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After a turbulent month, Cardinal Law discusses gains, losses

By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 11/30/1986

n the 2 1/2 years since his arrival, Cardinal Bernard F. Law has expanded the national and international dimensions of his role as Catholic archbishop of Boston but has scaled back his local commitments, his critics say.

After a tumultuous month in which he was rebuffed by voters and fellow bishops alike, Cardinal Law still retains a high degree of visibility and influence. During an interview last week, he discussed his leadership, covering such topics as his ambitions for the papacy and his decision whether to take a stand on some key ballot issues.

From the beginning, knowledgeable observers of the cardinal and his predecessors forecast a two- to three-year honeymoon for a new archbishop with his clergy, laity and other Bostonians.

The end of that honeymoon may have occurred in November. Cardinal Law suffered an apparent defeat Nov. 4 in voter rejection of two referendum questions he had strongly supported -- one that called for a curb on state funding of abortions and another that would have allowed some form of state aid for private schools.

The next week in Washington, his fellow bishops turned to more moderate or liberal churchmen as Cardinal Law failed to receive a majority of votes in 18 ballots for eight leadership posts.

But, just as many bishops had counted on the likelihood that Pope John Paul II would name him to the synod, the power of his office and the force of his personality assured Cardinal Law of continued prominence.

Before the American bishops concluded their meeting, the Boston prelate left for the Vatican, where 12 cardinals and archbishops were beginning work on a universal catechism, a project Cardinal Law proposed at a synod of bishops last year.

After being back in Boston for two nights, he flew to Nicaragua to take part in a eucharistic congress, to meet unexpectedly with President Daniel Ortega and to visit imprisoned American Eugene Hasenfus, who had been convicted of smuggling weapons to the contras.

Although he described his visit to Hasenfus as simply that of a pastor and said he represented no one but himself in his talk with the Nicaraguan leader, Cardinal Law was besieged by requests for interviews about his religious diplomacy.

At the end of a day in which he had met with two large groups of priests to discuss plans for his upcoming archdiocesan synod, the cardinal set aside time for a round of press interviews.

Answering questions that friends and critics have asked from the time he was a priest in rural Mississippi, Cardinal Law said he has no ambition to be pope. "My responsibilities here leave me little reason to hope for greater responsibilities," he said.

"It isn't the easiest of times to exercise pastoral leadership in the church," he said. "The worst possible pope would be the person who would ambition being the bishop of Rome."

Observers of Cardinal Law among the clergy have expressed concern about their archbishop's tendency to overcommit himself, even inside the archdiocese, and some said they believe his Cabinet style of government tends to isolate the cardinal from priests and parishes.

The cardinal acknowledged his duties have left him spread thin but he said he believes the reorganization of church government in Boston ensures that necessary decisions will be made as he tries to increase his contact with priests and parishes.

"Most pastors I know feel they are spread too thin in the parish," Cardinal Law said. "That's going to be a problem unless one takes a very narrow view of his life and sets very rigid limits to his schedule.

"I would think that most people welcome the organizational structure of the archdiocese as ensuring a quicker and more orderly disposition of business," he said. "It's in place to take care of the kind of detail no one individual can be expected to handle."

Part of the cardinal's style is his use of a helicopter to get to tightly scheduled meetings. For example, one Sunday in October he left a celebration at St. Patrick's Church in Roxbury to fly to a fund-raiser on the North Shore and then back to celebrate Mass at Holy Cross Cathedral in the South End.

"Presence is important," he said, "and there are times when requests for your presence cluster in such a way, there is no way humanly possible to respond, unless some extraordinary means of transportation is available."

In reference to his visit to Nicaragua, Cardinal Law said he was not seeking to bring pressure on the Sandinista government. His interest in seeing Hasenfus was not meant to make any point about "the substance of the case."

The 80-minute discussion with Ortega was more than diplomatically cordial, although Cardinal Law said he received no reply to pleas that the Managua government allow the return of Monsignor Bismarck Carballo, the spokesman for the Nicaragua bishops conference who was barred from his country after a trip to the United States, and the reopening of the Catholic radio station.

A major priority through 1990, Cardinal Law said, will be work on a commission that is to write a universal catechism. A theological brain trust he intends to establish in Boston will help him contribute to that project, he said. The John Paul II Institute, he said, would also be a resource for New England bishops as they help prepare the pastoral letters of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But Cardinal Law said financing for his new institute will not come out of a proposed $100 million endowment he hopes to raise for the work of the Boston archdiocese. The endowment is meant to "put a floor under a lot of good things going on in the archdiocese," he said.

On community issues, the cardinal said he still hopes to convene regional leaders to discuss Boston's needs, but conceded plans are still indefinite despite his two-year-old proposal.

The cardinal said he decided not to speak out in opposition to the referendums on a state tax cap and on the secession of parts of Boston to form a separate city called Mandela because he was afraid his stand would be counterproductive.

"On Mandela, there were some meetings involving clergy around that issue but it did not seem that a more visible involvement would have helped, and it could have been counterproductive," Cardinal Law said. "I think the result was predictable and I think it was the right result."

But he added that "some very real, legitimate grievances and concerns found expression through support of that measure," and that he will work to see that church personnel help to see that those concerns are addressed.

Despite speculation by political observers that the cardinal miscalculated the appeal of his stands on abortion and aid to private schools, the cardinal said he made no such calculation.

He said his public opposition to abortion "started the day I got here and I hope it will still be going the day I die."

"In season and out of season, election years and not, I will be teaching," he said. "If it happens to be before the electorate, then that's going to be a lightning rod for criticism but that's just going to have to be the way it is."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 11/30/1986.
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