San Diego bishop says he was ‘stunned,’ ‘humbled’ by being named a cardinal

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, seen here during a Mass in 2020., was among 21 new cardinals named by Pope Francis on May 29. (CNS/David Maung, Diocese of San Diego)

By Catholic News Service

SAN DIEGO (CNS) — Cardinal-designate Robert W. McElroy told reporters May 31 that when he learned he is among the 21 new cardinals Pope Francis will create Aug. 27, “I said a big prayer.”

“I said several prayers because I was stunned and so shocked by this,” said the 68-year-old prelate who heads the San Diego Diocese. He is the only American in the group the pope announced May 29.

“It was prayer in gratitude for my family and the many people who have helped form me over the years and thanksgiving to God for all their roles in my life,” he said during a 25-minute news conference held outside the diocesan pastoral center.

After the consistory, he will be among 132 cardinals under the age of 80, who will be eligible to vote in a conclave. The number of those over 80 will be 97, bringing the total number of cardinals to 229.

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego celebrates the “Pentecost Mass for All People” outside Good Shepherd Church on May 22, 2021. (CNS/Howard Lipin, Diocese of San Diego)

A native of San Francisco, Bishop McElroy is the sixth bishop of San Diego. He was installed April 15, 2015. Ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of San Francisco April 12, 1980, he was an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese from September 2010 until he was named to head the Diocese of San Diego in 2015.

“By naming Bishop Robert McElroy as a cardinal, Pope Francis has shown his pastoral care for the church in the United States,” said Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “I have known and have had the privilege of working with Cardinal-designate McElroy for many years.”

As brother bishops, he said, they have worked together “on many issues and initiatives in service” to the USCCB and the California Catholic Conference, which is the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops.

“His strong faith and the pastoral concern for the faithful he has shown in his diocese will serve the global church well,” Archbishop Gomez said in a May 29 statement. “Please join me in praying for the continued ministry of Bishop McElroy.”

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco also sent his congratulations to Cardinal-designate McElroy.

The San Diego bishop told reporters he did not know ahead of the pope’s announcement he would be made a cardinal. He awoke that morning to a flood of calls, texts and emails congratulating him.

“I thought to myself, ‘Congratulations on what?’” he said.

Cardinal-designate McElroy said he is deeply honored to be named to the College of Cardinals and also is happy to know he will be staying in San Diego. “That delights me,” he said.

In a statement he released May 29, he said he was “stunned and deeply surprised by the news” the pope had named him a cardinal.

“My prayer is that in this ministry I might be of additional service to the God who has graced me on so many levels in my life. And I pray also that I can assist the Holy Father in his pastoral renewal of the church,” he said.

Leading the Catholic community of San Diego and Imperial counties, which make up the diocese, “is my privilege,” he added.

Cardinal-designate McElroy said at the news conference he believes the pope “wanted to have a cardinal on the West Coast.”

“There’s no cardinal now west of Houston,” he said, referring to Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston. “There was a desire to have a cardinal on the West Coast, so that was part of it.”

But he said another reason for the pope choosing him could be that San Diego is a border diocese with ministries that reflect the priority the pontiff places on the church and society welcoming migrants and refugees unconditionally.

“As you know this pope is very concerned about migrants and refugees, and we’re a diocese on the border so we face all of those issues and we have a very large immigrant population here and particularly within the Catholic community,” Cardinal-designate McElroy added.

Like the pope, the San Diego prelate talks often of “mutual accompaniment” by a bishop with the faithful.

“This image of the church as the pilgrim people of God demands that the ministry of a bishop be enmeshed in a culture of mutual accompaniment that suffuses the local church,” then-Bishop McElroy said in his homily during his installation Mass as San Diego’s bishop.

“The theological foundation for this culture of mutual accompaniment lies in the priesthood of all believers and the universal call to holiness,” he said.

He was one of only two U.S. bishops personally named by the pope to participate in the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon Oct. 6-27, 2019. The other was Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston. The synod was predominantly comprised of Latin American prelates.

The only other American there was Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, who participated in his role as prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

As the synod opened, the San Diego bishop said ecology and synodality were at the heart of the Amazon discussions. He has urged his brother bishops in the U.S. to fully embrace the pope’s “Laudato Si’” encyclical on caring for the environment.

“Pope Francis has a series of initiatives that he’s trying to bring to the life of the church,” Cardinal-designate McElroy told reporters May 31. “And I have tried to take those initiatives and plant them here.”

When asked about prohibiting Catholic politicians from Communion based on their public policies supporting legalized abortion, he said such a move “is destructive … partly because it diminishes the Eucharist in my view and it contributes toward the weaponization (of Communion), and even more so, it contributes to the increased partisanship within our society.”

“We sadly live in a society which is deeply divided along partisan and ideological lines, and we see some of that seeping into the life of the church,” he said. Such division is “a great tragedy,” he said. “I think it’s important that we not go in that direction.”

Asked about the clergy abuse crisis, he said that “the great problem in the church was when they (priest abusers) got reassigned after it was known they had abused. That was a terrible, sinful pattern in the life of the church.”

“We can’t change it by putting it behind us. We need to always remember what happened, and how we got into a very bad pattern,” he said.

On Aug. 13, 2019, then-Bishop McElroy gathered all 2,500-plus diocesan employees for the first time in the diocese’s history to announce an expansion of the fight against the sexual abuse of children not just within the local church but in the greater society.

Among other actions, he called on every diocesan employee to report child abuse they suspected was occurring, not just so-called mandated reporters obligated by law to do so, such as teachers and priests.

He also announced formation of a task force to develop programming to raise awareness among the diocese’s families at schools and parishes of the epidemic of child abuse and what they could do to prevent it and to help its victims to heal.

Cardinal-designate McElroy also gave an update on his health. In November 2021, he underwent four-way bypass heart surgery. It was a planned procedure that he and his doctors began discussing following test results he received over the summer of that year. Fluid was found in his lung and doctors found he had four blocked arteries.

He had no complications, he said, and “felt no pain” after the surgery.

As the news conference wrapped up, he was asked if it were possible he could become pope one day.

“I don’t think an American should be pope,” he replied, explaining that the U.S. has power “in so many levels,” that if the church were led by an American pope, it would be a “counterpoint to the witness that the church has to continue to be giving.”

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