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Philadelphia cardinal turns 80 amid speculation about replacement

Posted: Friday, June 27, 2003

PHILADELPHIA (AP) The oldest American cardinal still running an archdiocese, Philadelphia's Anthony J. Bevilacqua has reached his 80th birthday and shows no sign that he wants to retire.

Still, that doesn't stop observers from speculating on who will replace the spiritual leader of the 1.5 million Roman Catholics in the nation's seventh-largest diocese. Some think the Vatican will ask Bevilacqua step down from his post by the end of the year, even in a matter of weeks.

A cardinal's 80th birthday is an important one in the eyes of the church. (Bevilacqua quietly marked his on June 17, to be followed by a Mass of celebration at the city's Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on July 16.)

Under the rules of the church, at that age Bevilacqua remains a cardinal but can no longer vote in the conclave that chooses a new pope, and he has surrendered his seat on four Vatican councils and congregations.

Bevilacqua already submitted his mandatory letter of resignation to Pope John Paul II when he turned 75 in 1998, but the pontiff did not accept his retirement.

The cardinal instead continued with what he recently called his ''delightfully hectic'' 16-hour days. An avid fitness enthusiast, he only stopped his daily morning jog two years ago.

Bevilacqua, who declined to be interviewed, said on his birthday that he was thankful to be ''in reasonably good health surrounded by the loving wishes of my family and friends.''

Born in Brooklyn, where he was ordained in 1949, Bevilacqua came from a family of 11 children. He holds degrees in both church and civil law and is admitted to practice law in New York, Pennsylvania and before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He became an auxiliary bishop in Brooklyn in 1980, before being named bishop of Pittsburgh in 1983 and then archbishop of Philadelphia in 1988.

''There hasn't been any indication that he's going anywhere,'' said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. ''The rumor mill is often wrong.''

Reese acknowledged, however, that the same handful of names seem to be popping up as potential replacements for Bevilacqua with Archbishop Justin F. Rigali, 68, of St. Louis, often first among them.

Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, 62, who succeeded Bevilacqua as head of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and is mentioned as a contender to replace Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, has also been named in church circles as a potential Bevilacqua successor. Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, 64, head of Catholic military chaplains in the United States, also appears to be in the mix.

The decision carries great weight because, since 1921, the archbishop of Philadelphia has always been elevated to the rank of cardinal someone who elects and advises the pope.

''The appointment of cardinals is something the pope takes very seriously,'' Reese said. ''It's a more secretive process, and it could stretch out a while.''

A conservative who has strictly followed the Vatican stance against homosexuality, birth control and abortion, Bevilacqua came under fire last year when amid the clerical sex abuse scandals he suggested that gays were more likely to commit sexual abuse. He opposes the ordination of female or married priests, and has lobbied against same-sex partner benefits.

''He's a bureaucrat ... I think he hasn't looked to the full range of the views within the church,'' said a liberal critic, Regina Bannan, president of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women's Ordination Conference. ''The people who want change really are faithful Catholics and should be heard, not ignored.''

While supporters say Bevilacqua has protected the archdiocese from the sex abuse scandals experienced in other cities, some say that might be short-lived. A Philadelphia grand jury is investigating allegations of priestly sex abuse and how church officials responded, with a report due by year's end.

Bevilacqua has tried to engage lapsed Catholics with a toll-free telephone line staffed by clergy, a Web site that allowed people to e-mail questions to priests and the ''Live with Cardinal Bevilacqua'' radio call-in show from 1995 to 2000.

''He really has stood for the truth and not backed down, regardless of the criticism he receives,'' said William Devlin of the Urban Family Council, a Philadelphia group that opposes abortion and homosexuality. ''If the pope would let him stay on till he was 100, I think he would.''

On the Net:

Archdiocese of Philadelphia: http://www.archdiocese-phl.org



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