Washington — The day before a newly elected Pope Francis was to be formally installed at the Vatican in 2013, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was celebrating Mass in St. Peter's Basilica when he passed out at the altar and had to be rushed to the hospital.
It was a scary moment, and especially odd to see McCarrick stricken; even at 82, the energetic former archbishop of Washington always had a reputation as one of the most peripatetic churchmen in the Catholic hierarchy.
Doctors in Rome quickly diagnosed a heart problem -- McCarrick would eventually get a pacemaker -- and the cardinal was soon back at his guest room in the U.S. seminary in Rome when the phone rang. It was Francis. The two men had known each other for years, back when the Argentine pope was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires. McCarrick assured Francis that he was doing fine.
"I guess the Lord isn't done with me yet," he told the pope.
"Or the devil doesn't have your accommodations ready!" Francis shot back with a laugh.
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McCarrick loves to tell that story, because he loves to tell good stories and because he has a sense of humor as keen as the pope's. But the exchange also says a lot about the improbable renaissance McCarrick is enjoying as he prepares to celebrate his 84th birthday in July.
McCarrick is one of a number of senior churchmen who were more or less put out to pasture during the eight-year pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. But now Francis is pope, and prelates like Cardinal Walter Kasper (another old friend of McCarrick's) and McCarrick himself are back in the mix and busier than ever.
McCarrick in particular has been on a tear in the past year, traveling to the Philippines to console typhoon victims and visiting geopolitical pivot points such as China and Iran for sensitive talks on religious freedom and nuclear proliferation.
"I truly believe there should be a religious channel in handling things where you do not have the diplomatic channel," he told NBC's "Meet the Press" last month after a trip to Tehran.
McCarrick travels regularly to the Middle East and was in the Holy Land for Francis' visit in May. "The bad ones, they never die!" the pope teased McCarrick again when he saw him.
In classic McCarrick style, the cardinal returned to Washington at 2 p.m. a few days later, and at 4:30 that same afternoon, he was on Capitol Hill buttonholing House Speaker John Boehner in yet another effort to urge the Republican leader -- and fellow Catholic -- to get moving on immigration reform.
"Every time I see him, he gets closer," McCarrick said with a twinkle in his eye. "I tell him, 'John, you could be a great hero!' "
McCarrick loves the action, of course, and he is well-suited to his roving ambassador role. He speaks several languages fluently and he seems to know everybody -- and everybody knows him.
Sometimes McCarrick's travels abroad are at the behest of the Vatican, sometimes on behalf of Catholic Relief Services. Occasionally, the U.S. State Department asks him to make a trip, as it did when he visited the Central African Republic in April with Imam Mohamed Magid of the Islamic Society of North America and Leith Anderson, head of the National Association of Evangelicals.
The country has been ravaged by ethnic and interreligious brutality, often perpetrated by the Christian majority, and the U.S. government thought this delegation could provide a witness of interfaith harmony even though they could only stay during the daylight hours because of the threat of violence.
"They naturally think of me because I travel a lot and I worked a lot with Muslims," McCarrick said during a recent conversation at his office at a seminary in the Maryland suburbs.
The interview took place during a rare lull: McCarrick was heading to Armenia for meetings with Orthodox Church leaders on Syria the next week, followed by meetings in Rome, which scratched a long-planned vacation with his extended family. "I knew it would never happen," he sighed.
But Francis, who has put the Vatican back on the geopolitical stage, knows that when he needs a savvy back-channel operator, he can turn to McCarrick, as he did for the Armenia trip. "Why don't you ask McCarrick to go?" the cardinal said of the Vatican's thinking. "He's usually willing to do these crazy things."
So what does McCarrick want to accomplish in his hyperactive retirement?
"I'm just trying to get people to talk to each other, and hopefully to get people to like each other," he said. "I'm not the smartest guy in the world, by any stretch. I'm not a great theologian. I'm not anything. But I'm not lazy. My great gift is presence."
"My shtick," he added, "is that we are all brothers and sisters in God's one human family."
That's a line he learned from his mentor, the late Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York, where McCarrick was ordained a priest. McCarrick quickly rose through the clerical ranks, becoming a bishop and then archbishop in New Jersey, and finally a cardinal in Washington in 2001. He retired in 2006 and was sort of spinning his wheels under Benedict. Then Francis was elected, and everything changed.
"Pope Benedict is a wonderful man and was a good friend of mine before he became pope," McCarrick said. "But he was anxious to bring the church back to where he thought it should be, and I guess I wasn't one of those who he thought would help him on that. I would have obviously done what he asked."
McCarrick was always seen as a moderate, centrist presence in the hierarchy, a telegenic pastor who could present the welcoming face of the church, no matter what the circumstances.
That made him indispensable at times, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops became increasingly polarized. But it also made him a favorite target for conservatives who disdained McCarrick's style.
The cardinal, however, never wavered. "If you stand in the middle, you can meet both sides. If you go all to one side, you're going to lose the other, and vice versa," he said.
"In medio stat virtus," he added, citing the wisdom of the ancient church. "Virtue is in the middle. Strength is in the middle."
If that sets some teeth on edge, critics have a tougher argument to make since Francis says much the same thing. The pope did so quite forcefully in a homily just a few days later in which he criticized "ideologues" and praised compromise as "sane realism" on behalf of peace.
That sort of moderation is also characteristic of McCarrick's successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who has also become a key figure in the new pontificate.
McCarrick has high praise for Wuerl and always reminds interviewers that Wuerl heads the D.C. archdiocese, not him. They also operate on different ecclesiastical planes -- McCarrick racking up the frequent flier miles and lobbying on Capitol Hill while Wuerl works the inside track between Rome and the U.S.
McCarrick is, of course, realistic about his own mortality. Age is his real foe, and even McCarrick can only needle and negotiate with Father Time so much. For now, though, the pacemaker is working.
"My heart is still beating." The knees "are killing me," he said, and he's been warned that he will have to start taking an aide along on his trips, which doesn't make him happy.
But he'll keep moving as long as he can. "What else would I do? I get up at 5 a.m., I shower and shave and say my prayers and go to chapel," he said. "Then I come back and have breakfast. And then what do you do? You go to work."
"We work while the light lasts," he said, invoking a favorite phrase from the Gospels.