Local Catholics Fete a Flock of Angeleno Cardinals

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles will be making church history next week, when Pope Benedict XVI installs native son William J. Levada as one of 15 new cardinals in the Vatican.

Because of his rank and experience, Levada, 69, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, will be first in line Friday to get his red hat.

Levada's promotion brings to three the number of Los Angeles-area natives in the College of Cardinals, the body that names a new pope.

"It is a special historical moment having three Angelenos active cardinals at the same time -- unprecedented," said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, the nation's largest archdiocese. "I am confident that this fact reflects the dynamic faith of the Catholic community of Southern California."

Mahony, 70, and Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, 71, archbishop of Philadelphia, have been cardinals since 1991 and 2003, respectively.

Levada, Mahony and Rigali -- all from devout Catholic homes in Southern California -- met more than half a century ago when they were students at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo. They were ordained in the early 1960s.

"At St. John's Seminary, we studied and prayed together and encouraged each other in our vocation to the priesthood and wanted to be good and holy priests to serve God's people wherever he would call us to go," Levada wrote in an e-mail from the Vatican.

"God's providence made us friends and God's providence brought us toward ordination together and God's providence made possible for all of us to be members of the College of the Cardinals in service of the church and in service of the pope," Rigali said in a phone interview from Philadelphia.

With the addition of Levada and others, the college will have 120 voting members.

To Mahony, Levada and Rigali, growing up together and now serving as cardinals together is no coincidence.

"It is God who calls us to do different kinds of ministry in different places and writes with crooked lines," said Mahony.

Cardinals from all over the world, including Mahony and Rigali, are converging on Rome as Benedict has convened a four-day gathering of the College of Cardinals, beginning Thursday.

Three of the new cardinals are Vatican officials, nine are heads of dioceses or archdioceses and three are prelates above age 80 being honored for their service to the church.

The new cardinals represent 11 countries from five continents, a diversity that Rigali, Mahony and Levada, through their Southland upbringing, represent in microcosm.

"Certainly all of us benefited immensely from the multicultural elements that made up both the church in Los Angeles and society," said Rigali, who is fluent in Italian and French and "gets along in Spanish." Levada also speaks the three languages.

"What a privilege it was to be part of a local church, to be in the seminary at a time -- it's more so now -- when so many different nationalities are represented," Rigali said.

He continued, "We treasure our upbringing -- the experience that we had in this multicultural Los Angeles. We certainly feel that, yes, it has helped us enormously to have a universal concept of the church and to try to promote the universal missions of the church."

Rigali, praising Mahony's long-standing interest in migrant workers and immigrants, recalled that Mahony made a "special effort" to learn Spanish while in the seminary.

"He did that precisely in those years in which I was with him, in order that he could minister to people of another culture."

St. John's schooling was important for all three, Mahony said.

What they learned at the seminary was to "always have our eyes fixed on Jesus and to do our best -- to use the gifts we have -- to help spread the gospel and increase the church."

Of the Angeleno cardinals, only Mahony has remained close to home.

Except for the time he was pursuing his master's degree in social work at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Mahony's ministry has been in California.

Rigali, who grew up in Los Angeles as the youngest of seven children, spent more than 30 years in the Vatican, after earning a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1964.

His career included a stint as a Vatican diplomat in Madagascar and the director of the English-language section of the Vatican Secretariat of State and the English-language translator for Pope Paul VI, whom he accompanied to various countries.

Like Rigali, Levada too earned a doctorate, in sacred theology, at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Also like Rigali, he spent many years working at the Vatican.

He worked with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as a doctrinal congregation staff member from 1976 to 1982. In 1986, he was appointed archbishop of Portland and nine years later archbishop of San Francisco. Last May, the new pope called him to his current position.

"We could never have imagined then [when they were young] the many and varied ways in which the three of us have been asked to fulfill our calling in the service of the church," wrote Levada. "But I think my fundamental prayer, 'Not my will but yours be done, Lord,' echoes the prayers of these friends and brother cardinals as well."

For a small order of nuns in Los Angeles, there's a special joy in seeing Levada join the ranks of cardinals.

The sisters at the Society Dedicated to the Sacred Heart, an order devoted to religious education, have been close to Rigali and Levada for decades.

Sister Agnes Raday, who came to Los Angeles with a small group of Hungarian nuns in the 1950s when her homeland was under Communist rule, said they became acquainted with Rigali when he was a seminarian and helped serve Mass at the home of Cardinal J. Francis A. McIntyre, archbishop of Los Angeles from 1947 to 1970.

In 1990, on the 50th anniversary of the order, its founder, Sister Ida Peterfy, asked Rigali to give an eight-day spiritual retreat at Big Bear. He flew in from Rome to conduct it.

Eight years later, the sisters again asked Rigali, who was then archbishop of St. Louis, to do another retreat.

Though Rigali was in the middle of preparing for Pope John Paul II's visit to St. Louis, he came.

"I've known them for decades," Rigali said of the nuns. "They've been good to the archdiocese, good to my family. They were kind to my mother. So it was my pleasure and joy to serve them."

As for Levada, the nuns met him when he was auxiliary bishop in the Los Angeles archdiocese in the 1980s.

Once a year, when they renewed their vows, he celebrated Mass for them. Levada too came to a family retreat the sisters held at Big Bear.

"He heard confessions sitting on the log," Sister Agnes said.

Another memory that stands out for her: Three years ago she was making a presentation at an international conference on catechism.

As she tried to maneuver a large poster in front of the microphone, Levada leaped from his second-row seat.

"I will hold it for you," he said.

And so Levada, one of the future "princes of the church," filled in as an easel.

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