A Conversation with the Cardinals

A Conversation with the Cardinals featured, from left, Cardinal William Levada, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Bishop Richard F. Stika, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The program was held April 18 at the Tennessee Theatre. Photo by Stephanie Richer

A Conversation with the Cardinals featured, from left, Cardinal William Levada, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Bishop Richard F. Stika, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The program was held April 18 at the Tennessee Theatre.
Photo by Stephanie Richer

It was a fireside chat for the ages – at least for the ages in the Diocese of Knoxville – when Bishop Richard F. Stika emceed an insightful and often lighthearted discussion by three of the Roman Catholic Church’s pre-eminent prelates – Cardinals Justin Rigali, William Levada and Timothy Dolan – at the Tennessee Theatre on April 18.

A Conversation with the Cardinals was part of the historic groundbreaking weekend for the new Sacred Heart Cathedral that also included the Following Jesus Conference with speakers Curtis Martin and Cardinal Dolan at Knoxville Catholic High School and All Saints Parish.

Those events led up to the precedent-setting Mass at the cathedral on April 19 that was celebrated by Cardinal Rigali and concelebrated by Cardinals Dolan and Levada, Bishop Stika and eight other bishops from around the country. It is the first time that three cardinals have together celebrated Masses in the diocese.

At the Tennessee Theatre, Bishop Stika was greeted by a rousing standing ovation as he warmed up the audience, which numbered about 1,200, with jokes and conversation.

“Somebody told me they were dying to get into this show, and I said, ‘not literally,’” Bishop Stika deadpanned, referring to his recent near-death experience.

“I just want to welcome all of you to tonight. For tonight we celebrate faith and belief in ourselves. We celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ is in our midst when we celebrate that faith. We celebrate also tonight the universal Church, for tonight we have three cardinals with us – Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, and…,” he said, joking about the former St. Louis Cardinals baseball greats.

Bishop Stika then tried to convince the crowd that he was right at home as a cardinal, too, by showing them three St. Louis Cardinals baseball jerseys with the name “Monsignor” on one, “Bishop” on the second one, and “Stika” on the third one.

Bishop Richard F. Stika emcees A Conversation with the Cardinals April 18 at the Tennessee Theatre with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Justin Rigali and Cardinal William Levada. Photo by Stephanie Richer

Bishop Richard F. Stika emcees A Conversation with the Cardinals April 18 at the Tennessee Theatre with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Justin Rigali and Cardinal William Levada.
Photo by Stephanie Richer

“Aren’t you proud to be Catholic? Do we have any non-Catholics here tonight? If so, I have some paperwork in my car,” he joked.

Bishop Stika was in rare form as he conversed with the audience, then turned his attention to the three cardinals, who were comfortably seated on a set that was a cross between an East Tennessee living room and the Tonight Show. In fact, you could almost hear the original Tonight Show theme song play as the cardinals were introduced.

At Bishop Stika’s humorous and pointed prompting, each cardinal openly shared his personal experiences serving the Church in Rome and his exposure to popes who have led the Church.

The cardinals discussed what led them into the priesthood, with Cardinal Rigali describing how he was impressed as a youth by the joyful demeanor of priests who seemed so fulfilled in their lives.

Cardinal Levada said there were “wonderful” priests who set examples for discernment.

But he shared a humorous story about part of that discernment. He was a senior in high school in Long Beach, Calif., when it was time to apply to colleges. The college applications required written essays about what careers the applicants wanted to pursue.

“The application process was really a help to me in my discernment to become a priest. … But on one essay, I wrote about wanting to be a dentist. Why, I’ll never know. I hated going to the dentist. I hated dentistry. I’m sorry if there are any dentists here,” he said, drawing laughs.

Cardinal Levada, who first met Cardinal Rigali as a classmate in seminary, recalled that at his ordination as a priest at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1961, each newly ordained priest had a more experienced priest assisting at the first Mass to make sure the newly ordained were celebrating Mass correctly. Cardinal Rigali assisted Cardinal Levada with his first Mass.

Cardinals Timothy Dolan, Justin Rigali and William Levada engage in conversation during A Conversation with the Cardinals as Bishop Richard F. Stika listens. Photo by Stephanie Richer

Cardinals Timothy Dolan, Justin Rigali and William Levada engage in conversation during A Conversation with the Cardinals as Bishop Richard F. Stika listens.
Photo by Stephanie Richer

When Bishop Stika turned the attention to Cardinal Dolan, the bishop suggested the Irish nuns in St. Louis influenced the cardinal’s vocation.

Cardinal Dolan expressed his early discernment very succinctly.

“I guess probably the main reason I wanted to become a priest is because Marcy Gallagher wouldn’t go out with me,” he said, which prompted a roar of laughter.

“Can somebody look her name up on Google?” Bishop Stika quickly retorted.

Cardinal Dolan said that from a very young age, as early as 3 years, he wanted to be a priest, and that the Religious Sisters of Mercy, who were his teachers, had a lasting impact on him.

“I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a priest,” he said, describing his family as “meat-and-potato Catholics,” not “Shiite Catholics.”

Cardinal Dolan said he is sensing a “culture of vocations” reappearing in the United States, with more young men and women interested in entering religious life who are seeing support among peers for their decision.

The three cardinals also discussed their experience participating in the papal conclave that elected Pope Francis in 2013.

Cardinal Levada described the awe he felt as he approached the Sistine Chapel and gazed at the fresco of the Last Judgment painted by Michelangelo.

He described how every cardinal receives a ballot on which to place his vote for pope.

“To go up to the altar, under that fresco of Jesus on Judgment Day, and take the lid off of this large chalice and place our ballot in the chalice…Before we do that, we take an oath in Latin, ‘Jesus, my just judge, I swear I am voting for the person I think is most suited to be the next pope,’” he said, noting that the image of Judgment Day is a very powerful one for those who are casting those ballots and reciting that oath.

Cardinal Rigali said he felt the presence of the millions of people who were praying for the cardinals in the conclave. And Cardinal Dolan acknowledged that he was naively unaware that a camera was still on the cardinals once they entered the Sistine Chapel.

He then joked, “My priest secretary said, ‘you really looked like an idiot.’ Now, I choose priest secretaries who will tell me the truth. He said, ‘You should see yourself. When you’re walking in you’re kind of looking up at the ceiling.’”

The recollection prompted widespread laughs.

Cardinals Rigali and Levada agreed that once Pope Francis accepted the papacy in the Sistine Chapel, it became instantly clear how the pope focused his love for the poor in the name of St. Francis of Assisi.

“I was unable to see him too well. You see, you sit by seniority. I’m one of the young ones. There’s nothing better for my ego than to go to a meeting of the College of Cardinals. I’m in charge of the youth group,” said the 65-year-old Cardinal Dolan in a good-natured dig at Cardinal Rigali, who was celebrating his 80th birthday on April 19, and Cardinal Levada, who will turn 79 on June 15.

All three cardinals laughed as did the audience.

Cardinal Dolan then described how the new pope immediately broke with protocol, darting across the chapel to greet two cardinals who were in wheelchairs. The pope also broke with protocol and interrupted receiving congratulations by going to a balcony to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square so they wouldn’t have to stand in the rain awaiting his appearance.

“At supper that night, remember when that cardinal gave a toast and when the Holy Father stood to return it, he raised his glass and said (jokingly), ‘May God forgive you for what you’ve done,’” Cardinal Dolan said to a delighted audience that prompted knowing grins from Cardinals Rigali and Levada.

Bishop Richard F. Stika responds to the audience attending A Conversation with the Cardinals April 18 at the Tennessee Theatre. Photo by Stephanie Richer

Bishop Richard F. Stika responds to the audience attending A Conversation with the Cardinals April 18 at the Tennessee Theatre.
Photo by Stephanie Richer

Bishop Stika told of being able to concelebrate Mass with the Holy Father 30 days after he was elected pope. As Bishop Stika was vesting for Mass in the sacristy of a Rome chapel where the pope resides, the bishop said he was walking over to greet the pope as the pope was doing likewise.

“In broken English, he said, ‘Hello, my name is Francis, what is your name and where are you from?” The moment left a lasting impression on Bishop Stika of the pope’s humility.

The cardinals’ initial impressions of Pope Francis also were ones of sincerity, concern for others, humility, and openness.

Just before the conclave, Cardinal Dolan said all the cardinals gathered in meetings, and he wanted to let his fellow cardinals know who he was since he was new. However, it became clear that the U.S. custom of extemporaneous introduction isn’t necessarily universal.

“The first day, I’m relatively new, and so I was going around to my brother cardinals saying, ‘Hello, I’m Timothy Dolan and I’m from New York.’ And they would say, ‘Oh, yes. It’s nice to meet you.’ And they wouldn’t tell me their name,” Cardinal Dolan said, recalling that he was somewhat taken aback. “So after a while, I felt a tapping on my back, and I turned around, and this cardinal said, ‘You’re Tim Dolan from New York. I’m Jorge Bergoglio from Buenos Aires (Pope Francis).’ I like this guy!”

Cardinal Dolan also shared words of wisdom the cardinal electors received before going into the conclave. “One morning when we were praying together, a Franciscan among us said, ‘Eminent Cardinals, the Holy Spirit has already chosen one of you to be the next pope. Your job is to find out who it is.’ And I thought what a great way to approach this.”

Cardinal Levada talked about being named successor to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Cardinal Levada, in modesty and humility, said to the new pontiff that as Benedict’s successor as prefect he was “no great theologian” – a requirement for the position.

Cardinal Levada quipped that as Pope Benedict assured him he would do fine in the very high-ranking post, “he didn’t deny that I was no great theologian.” Cardinal Levada is world-renowned as a Catholic theologian.

The cardinals and the crowd laughed aloud at the reflection.

Cardinal Rigali spoke of working closely with Popes Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II, noting that he was perhaps the last person to see Pope John Paul I alive before the pontiff passed away in his sleep only 33 days into his 1978 papacy. Cardinals Dolan and Levada and Bishop Stika listened intently.

In recalling traveling around the world with St. John Paul II, Cardinal Rigali said the immensely popular pontiff attracted huge crowds wherever he went and was especially beloved by youth.

He told of Pope John Paul II, after surviving a 1981 assassination attempt, meeting with the man who shot him, Mehmet Ali Agca, where the assassin was being held in prison. The pope had publicly forgiven his assailant. But Cardinal Rigali described the pope as being saddened by the visit because all Mr. Agca would say to the pontiff was, “Why didn’t you die?”

“He was a man who preached mercy, and he was willing to forgive. He offered forgiveness from the very first moment,” Cardinal Rigali said about St. John Paul II.

“I think it was St. John Paul II who said one finger pulled the trigger and another moved the bullet, because the bullet zig-zagged and didn’t hit any major arteries. And he attributed it to the Blessed Mother,” Bishop Stika said.

When the pope was recovering from his gunshot wounds, Cardinal Rigali said the Vatican held a dinner for the physicians who treated him. The cardinal spoke of a discrete conversation during the dinner he had with an Italian doctor who responded to the pope’s critical injuries.

“He said, ‘You know we doctors just don’t understand how the bullet would go into the area it went into with all these vital organs. It is just inexplicable why all these areas didn’t just explode,” Cardinal Rigali recalled.

Bishop Stika said he shared with St. John Paul II near-death experiences and that the Blessed Mother intervened for both of them.

“The two times I had these near-death experiences, both were on Marian feast days – Assumption and just recently Annunciation. They tell me they are going to hide me on the feast of the Immaculate Conception,” Bishop Stika quipped before recognizing some of the physicians in the audience who saved his life.

The audience enjoys A Conversation with the Cardinals on April 18 at the Tennessee Theatre. Photo by Stephanie Richer

The audience enjoys A Conversation with the Cardinals on April 18 at the Tennessee Theatre.
Photo by Stephanie Richer

The two-hour Catholic version of the Colbert Report cable show met with many laughs and quite a few breaks for applause as there were many more stories and insights shared.

A video of Diocese of Knoxville school children singing Happy Birthday to Cardinal Rigali was played, and he was presented with a cardboard cake. Bishop Stika then led the Tennessee Theatre audience in a version of Happy Birthday to the cardinal.

In true heartfelt, pep-talk fashion, Bishop Stika concluded the evening by pointing out all the exciting happenings occurring within the diocese, including breaking ground on the new cathedral, the upcoming ordination of four new priests following the ordination of four priests last year, and the rising number of Catholics in East Tennessee.

“I just want to thank all of you for being here this evening. … The reason we are doing so well, I think, is because we love church,” he said. “Just think of all the things happening in your parishes. … All the things that bring us together socially and religiously to build the kingdom of God in East Tennessee.

“This has to do with Jesus. And that is what we have to focus on. Jesus invites us to build his kingdom, to go therefore and baptize and teach the faith.”

He encouraged the faithful to believe in themselves and to trust in Jesus.

“Our mission is to be Catholic, and to be proud of that in a Christian sense. … Do not be afraid,” he said. “People are being drawn to the faith, I think by the Eucharist. My sisters and brothers, I want to thank you for wanting to celebrate who we are. Just believe in yourselves.”

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