The year was about 1989, and I was serving as the priest-secretary to the former Archbishop of Washington, James Cardinal Hickey. He had just celebrated a funeral Mass for a priest in Southern Maryland. We were headed north, toward Washington, D.C., on U.S. 301, a four-lane, limited-access road.
As was his custom, Cardinal Hickey worked in the car. If my memory is correct, the Cardinal was quizzing me about his schedule. His questions were precise, numerous, and preoccupying. My answers were fuzzy, sparse, and preoccupying. Not paying full attention to the road, I passed an unmarked police cruiser on the right. I was promptly pulled over.
The officer approached the car. "Driving kind of reckless there, Father," he said.
With that, Cardinal Hickey leaned over, caught the patrolman's eye, and said, "Officer, book him!" The officer recognized the Cardinal, laughed, and let me off with only a warning.
On Sunday, October 24, at 6:25 in the morning, the man who was my wise mentor and very dear friend completed his earthly journey. He was no reckless driver. In his long life of steady prayer and daily dedication, he allowed the Good Shepherd to guide him along the path of truth and charity. And the Lord, in whom he trusted, led him into eternity.
How privileged I was to take part in the very last leg of that journey. The night before the Cardinal's passing, I joined the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Cardinal's nephew, Tom Erikson, and his wife, Maribel, and Msgr. Barry Knestout at the Cardinal's deathbed. Again and again we offered prayers for the dying and prayed the Rosary.
Around four in the morning, the Sisters told me the Cardinal's condition was worsening. We called Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and Msgr. Knestout returned from his parish. Together with the Sisters, we started a final round of prayers for the dying, and said our tearful farewells. The Cardinal slipped away quietly.
Cardinal Hickey's quiet exit from this earth was no surprise to me. He was a man of enormous, far-sighted accomplishment who always shunned the limelight. By the time he was 31, he had earned two doctorates in Rome. At 38, he was the founding rector of a diocesan seminary in Saginaw, Michigan. He was an advisor to his bishop at the Second Vatican Council and directly contributed to what the Council said about Catholic education.
At the age of 47, he became a bishop, and returned to Rome to serve as Rector of the North American College, the U.S. seminary in the Eternal City. Cardinal Hickey had a deep passion for priestly vocations and for sound priestly formation. In 1974, he became the Bishop of Cleveland, serving almost a million Catholics, until he was appointed Archbishop of Washington in 1980.
When I first met him, he was 60 and I was a recently-ordained 29-year-old priest. After a few casual meetings, I started working for him in 1982, part-time at first, and then full-time, for nearly 20 years. Nothing thus far had prepared me for the Cardinal's energy and thoroughness.
We often worked late into the night. At 10:30 p.m., the words I dreaded most were, "second wind." His second wind usually lasted until about 2:00 a.m. By then the wind was long since out of my sails.
Of course, the Cardinal did not enjoy much smooth sailing. Sometimes his actions were misunderstood and he was accused of administrative overkill. But he was the wise and steady captain of his ship.
In spite of many obstacles, he transformed Catholic Charities into the largest non-governmental source of social services in the Washington metropolitan area. He opened 12 parishes, two new elementary schools, and saved the Catholic schools in the inner city. Employing the highest standards, he reinvented the financial administration of the Archdiocese and left it very sound. He started a health-care network and a legal network to aid the poor.
Beginning in the mid-1980's, Cardinal Hickey addressed the sexual abuse crisis forthrightly and thoroughly. He greatly strengthened the teaching of religion in schools and parishes and showed loving support to Religious Sisters. He handled all kinds of difficult problems for the Holy See and for the Church in the United States.
The Cardinal was bewildered when he was chosen to give the annual Lenten retreat to Pope John Paul II in 1988. The Pope knew what he was doing!
As many of you know, Cardinal Hickey's health declined steeply in these past three years. I visited him as often as I could. Sometimes he slept through my visits (no surprise there - in the 1990s, my reports as his Vicar General had the same effect on him). But sometimes he was alert and, in spite of his illness, he could speak a few words.
On one of those occasions, just a few months ago, I told the Cardinal that, so often, when I face challenges in the Diocese of Bridgeport similar to ones he faced in Washington, I find myself recalling what he said and did. I thanked the Cardinal for his unwavering friendship and for giving me such a wonderful daily example of what it means to be a good priest and a holy bishop. I thanked him for setting the bar high and told him that I am trying to emulate what he taught me.
His eyes opened widely, filled with tears, and he said, "Bill, I appreciate that!" He smiled and squeezed my hand. It was a final epiphany of the Cardinal for whom I had worked and with whom I shared a beautiful friendship.
The love and loyalty I felt for the Cardinal is shared by many others who worked with him through the years. He inspired that in us. He was genuine, the same in private and in public. He was truly kind. He was helping many people without the knowledge of even his closest co-workers.
We knew he worked hard but, more importantly, we knew he prayed hard. He loved the Sacrament of Penance and went to Confession every other week. We prayed the Rosary daily.
The center of his life was the Eucharist. How many times I stood beside him at the altar. How many times I knelt with him before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. How many times, he would pull me into chapel before we went downstairs to face some difficult situation. He was all priest. And that means he lived the Eucharist he celebrated.
Cardinal Hickey's earthly journey ended as this Year of the Eucharist begins. May this magnificent priest who so loved the Eucharist on earth, now share in the eternal Eucharist in heaven!
One last thing. The Cardinal told me that if I canonized him, he would haunt me. So be sure to pray for the happy repose of his soul. Pray that whatever faults he brought into eternity will be quickly remitted and that he will enjoy forever "the lot of the saints in light."
May his great soul and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace!
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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