A front seat to history

Cardinal Justin Rigali marks 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination and shares his journey from parish priest to Prince of the Church

By Dan McWilliams

You could say Cardinal Justin Rigali has had an altar seat to Catholic Church history.

From his youth in Los Angeles to assisting at Vatican II to a diplomatic assignment in Madagascar to serving four popes and to being the shepherd of two major U.S. archdioceses, Cardinal Rigali has seen his vocation to the priesthood take him around the globe.

Along the way, there have been volumes of important and memorable moments.

His ministry has placed him in the presence of such diverse personalities as Mother Teresa; President John F. Kennedy’s widow, Jackie Kennedy; renowned Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir; notorious Uganda President Idi Amin; President Ronald Reagan; and prodigious impersonator Frank Abagnale, upon whom the hit movie Catch Me If You Can is based.

And he watched from Rome alongside St. John Paul II as the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, ushering an end to communism in Eastern Europe and the return of democracy to John Paul II’s native and beloved Poland.

Through it all, Cardinal Rigali has strived to live his episcopal motto: Verbum caro factum est, or The Word Became Flesh.

His Eminence celebrated his 60th anniversary in the priesthood April 25, six days after marking his 86th birthday. Since his retirement as archbishop of Philadelphia in 2011, Cardinal Rigali has been in residence in Knoxville with Bishop Richard F. Stika.

Early days

Cardinal Justin Rigali celebrates his first Mass as a newly ordained priest in Los Angeles in 1961.

The future cardinal was a student at the Catholic School of the Holy Cross in Los Angeles when the thought of being a priest first came to him.

“I think it was kind of natural once it came up,” he said. “Then a priest came in to give a talk to the boys in the graduating class of the grammar school, so it stayed with me. A little while later, they asked me if I wanted to go into the minor seminary, and I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Then one of the priests said, ‘Well, you have nothing to lose,’ because when you go into the seminary it’s not that you sign on the dotted line. It’s a period of trial. Eventually he convinced me of that, and I said, ‘OK, we’ll try it out and see what happens.’

“At the end of eight years of grammar school, I was asked to go into the minor seminary and see what happens. So I did,” he added with a laugh.

Cardinal Rigali grew up in a large family that would see two additional children pursue the priesthood and religious life.

“At that time, we were seven children, and it’s true I had a brother who was a priest, a Jesuit priest, Father Norbert Rigali, and then I had a sister, Sister Charlotte,” Cardinal Rigali said. “But at that time, the very beginning, he was not yet a priest, he was not yet in the seminary, and my sister was not yet a sister. She was in the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. They were very prominent on the West Coast.”

As to others who influenced his vocation, Cardinal Rigali said, “I think you have to give a lot of credit to the grace of God first, because basically it’s the candidate who has to get the thought and find the good and not reject it, and then as time goes on the Holy Spirit gives you the strength to consider and say, ‘Maybe this is something good for me. I like the idea of celebrating Mass. I like the idea of being with the people as a priest in their midst.’ So that’s what happened.”

His parents, Henry Alphonsus Rigali and Frances Irene White Rigali, also played their role in their son’s vocation in a part-Italian, part-Irish household.

“My parents were very good about it,” Cardinal Rigali said. “They were supportive but in no way coerced me or tried to influence me but made it possible for me to do that. It worked out. I had their support without any force on their part.”

Two future cardinals were in seminary with the future Cardinal Rigali.

“As a matter of fact, they were both one year behind me,” he said. “The first one’s name was Cardinal Roger Mahony. We’ve known each other for so many years. He came in right after grammar school. He was one year behind me. The other one came in the seminary five years after me. But I did high school seminary in the seminary, and he did it outside the seminary, and we ended up being ordained one year apart. The second one was Cardinal William Levada, who died just recently [2019]. The three of us in two years of high school seminary was quite amazing. We were together so many years.”

At Cardinal Rigali’s invitation, Cardinal Levada, former archbishop of San Francisco and former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith at the Vatican, accompanied him for the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in 2015 and for the cathedral dedication in 2018. Cardinal Mahony, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, recalled his friendship with Cardinal Rigali.

“It has been a joy and inspiration to have known Cardinal Justin Rigali over many years since we were in the seminary together over the course of our formation. My earliest recollections of him remain firmly etched in my memory and appreciation for his many gifts,” Cardinal Mahony said. “He was always gentle, pleasant, and helpful in every way over those seminary days. His talents and gifts became apparent early on, and all of us looked to Justin for his wise counsel and guidance.”

Cardinal Mahony said “it was no surprise” that Cardinal Rigali was sent to Rome for advanced studies, nor that the Holy See saw his emerging abilities. “His every ministry was directed towards the good of the Church at every level, and he was a friend toward everyone. His various assignments with the Holy See witnessed the further blossoming of his love for the Church and his wisdom in meeting the many challenges facing him.

“It was a particular joy to be with him in September 1985 at Castel Gandolfo to witness his ordination as a bishop by St. John Paul II.”

The hospitality of Cardinal Rigali “had no equal,” Cardinal Mahony said. “He welcomed visitors and guests who were visiting Rome, and often, after having dinner with us, he would return to his office to complete work remaining on his desk.

“May our Risen Lord Jesus continue to pour out blessings upon this wise, humble, and generous servant. Ad Multos Annos, Cardinal Justin Rigali!”

Working for the Vatican

Cardinal Justin Rigali as a young priest standing in front of the center section of bishops during Vatican II, where he served for St. John XXIII.

The future Cardinal Rigali was ordained a priest April 25, 1961, in Los Angeles by Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, archbishop of Los Angeles, and he served briefly in two parish assignments in and near the City of Angels. But his nearly quarter-century of serving the Vatican would soon begin.

“When I was ordained a priest, every young priest looks forward to his first assignment, and my first assignment was to be in a parish but just for a very limited time because they had decided to send me to Rome,” Cardinal Rigali said. “I went to Rome shortly after being ordained. That was the call of the archbishop, Cardinal McIntyre. They told me right after I was ordained, ‘We’re going to send you to a parish, but just for a very short time, because this fall you’re going to be enrolled in canon law studies in the Gregorian University in Rome, and that’ll be your assignment.’

“So I got there, and I was enrolled in canon law studies for three years in Rome. At the end of three years, then I was ready to come home and take the job that they were preparing for me, but at that point, however, the Holy See, the Vatican, was looking for U.S. priests, and they asked if they could have me come and study in the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. That’s the school in Rome that prepares young priests to enter into service to the Vatican. So after 12 years in the seminary, then I had two years still in Rome in which I was preparing to serve the Vatican in the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. That was the school that later on I turned out to be the president of.

“At the end of the service, then I was assigned as a member of the Vatican service, and they sent me to the island of Madagascar, and it was a nice place, nice people.”

Cardinal Rigali knows why he was singled out for service to the Vatican.

“They were saying they needed more priests in the Vatican service who were English-speaking. The timing was good. I had just finished a doctorate in canon law. I went to the Ecclesiastical Academy,” he said.

“That worked out, and at the end of that they were looking for these English-speaking priests. There were two of us that they took. My colleague, he was sent I think to Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka, and then I was sent to Madagascar. After three and a half years on the island of Madagascar, then they called me back to Rome, and that’s when I entered into the Secretariat of State, and it was very interesting.

Being on the ground floor of Vatican II

In the early days of his service to the Vatican, then-Father Rigali saw the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope St. John XXIII and continued by Pope St. Paul VI. The future cardinal served as a priest-assistant at the first two sessions of the council.

“It was very, very interesting,” he said. “Vatican II had assembled. St. Peter’s Basilica was filled with activity. Every section in St. Peter’s Basilica had a priest who was assisting. For the first two years of Vatican II, that’s when I was still studying, I was in this particular location in St. Peter’s. I was in the service of the bishops there.”

His Eminence recalls that Venerable Fulton Sheen, who is moving closer to sainthood, was one of the bishops in his section.

Vatican II “was something that concerned the entire Church,” Cardinal Rigali said. “It was something that concerned not only a priest, it concerned the whole Church. I was one of the priests who had been inducted for service. It was beautiful. There were so many lessons that were good for everybody in the Church.

“For example, Vatican II emphasized how the Church that we belong to here in Knoxville, that Church, there’s only one Church. That is a beautiful, beautiful Church. We are members of a universal Church. It’s not that we’re separated. The Church of Knoxville is the same as the Church of Vatican II. It’s the same Church, and we’re proud and grateful to be a part of it. … Whether we’re in China, or the Philippines, or in Knoxville. The council was a call to holiness. It was to realize that we are all united in Christ.”

Serving Paul VI and John Paul I

Cardinal Rigali served at the apostolic nunciature in Madagascar from September 1966 to February 1970.

“When I returned from Madagascar to Rome to serve in the Vatican, that was an extraordinary thing because I had been away for three and a half years. It was a very moving experience because in the meanwhile I had another wonderful experience of serving the missionary Church, the Church in Madagascar, what the Church has been doing from the time of the Apostles, sending out people to proclaim the Gospel. That was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”

Upon his return to Rome, Cardinal Rigali was appointed head of the English Language Section of the Vatican Secretariat of State.

“It was at that point that I got to know so many people,” he said. “I certainly have been influenced by the popes I have known.”

One of his jobs after returning was to be the English translator for the popes, another role on which he placed great emphasis and was of high importance to the papacy because of the need to be precise and accurate in translating the messages of popes to the world.

“My first pope that I became the translator for was Pope Paul VI, and Pope Paul VI was a wonderful, wonderful pope, and I was with him sometimes more than once a day,” Cardinal Rigali said. “And then I traveled with Pope Paul VI — I traveled with him to so many different countries, so many different places. I traveled with him in Africa. I traveled with him in Asia. … That was a great, great privilege.”

Pope John Paul I was pope for only 33 days before he died unexpectedly on Sept. 28, 1978, at the age of 65.

“He was a lovely person,” Cardinal Rigali said. “As head of the English-language department, I was brought down with the head of the Spanish department and a couple of other people — we came down to meet the new pope the next day [after he was elected]. We were meeting the new pope, but then I had an experience that no one had.

“The new pope had audiences every day. It came one day when he had an audience with the bishops of the United States, and it happened to be the last audience of his life. I was his translator when he needed one — he didn’t always need it. I was with him. At the end of the audience, the bishops, about 25 bishops that day, he had already spoken to them and given them a talk. Then he greeted each bishop who had been with him. He greeted them one by one.

“He came to the last bishop, and then he came to me because I was the last one to go out of the room, and no one went into that room. I was the last person to be in his office with him, and 10 hours later he was dead. It was very moving, just the two of us were left in the room, John Paul I and me, and he said to me, ‘You have a lot of work to do in your office.’ And he said, ‘I detain you by having you come down and assist me with my guests here.’ I said, ‘Holy Father, it is a great honor to be with you.’ He said, ‘You have so much to do.’ And then he said, ‘Thank you, disturbed monsignor. I disturb you,’” Cardinal Rigali said, still amused by the double meaning of “disturbed monsignor.” “I went out, and he went upstairs to his apartment, and nobody went into that room — it was locked — until John Paul II was elected pope. I was very, very close to him.”

Traveling with John Paul II

A newly created Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, in a sign of respect, kisses the ring of Pope St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 21, 2003, during a Consistory ceremony where the Holy Father installed 30 new cardinals. (Photo PAOLO COCCO/AFP via Getty Images)

Pope St. John Paul II traveled to 129 countries in his pontificate, and Cardinal Rigali joined him on many of the journeys from 1979 to 1987.

“We began to travel, and travel, and travel,” he said. “I wouldn’t go every place he would go. I wouldn’t go with him when he was going to a Spanish-speaking country, or to a French-speaking country, or something like that, but I would go with him all the times he went to an English-speaking country, and the first English speaking country he went to after being elected was Ireland, combined with the United States. It was wonderful.” Cardinal Rigali put in long hours working under the future saint, who often spoke to audiences of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.

“One night, part of our job was to assist the Holy Father in presenting his speeches. I left the Vatican together with Cardinal [Jan Pieter] Schotte. He was a French-speaking Belgian. He and I were in the office that night until 20 after 4, when we finished our work, then came back. The Swiss Guard came on at 4 o’clock in the morning. We left at 4:20 and then came back again two hours later. The Swiss Guard saw me and said, ‘But you just left.’”

The Holy Father’s speeches had to be ready for the Vatican printing press just after 6 a.m., Cardinal Rigali said, because the pope was leaving for Ireland and the United States the next day.

“It was incredible, the tension,” the cardinal said. “All his talks had to be finished up. He was taking this double country, the United States and Ireland — he was giving 75 talks. It was just overwhelming. The two of us who were in charge were myself and Cardinal Schotte. We had all these things that had to be ready. His talks had to be read over for the last time. His talk to the United Nations, we had to get that ready for publication in the morning. It had to be proofread. Part of the talk was to the United Nations in English. The original talk he was giving was in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. It was something. We had to check it in all those languages.”

Archbishop of St. Louis and Philadelphia

Cardinal Rigali became president of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in 1985 and served in that role for five years. He was appointed secretary of the Congregation of Bishops in December 1989 and secretary of the College of Cardinals in January 1990. He was personally named by Pope St. John Paul II to serve as archbishop of St. Louis in January 1994.

“It was a wonderful Church, St. Louis,” he said. “St. Louis had been so much a part of the history of the United States, so much a part of the history of evangelization in our country. It was called ‘the Rome of the West.’ I was very happy to have the privilege of being called to be the archbishop. It was very, very great.”

Bishop Stika said Cardinal Rigali greatly influenced the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ financial situation to the good.

“He was able to put together an excellent finance council, and they turned everything around within three or four years. When he left, it was in good financial shape,” Bishop Stika said.

His Eminence did even more in St. Louis.

“He reorganized the parishes, a new legal structure. He began the reorganization of the seminary,” Bishop Stika said. “We had a capital campaign that raised $55 million. It was a very busy time during his time in St. Louis, and it was all because of him and his ideas and thoughts, and he put together a great team.”

Cardinal Rigali was appointed archbishop of Philadelphia in July 2003, serving there until his retirement in July 2011.

In Philadelphia, Cardinal Rigali launched a capital campaign to boost the archdiocese and was active in working with the priests and archdiocesan schools.

“Philadelphia is a large archdiocese. Unfortunately, he was dealing with some of the mistakes the previous archbishops had made in terms of sexual abuse, and that was really a cost on him personally,” Bishop Stika said. “In Philadelphia, he was in the slow process of beginning to reorganize that as well, but I think with his time in St. Louis much more significant things occurred.”

The time in Philadelphia marked “my last eight years,” Cardinal Rigali said. “I was nine years the archbishop of St. Louis. I was 25 years, approximately, in Rome. Then my last active years were in Philadelphia. After Philadelphia, I had resigned. Bishop Stika, in the meantime had become a bishop, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come live with me?’ So it worked out perfectly.”

The priest sex-abuse scandal affected both the archdioceses of St. Louis and Philadelphia.

“That was underriding — that was a topic that was every place, certainly not just Philadelphia,” Cardinal Rigali said. “And in every place, every diocese, there were always accusations. In St. Louis and in Philadelphia, we had the challenge to make sure we judged properly every claim. Every claim had to be investigated, and that took a lot of time and energy. And you had to make sure that the diocese investigated, but you had to make sure that the diocese investigated in the proper way, and that was not only Philadelphia, that was every place, and St. Louis was no exception.”

His Eminence believes he and the archdioceses handled the abuse situation “very conscientiously.”

“There were false claims, absolutely, and there was help that was given to people who were actually abused,” he said. “That was extremely important, but it was also very important that the criteria of how things are judged doesn’t change. It’s the truth, all the truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Media coverage of the abuse situation could be unfair sometimes, Cardinal Rigali said.

“But also there were a lot of things that were properly presented, and there were things that were very improperly modified,” he said.

‘Not an easy job’

In recalling his service in St. Louis and Philadelphia, the cardinal remembered the talk Pope St. John XXIII gave on the day he opened Vatican II.

“He said, ‘The principal aim of the Second Vatican Council is this … it has other secondary aims that are very, very important, absolutely … but the principal aim of the Second Vatican Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine, the sacred deposit of the faith, will be more effectively guarded and taught.’ This is what we tried to do in both St. Louis and Philadelphia: to guard and to teach it and proclaim it. … If we’re not following this as the very first thing, then we’re not going to make it.”

Cardinal Justin Rigali is next to Pope St. John Paul II during the ring ceremony for newly appointed cardinals on Oct. 22, 2003, inside St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. (Photo Filippo MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images)

Cardinal Rigali said he is “very honored to be a bishop anyplace.”

“It’s not an easy job. It’s not able to be conducted without prayer, without help, without getting everybody involved. We succeeded in getting an awful lot of people involved. We succeeded in getting the clarity on what has to be done. I think the people who worked with me, to do all this, were very good. You’re not going to have perfection in this world, but you certainly are able to work for justice, work for peace, and work to sustain people who have been vilified.”

A young Father Richard F. Stika greeted Cardinal Rigali upon his arrival in St. Louis, years before the priest would be named bishop of Knoxville.

“It was when I was in St. Louis that I met Bishop Stika. He was my secretary in St. Louis,” Cardinal Rigali said. “Afterward, we’ve been associated for a quarter of a century. I’ve learned a great deal from Bishop Stika. I had never been to St. Louis, and all of a sudden they made me archbishop of St. Louis. He was so helpful to me in getting to know not only St. Louis but also the Church in the United States, because I had been in Rome for a quarter of a century, too.”

Cardinal Rigali has served as a mentor to both Bishop Stika and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who was then a priest and later auxiliary bishop in St. Louis.

“Both of them are two very close people to me. They belong to this group of 18 bishops that I have ordained. Cardinal Dolan is one of those, and Bishop Stika is one of those,” Cardinal Rigali said.

Cardinal Dolan sent his greetings to his former archbishop. “In all the abundance and rich diversity of ministry of his priestly life, Cardinal Rigali has been a faithful disciple of Jesus, in union with Him in and through His Church, for 60 years configured to Christ as a priest,” the archbishop of New York said. “As one who has been inspired for these six decades, I shout out an ‘Alleluia’ from New York!”

Co-consecrator of 31 bishops

Cardinal Rigali was the co-consecrator in the ordination of 31 bishops, including the future Blessed Alvaro del Portillo y Diez de Sollano (1914-1994), who was ordained Jan. 6, 1991.

“He was the second superior general of Opus Dei, a very, very fine person. I was very happy that I could ordain him,” Cardinal Rigali said. “He sent me from Jerusalem an Easter greeting, and then I got his Easter greeting right after Easter, and when I got it he was dead.”

Blessed Alvaro del Portillo died in Rome shortly after his 80th birthday.

Papal visit to St. Louis

Pope St. John Paul II visited St. Louis in January 1999. The Holy Father came at Cardinal Rigali’s invitation.

“He had talked to the pope about it right after his assignment and said he hoped that he would come to St. Louis,” Bishop Stika said. “Eventually, he did, so that was nine months of activity getting ready for that, kind of a national spotlight.”

Bishop Stika headed up the organizational efforts for the pope’s trip to St. Louis.

“I had put Bishop Stika in charge of the papal visit,” Cardinal Rigali said. “He was the one in charge of the whole operation. Bishop Stika, when I came to St. Louis — I had never been to St. Louis in my life — he was there. He knew the Church. He knew the geography. He knew everything about St. Louis, and he would teach me, and he did. It was very interesting. When the pope came, Bishop Stika also lived with me in the archbishop’s house, so the two of us had the house, and then the pope was our guest. Bishop Stika was in charge of all the arrangements, but he knew the people so well, and that was a great thing.”

Another major event in St. Louis followed the papal visit.

“Right after that, a couple of years, it was the 100th anniversary of the first Eucharistic Congress in St. Louis. We had 20,000 people at the closing Mass,” Bishop Stika said.

Being a Prince of the Church

Cardinal Rigali was elevated to cardinal late in his time in St. Louis.

“It was a very great privilege to be named a cardinal, and I was made a cardinal just before I left St. Louis. The pope named me when I was just to the end of my service in St. Louis; had already been named archbishop of Philadelphia, but I hadn’t gone there,” he said.

Serving as a cardinal is no doubt a life-changing experience.

“It has certainly given every cardinal the opportunity to get to know the international aspect of the Church, and that is a very great privilege to know,” Cardinal Rigali said. “You get to know the cardinals from so many different countries.”

Cardinal Rigali has voted in two papal conclaves. Because of the long service of Pope St. John Paul II, a number of cardinals never had an opportunity to vote for a new pope.

“Some cardinals never get to vote for the pope, because Pope John Paul II — there was no election during their period of time,” Cardinal Rigali said. “There were two elections while I was a cardinal, so I was able to vote [in the election of] Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.”

Cardinal Rigali was in residence in Knoxville when he took part in the second conclave.

His Eminence celebrated a Mass at All Saints Church in Knoxville just prior to departing for Rome for the conclave. At Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport, scores of well-wishers, including Knoxville Catholic High School students, delivered a rousing send-off for the cardinal.

Bishop Stika on his longtime friend

Bishop Stika remembers his first contact with Cardinal Rigali in January 1994, “His first visit to St. Louis as the archbishop-elect. I had very little contact with him in January, because I was a priest assigned in the cathedral. I was master of ceremonies, so I was involved in the planning of his eventual installation. But at that moment I had no idea that eventually I would be named his personal secretary and chancellor. It was just beyond my comprehension, especially with his being in Rome for all those years. My whole sense of priesthood was St. Louis. That was the best gift I could give to him, the fact that I knew the city, I knew the politics, I knew the players, and I knew the people.”

Cardinal Justin Rigali speaks to the media in February 2013 following a Mass he celebrated at All Saints Church just before he attended the papal conclave that selected Pope Francis. Bishop Richard F. Stika is also shown. ( J. MILES CARY/NEWS SENTINEL )

When Cardinal Rigali asked Bishop Stika to be his assistant, “I said yes and never knew it would change the rest of my life,” the bishop said. “What I have learned is, and I kid about this, he taught me the Church universal and history and experiences, and I taught him how to go to White Castle,” he added with a laugh. “We have developed a very deep and special bond of friendship. I lived with him for nine years in St. Louis in his house, saw him every day, and probably have spoken to him every day since — except those times that he was in the conclaves, the two elections of popes — or had some kind of message from him.”

Bishop Stika describes Cardinal Rigali as “just a joy.” He said in April during a Mass Cardinal Rigali celebrated at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus to mark his 60th year as a priest that one of the greatest compliments he has ever received was when His Eminence, during the Mass, said he considered Bishop Stika like a son.

“He’s a father figure; he’s kind of grandfatherly now. I have a great love and affection for him. I never really knew my grandfathers. So it’s a real blessing, and also to this diocese. We have a cardinal living here, a man who has so many experiences, so many, meeting people, being with popes and saints and such, and now he lives with us. He’s just a very, very special man. I once said that he was a churchman in the best sense of the word, and I think his legacy will live for decades and decades and decades, and our friendship is forever.”

Bishop Stika talked about His Eminence’s impact on the Church.

“He has extraordinary gifts of languages, of discernment, of advice, a very warm individual. But if you look at his history, he attended the first session of Vatican II, he was a missionary working for the nuncio in Madagascar for three years, which was a totally different experience from Los Angeles or Rome. And then he was in service to the Church as a translator to the popes. He was with John Paul I every day he was the pope, died so suddenly. He was very close to St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, friends with Benedict, and even spent time with Francis, who has great respect for him. In his simplicity, he’s a very humble person. He has taught people through his contacts the importance of humility and virtue and commitment to the Gospel. He lives a very simple life. He’s very generous to charity and people and very caring and concerning and has long friendships.”

The cardinal “as an archbishop was very revered in St. Louis and Philadelphia and now here in the diocese. He’s just a teacher of the faith,” Bishop Stika said. “I think any priest, as you look back on your life, when you’re present in the moment you don’t realize many things, but the effects you can have on people, it’s like throwing a pebble into a still lake, the ripple effects. He and I talk a lot about priesthood and experiences. We talk about his seminary experiences and his parents. I got to know all his siblings except for his brother Paul and a sister who died very young. Just to be with him, 60 years of priesthood. This year he’ll celebrate 36 years as a bishop, and he was named a cardinal in 2003. It’s just a magnificent thing.”

The cardinal has always had a gentle personality, not just in retirement but throughout his priesthood, Bishop Stika said.

“He’s always been gentle. I hear that from everybody,” the bishop said. “He was always very kind, even in those years he worked in Rome. He had a nickname of ‘The Velvet Hammer.’ Sometimes, especially when he was in the Congregation for Bishops, he sometimes had serious conversations with bishops, but when they left, they were grateful. He’s always been a very gentle person. I’ve hardly ever seen him angry.”

Another who knows him well

Along with Bishop Stika, there may be no one who knows Cardinal Rigali better than his faithful secretary of nearly a quarter of a century, Sister Mary Clara Auer, FSGM.

“It was in September 1997 that I was sent, on behalf of our community, to serve as secretary to Cardinal (then-Archbishop) Rigali,” she said. “For 23-plus years, I have been truly blessed to be of service to him, first in St. Louis, then in Philadelphia, and now here in Knoxville.

“There is hardly a day that passes that I am not utterly amazed at all that he has done — the people with whom and for whom he has worked through the years, the places he has been, the events of which he has been a part, all the sacraments that he has administered, the Masses he has offered, etc. To most people, just one of those things would be an event of a lifetime. For him, he has a lifetime of such memories.”

And that is just the public side of him, Sister Clara said.

“In addition to his known activities, so much is hidden,” she said. “Many people do not know of, for instance, his quiet vigils of prayer, the long hours of travel, and the seemingly tireless hours spent in preparing for his priestly and episcopal ministry, the countless personal contacts and visits he has made in response to human needs, his volumes of letters, and on and on — working sometimes into the wee or late hours of the day and night — but they are all truths to which I have been privy to bear witness.”

Sister Clara said, “It is so beautiful to see how fully the Church — the Body of Christ — is woven into his being. She seems always to be on his mind, in his heart, and flowing from his lips. That which he reads, that which he watches, and that to which he listens — outside of the news which, even that, keeps him abreast of so many needs — his conversations, etc., are all, for the most part, of a sacred and religious nature. His sensitivity to the joys and sorrows in the lives of others as he reaches out to them in remembrance of them, is incomparable to anyone else I have ever known. In all of that there is so much for which to give thanks to God.”

A vocation is born

And there are so many around the globe who have been ministered to and served with Cardinal Rigali who also give thanks to God for his ministry.

When the vocation seed was planted in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles more than 75 years ago, a young Justin Rigali could never have thought that his priesthood would be so multifaceted.

Cardinal Rigali said, “It was sometime in grammar school that the thought [of priesthood] came to me,” and he credits Father James Hansen for planting the idea.

“There was a priest in the parish who brought the idea up. I was in grammar school, I think. Perhaps I even had some inkling even earlier, but I know that in the grammar school I was asked if I had ever thought of that, and I said yes. That’s what I remember, and the rest is history.”

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