Pope John Paul II has appointed Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark, N.J., an authority on international affairs who has been a strong supporter of social justice and an advocate for the poor, to lead the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.
McCarrick, 70, will succeed the ailing Cardinal James A. Hickey, 80, who is retiring. He will be installed in ceremonies Jan. 3 and 4.
McCarrick leaves the nation's seventh-largest diocese for Washington, which has 510,000 Catholics, about a third the size of Newark's diocese. But because it is the nation's capital, it is potentially a high-profile pulpit.
"He's a very highly respected bishop among the other bishops in the United States," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who is an authority on U.S. bishops. "He's one of the bishops' experts on international affairs, which makes Washington a nice spot for him."
Washington is also one of the archdioceses whose leaders are traditionally elevated as cardinals, which would make McCarrick one of the pope's closest advisers. Many church observers expect McCarrick, with recently appointed Archbishop Edward M. Egan of New York, to receive the appointment at the next consistory, the Vatican assembly at which the pope announces new cardinals, which is expected in February.
At a Washington news conference yesterday, McCarrick called himself "the servant of the Church of Washington."
"I know you all appreciate the wisdom of the very popular expression, `Life begins at 70,'" he said. "Well, here I am, beginning again. I am still a workaholic, and thank God I am strong enough to keep working hard. I wish I were a holier man, more prayerful, more trusting in God, wiser and courageous. But here I am, with all my faults and all my needs, and we will work together."
Some observers questioned why the Vatican would appoint a man who theoretically can serve only five years in such a visible post. Church law states that bishops must submit their resignations at age 75, though the pope does not have to accept it.
The Rev. Richard McBrien, a University of Notre Dame theologian who is an expert on the workings of the Vatican, guesses McCarrick's appointment was a reward from the pope, giving him an opportunity to be a cardinal. McCarrick was considered a top contender for the New York post that went to Egan.
"I think this is very much a personal appointment by the pope. It is the pope trying to do a good turn for someone who has been loyal to him," McBrien said. "But what can he do in less than five years? One would have expected appointment of a younger man."
McCarrick was born in New York and was ordained by Cardinal Francis Spellman in 1958. He earned a doctorate in sociology from Catholic University in Washington, where in his first assignment as a priest he served as an assistant chaplain, and later as dean of students and the director of development. He was appointed the first bishop of Metuchen, N.J., in 1981 and moved in 1986 to Newark, which has more than 1.4 million Catholics.
His new archdiocese comprises the District of Columbia and Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties. He will serve with Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore and Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli of Wilmington, Del., on the Maryland Catholic Conference, the church's statewide public policy arm.
"One of things I know we'll be talking about is how we can be of assistance to the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland in asking for more money for drug rehabilitation efforts," said Keeler, who calls McCarrick a close friend. "We are interested in a whole range of services to the poor. I know this is an area of great interest to [him]."