, that's another act of faith to God. " So if you are distracted 100 times and you say, "Oh, dear, I'm distracted, I'm thinking of something else, sorry, Lord," you're making another act of faith. That's 100 acts of faith.

Q: Do you have any special devotion to saints?

A: I have several. My favorites are St. John Vianney, curé of Ars, because he was a man who devoted himself in a very active way to others. He was a parish priest, one of the very few secular diocesan priests who was canonized. He was so holy that they had to canonize him. . . . He was from a small town, he loved people. He devoted most of his day to confession, 15, 16 hours a day. Not that he liked it. I read that every time he looked at a confessional he would break out in a sweat.

And while I loved to hear confessions, it was not a pleasant experience. It was while you were doing it, but you don't look forward to it. Years ago, we spent hours in the confession box.

I also have a devotion to the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila. And I'm impressed more recently by St. Padre Pio. He suffered a great deal, was highly misunderstood, there were some accusations against him. But he was a man who, again like St. John Vianney, in spite of all his suffering, is devoted to other people, spending hours and hours in the confessional.

Q: Do you think you will be teaching at the seminary?

A: I don't know what I will do. Besides, in the next couple of months I will find out what does God want me to do. The only thing I feel strongly now is I still like to be among people. I don't know what that's going to lead to.

Jim Remsen was the Inquirer Faith Life editor when this story was firsypublished.


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