VATICAN CITY — It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the moment: the pope elevating the bishop of San Diego to the College of Cardinals amid the towering Renaissance grandeur of the largest church in the world, the holy shrine of St. Peter’s Basilica.
But it’s the small, tender moments, as Pope Francis highlighted in his homily, that stood out surrounding that event, moments that over time constructed not only relationships but bonds to the Church and to God Himself.
The pope elevated Bishop Robert W. McElroy to the rank of cardinal, along with 19 other churchmen, on Aug. 27, at an assembly called a consistory. He was the first bishop from the 86-year-old Diocese of San Diego to become a cardinal, and the only one from North America.
At the consistory, the pope presided over the hour-long ceremony in the packed basilica amid stifling summer heat.
One by one, each cardinal-designate knelt before the pope, each wearing a red cassock to symbolize their willingness to shed their blood for the Church. He placed the iconic red biretta on their head, and a signet ring on their finger.
Just before Cardinal McElroy got up, the Holy Father leaned forward, touched his own chest and spoke to him softly.
“He asked me how I was feeling after my heart surgery last year,” the cardinal said later that day during a visiting session with family members and friends. “I told him I was fine.”
Around 200 people from every stage of the cardinal’s life were in Rome for the milestone, including family members from the San Francisco area, where he grew up. Also on hand were friends from elementary through graduate school, several cardinals, 40 priests and 14 diocesan seminarians.
They attended a dinner in his honor hosted by U.S. Ambassador Joe Donnelly and his wife, his first Mass as a cardinal at St. Patrick’s Catholic American Parish, and the closing Mass for the College of Cardinals. The latter followed a two-day meeting of the College of Cardinals on the subject of reform of the curia.
Many of his friends joyfully shared the small moments of kindness they had received from the cardinal over the years, moments that helped to illuminate his extraordinary ministry.
Merle Talens has known the cardinal for decades, first as parishioner at St. Gregory Church in San Mateo, where he served as pastor for 14 years, and then as his assistant on special projects.
While there, he encouraged her to organize a ministry for fellow Filipinos to provide them an opportunity to not only celebrate their own traditions but also to share them with the entire parish. Thus began a vibrant ministry that continues today, she said.
When he was elevated to auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, he knew who he wanted by his side.
“He was so sweet. He asked me to carry the staff that a bishop carries,” she recalled. “I was so humbled and proud. The bishop has always been so kind.”
They have kept in contact since he left to lead the San Diego Diocese. Last May 29, she found out that he would be elevated to cardinal. She emailed him congratulations. Before she knew it, her phone was ringing.
“He asked if I would attend the consistory,” she said. “I told him that I would love to.”
Five people from her parish attended the ceremony, including her son, John, whose two children were baptized by then Father McElroy.
Laura Martin-Spencer met then Auxiliary Bishop McElroy in the Bay Area, where she worked with young adult Catholics.
“He could have taken more charge and told them what he thought,” she recalled, since he was a bishop after all. “He really empowered each person to speak. He was a ‘listening bishop’ from the very beginning.”
Years later, she and her husband were looking to leave the area for new jobs.
“I thought about what bishop would I want to work for? I just always remember having such a positive experience.”
Today, she serves as Director of Pastoral Formation at the Diocese of San Diego’s seminary.
For his part, seminarian Marc Gandolfo has had dinners with Bishop McElroy for the six years he’s been in the priestly formation program.
“Each and every time, the first question he always asks — and this really touches me — is, ‘How are you doing?’”