Our Man in Rome

In his new home, Bernard Cardinal Law has built a pretty comfortable life for himself, presiding over a stunning basilica, mingling with admirers—and enjoying as much power as ever.


Every Sunday morning at 10, an usher stands outside the sacristy of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome and tugs on a rope to ring a bell. At this signal, the organist and choir take up the morning’s hymn, an original work composed by the basilica’s choirmaster. On this cue, the congregation rises to its feet. A procession of nearly 30 men, including acolytes, priests, and two bishops, heads up the nave, trailing incense in its wake. At the end of the line is the basilica’s archpriest, wearing his miter and carrying his gold and silver shepherd’s crook. After making his way past an audience of a thousand worshipers and camera-wielding tourists, Bernard Francis Cardinal Law takes his place behind the altar.

Nearly four years removed from the clergy sex-abuse crisis that finally forced him to resign as archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law remains a highly respected member of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Rome. As archpriest of St. Mary Major, he runs one of the Eternal City’s four patriarchal basilicas, a post that offers him a worthy setting in which to express his well-known flair for liturgical ceremony. The church, which features a special altar reserved for the use of the pope, predates the fall of the Roman empire and contains 15 centuries’ worth of priceless art. Surely the man who raised a $1.5 million private donation to refurbish Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross appreciates the privilege of offering Mass surrounded by fifth-century mosaics and an ornate ceiling that is said to have been gilded with the first haul of ore Columbus brought back from the New World.

Law’s Roman flock clearly appreciates his presence as well. On a Sunday this past spring, Mass began with one of the basilica’s canons congratulating the cardinal on the 45th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, a statement the congregation greeted with applause. Law, thanking the canon with an embrace, seemed touched. Slimmer now than when he assumed the archpriest’s job two years earlier, and moving without difficulty since his recovery from back surgery, he appeared at ease and in command. Yet in his manner and words, the cardinal gave off an air of detachment. In his brief homily at that anniversary Mass, delivered in his heavily accented Italian, he confined himself to a general commentary on the day’s gospel reading. He did not share a single reference to his own life or to the career his parishioners honored that morning. For a listener aware of the fierce controversy that brought him here, that omission was conspicuous, and underscored the unlikeliness of his present post.

In December 2002, few would have predicted that Cardinal Law would have any future at all in Rome. Days after his resignation as archbishop of Boston, sources told John Allen, senior correspondent in Rome for the National Catholic Reporter, that a Vatican assignment was unlikely for someone so “politically wounded.” Some critics even called for Law to resign from the college of cardinals, something that had not occurred since 1927.

Law’s first position after leaving Boston hardly augured continued prominence within the Church: He became chaplain of a convent in Clinton, Maryland, trading stewardship of an archdiocese of 2.1 million Catholics for the company of a few nuns. The obscure job seemed intended both to humble him and to remove him from the public eye; though the convent was located in a suburb of Washington, DC, the cardinal was rarely seen in that city or Boston during the following year. He did not attend the installation of his successor, Archbishop Seán Patrick O’Malley, in July 2003. That November, for the first time in years, he skipped the semiannual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But the cardinal was hardly in seclusion. During those same months he made several trips to Rome, attending a historic Latin Mass at St. Mary Major as well as a Mass in St. Peter’s Square. A few weeks later, Law met with the pope—his first official audience since his resignation. On these sojourns, he also attended meetings of some of the Holy See’s highest administrative and policy-making bodies.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising the Vatican was unwilling to let the cardinal fade into irrelevance. Law had long been known as one of Pope John Paul II’s favorite American prelates, and though the ailing pontiff reportedly made few decisions for himself near the end of his life, his small circle of advisers clearly thought that the former archbishop of Boston deserved more dignified employment.

When the St. Mary Major appointment became official in May 2004, Law’s Boston critics blasted the move, accusing the Vatican of callousness at best, and at worst of rewarding Law’s efforts to cover up for predator priests. Few laypeople were convinced the cardinal had properly atoned for his sins. One abuse victim told the Globe: “I can’t even explain to you the pit I felt in my stomach.”

It was not only the position’s prestige that aroused objections, but the luxury that reportedly went with it. Internet chatter described the archpriest’s apartment, housed in a building attached to the basilica’s south side, as “palatial,” with “frescoes on the wall.” Those who’ve visited say the space consists of six or seven nicely appointed rooms—a far cry from the four-story mansion on Commonwealth Avenue that Law lived in here, but nonetheless a decent spread in the Esquilino neighborhood, where real estate easily runs upward of $400 per square foot. The New York Times reported that Law would receive a stipend of $12,000 per month, but in fact, the amount is about $5,000, out of which the cardinal pays living expenses for himself and the two or three nuns who keep house for him. All in all, it’s a comfortable existence. Law regularly attends diplomatic and social events, and is occasionally seen dining out with friends. One of his favorite spots is said to be Cecilia Metella, a moderately expensive country restaurant on the Via Appia Antica where the prix fixe dinners run between $60 and $85.

Law again sparked controversy back in Boston the following April, when he celebrated a memorial Mass for Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Basilica. Many American Catholics were outraged to see Law so front and center. “We don’t believe it’s appropriate for him to be in any position of power or trust in the Church,” said Barbara Blaine of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests to reporters in St. Peter’s Square at the time of that Mass. “If things had happened differently in the United States, he might well have landed himself in jail.”

Vatican officials said that in leading the memorial Mass, Law was merely fulfilling one of the traditional responsibilities of the archpriest of St. Mary Major. Still, some observers questioned why the Vatican or Law himself had not chosen to avoid an outcry they surely could have predicted. But as Law’s continued status at the highest reaches of the Church’s hierarchy makes clear, public relations of the kind practiced by American politicians and corporations is simply not how the Holy See does business.

At least once every two weeks, Cardinal Law leaves the basilica and rides three miles across town to the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, a complex that includes the papal apartment and the Sistine Chapel. This is where several of the most powerful departments of the Curia, the international government of the Church, hold meetings-—and it’s as a member of that institution that Law exercises his true influence.

Law now sits on eight of the Curia’s “dicasteries,” or policy-implementing committees, a total far above average; Boston’s Archbishop Seán Cardinal O’Malley, for instance, is a member of only two. Cardinals living near Rome typically belong to more dicasteries than those overseas, so it is a measure of Law’s ambition that in his last year in Boston he served on no less than nine. Thanks to his new station, his participation is more intense than ever. “Since he’s in Rome he can attend the meetings on a regular basis,” says Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and scholar of church administration. “He couldn’t do that when he was in Boston. So his ability to influence has actually increased.”

The cardinal’s dicasterial work covers a broad range of policy areas, from Catholic teaching on the family, gender, and reproduction; to the governance of religious orders, such as the Franciscans and the Jesuits; to oversight of the church’s missionary work, including the appointment of bishops in much of Africa and Asia. He sits on the Congregation for Catholic Education, which issued last fall’s controversial document banning gay men from seminaries—a policy many commentators suggested was a response to the sex abuse crisis. As a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Law will have a say in the new English translation of the Mass, which U.S. bishops approved in June, a project beset by years of controversy over issues including the use of gender-neutral language. Father Reese speculates that Law could make a significant contribution to this particular debate: Despite his reputation as a conservative, the cardinal has a progressive record on questions such as inclusive wording and the role of altar girls.

By far the most consequential of Cardinal Law’s roles is his membership in the Congregation for Bishops. While the appointment of prelates is ultimately up to the pope, he chooses almost all of them on the recommendation of this body. Each of the congregation’s 36 members has a vote on appointments, but members reportedly defer to colleagues from a given country on appointments in that land. The congregation has five American members, though one, William Wakefield Cardinal Baum—Cardinal Law’s mentor in the early 1970s and one of his oldest friends in the hierarchy—reportedly suffers from failing eyesight and other ailments that limit his participation.
Cardinal Law, therefore, is one of a handful of men in charge of choosing the hierarchy of the American church.

Law’s continued sway over appointments can be inferred from the selections of Richard Joseph Malone as bishop of Portland, Maine, in 2004, and Richard Gerard Lennon as bishop of Cleveland this May—bringing to 10 the number of former auxiliary bishops of Boston who served under Law and later went on to run dioceses of their own. According to Eugene Cullen Kennedy, a former priest who has written widely on American Church affairs, the cardinal was Pope John Paul’s “kingmaker” in the appointment of bishops during the late 1980s and 1990s. And even today, Law “still has a terrific amount of influence on what happens in the American Church,” says Kennedy, who claims Law handpicked Archbishop O’Malley as his own successor in Boston.

“It seems to me unfortunate that he is where he is,” says Philip F. Lawler, editor of the Lancaster-based Catholic World News, who worked for Law as editor of the archdiocesan newspaper in the late 1980s. “We’re still waiting for the evidence that he understands what happened in Boston. And if he doesn’t understand what caused his resignation, that raises questions for me about his perceptions of other problems, his ability to recognize what’s good for the Church.” Under Vatican policy, cardinals must give up their dicasterial work when they reach the age of 80. Law turns 75 this November.

Since the departure from Boston of his former right-hand man, Bishop Richard Lennon, not even Law’s most strident critics accuse him of any direct influence in archdiocesan affairs. And though he is said to still take a keen interest in events in Boston—he reportedly discussed them with Tom Menino when the mayor visited Rome this May—he has avoided returning. Even when his back trouble became severe during late 2004, he reportedly declined to fly to the United States for surgery—an extraordinary decision, considering the generally iffy quality of Italian healthcare.

Yet when the cardinal knows that his countrymen will welcome him, he is happy in their company. Twice this year he celebrated Mass for delegations of young missionaries that included large shares of Americans. “He was just really great, really warm and full of a lot of energy,” says Christopher Kelley, who found the cardinal a pleasant contrast with the image he had known growing up in Worcester. “He seemed a lot younger, and just a lot more enthusiastic.”

Law made similar display of his vitality this past May when some 400 people gathered for a black-tie dinner on the Janiculum Hill, Rome’s highest point. They included Italian aristocrats, Catholic prelates, well-heeled American donors, and even the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. The dinner was a fundraiser for the Pontifical North American College, the seminary to which bishops from the United States send their most promising candidates for the priesthood. These future leaders had set aside their theological studies for the evening to serve as waiters, and even musicians, performing Sinatra tunes after the guests had enjoyed their dinner of baked pasta and fillet of beef. A few feet from the stage sat Cardinal Law.

In contrast with attitudes in Boston, where many see Law as hopelessly tainted and unrepentant, the mood at the dinner confirmed what those in Rome have seen these past few years: In his supposed exile, Cardinal Law has found a measure of forgiveness. “I don’t know anyone at the Vatican who would defend Law’s handling of the sex abuse case,” John Allen says. “But many people in Rome would say that he paid the price in the form of his resignation and that there’s no reason that he shouldn’t make a contribution.”

Throughout the evening, the convivial Law was the object of attention. He remained seated as he received the greetings of well-wishers, including a priest who knelt before him at the table. When he finally rose from his chair to end the evening, some of those in the roomful of future bishops and wealthy donors pressed in close to the influential cardinal. And as Law turned to leave, walking from the brightly lit dining room toward the spring night beyond, a group of a dozen or so trailed in the wake of his black and scarlet cassock.

  • Rhogan1244

    It’s time to bring this cockroak back to Boston so that he can be properlied tarred and featherd