This week is big on birthdays. As a summer birthday myself, I somehow find it a particularly appropriate time. No competition from the other heavy holidays, you know.
The universal Church celebrates on 24 June the Nativity of John the Baptist, one of three birthdays it observes each year. (Can you name the other two – and their dates?) John is still in the womb of Saint Elizabeth when he recognizes his Lord and Savior, in the womb of their cousin, the Virgin Mary. Zechariah at first resists, then at last acknowledges, that God is working great deeds through him and his wife by giving them a son when no one thought that possible. And the child John grows to attract quite a following, only to point them all toward the Lamb of God.
The church in Washington this week celebrates the 80th birthday of Cardinal McCarrick. Eighty is a big milestone for anyone, but for ministers of the Church, it takes a particular significance. It is as close to a “mandatory retirement age” as we have. Yes, that’s right – eighty. And you thought 65 seemed a long time to wait!
Cardinal McCarrick’s actual birth date is 7 July (and no, I didn’t have to look that up) but we are celebrating it this week with a Mass and gathering for the priests and his other friends in the Archdiocese. Of course all of his priest secretaries stand together on these occasions for our time so close to him. There are twelve of us here, soon to be joined by a thirteenth. But don’t worry – he won’t carry that unlucky number; he will be number 38, because we can’t forget the 25 secretaries the Cardinal had before he came to Washington.
Even a cardinal has to relinquish all of his responsibilities when he turns eighty, and is no longer eligible to participate in a conclave for the election of the successor to Peter. Cardinal McCarrick already has voted in a papal election –the conclave of 2005 that gave us our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI. Some cardinals never get a chance to do that.
Cardinal Hickey never participated in a conclave, and though he would have been grateful for that opportunity, I do not believe he was disappointed. He was still Bishop of Cleveland when Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978. He became Archbishop of Washington in 1980, Cardinal in 1988, turned 80 in 2000, and died in 2004, all before John Paul II (who had been born only a few months before him in 1920) died in 2005. He would not have wished to shorten JPII’s fruitful time with the Church by even one day!
My other Cardinal (and Washington’s), Cardinal Baum, was quite young (49) when he got his red hat in 1976, and he is the only living Cardinal to have voted in three conclaves (two in 1978, and one in 2005). One other man voted in all three of those, but he is not a Cardinal: he is the Pope!
Birthdays make us all a little circumspect about our lives, where we’ve been, and where we are going. Sometimes, they mark big changes; sometimes, a small reminder that we are changing. That’s why I often suggest one of the best things I have found to do on a birthday: go to Confession. It helps make sure that while we are decreasing, Christ continues to increase.