SAN DIEGO — Hours after Pope Francis made the announcement to a crowd in St. Peter’s Square, pastors here shared the epic news with the faithful at Sunday Masses: the Holy Father had elevated their bishop to a cardinal, a first for the Diocese of San Diego.
“Normally, dioceses don’t have cardinals, usually it’s archdioceses that have them,” Father Efraín Bautista explained at the start of the 11 a.m. Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Bonita. “But the Holy Father has given us a beautiful gift.”
At the conclusion of his regular Sunday audience, Pope Francis had announced 21 new cardinals, with San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy the only one tapped from the United States.
Pope Francis will install Cardinal-designate McElroy, 68, to his new rank in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on Aug. 27. As a member of the College of Cardinals, he will be able to vote for the next pope.
Those who have known him for any length of time said “Father Bob,” as one once called him, had always displayed remarkable gifts of wisdom, compassion and a pastoral zeal, and was perfectly suited to serve alongside the Pope.
In a statement, the Cardinal-designate said he was “stunned and deeply surprised” by his selection. He received the news in a 3 a.m. telephone call from Rome on Sunday morning.
“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.
“In this moment, I give thanks for those who have contributed profoundly to my life and priesthood: my family, the priests and women religious who helped to form me, and the Catholic community of San Diego and Imperial Counties, whom it is my privilege to lead.”
The Cardinal-designate has led the diocese since 2015. Previously, he served first as a priest and then as auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where he grew up.
That’s where Father John Hurley, CSP, met him some 31 years ago when Hurley was appointed as pastor of historic Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. He and Father McElroy would meet regularly for the next six years, developing a close friendship.
Eight years ago, Pope Francis challenged bishops across the world to reimagine and re-energize their work with families. In response, Bishop McElroy, now leading the San Diego Diocese, convened a “synod” to consult members of the Catholic community about how to better engage and serve the wide variety of families that live in the region.
The bishop tapped Father Hurley to coordinate the synod, called “Embracing the Joy of Love.” He was leading an initiative at the time for the Paulists to develop new strategies for evangelization.
“It was a joyful experience for me to collaborate with a long-time friend,” Father Hurley recalled.
In a characteristic that defines his diocesan leadership, Bishop McElroy pledged to implement the recommendations the community members made in the synod. As a result, the diocese launched a new department, the Office for Family Life and Spirituality, to meet the wide variety of needs of the newly engaged, married couples and families living in the region.
Three years later, Bishop McElroy asked him to lead a second synod, this one focused on better engaging young adults in the diocese. The recommendations the young adult participants made are being implemented at the diocese now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted.
Both experiences allowed Father Hurley the opportunity to “encounter on many occasions (Bishop’s) pastoral way to embrace the challenges the faithful experience,” he said.
Bishop McElroy’s appointment as a cardinal “not only gives me hope for the Church as he will continue to be a close advisor to the Successor of Peter, Pope Francis, it gives me much hope as a priest. Hope in the midst of division on so many issues in our country and in our Church… He is a wise and learned man of faith and has the heart of a true shepherd!”
San Diego Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan remembers that he first met “Father Bob” McElroy in the late 1980s, also in the Bay Area, at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park. He was then a theology student and Father McElroy lived at the seminary while completing his PhD in political science at Stanford.
“It was very clear to me that this very intelligent man was showing the church how to be pastoral,” Bishop Dolan recalled. “When he became Bishop of San Diego, I was pleased to see that his pastoral zeal had not changed but was even more focused.”
Bishop Dolan said that the Holy Father “has selected a shepherd after his own heart. The Gospel of accompaniment proclaimed by Pope Francis has reached our diocese through the life and ministry of Cardinal-designate McElroy.”
Indeed, he has been one of the greatest champions of Pope Francis’s vision for the Church among bishops in the U.S., particularly on such issues as the protection of the environment, immigration and social justice.
He’s supported the Pope’s simple call for the church hierarchy at all levels to listen to diverse voices at the grassroot level and allow them to have a role in the life of the Church.
Father Emmet Farrell said he was “almost expecting” for Bishop McElroy to be named to a top Vatican post, given “his unwavering support for Pope Francis’s pastoral approach.”
Father Farrell leads the diocese’s Care for Creation ministry, which encourages parishes and schools to do whatever they can to protect the environment. This is an issue that Bishop McElroy has strongly supported at the local, national and international level.
“Bishop McElroy has given clear and strong support for our Creation Care Ministry, even when many cling to a position of indifference at a time of extreme crisis,” he said.
Father Michael Pham has known Bishop McElroy since he paid a pastoral visit in 2015 to St. Therese Parish, in San Carlos, where he served. Bishop tapped him to serve in various committees and then appointed him Vicar General, leader of the diocese’s Office for Ethnic and Intercultural Communities.
He, too, said the Cardinal-designate is gifted, both intellectually and pastorally, to serve the Church on the universal stage. Father Pham called Bishop McElroy’s knowledge of the Church and its structure “truly remarkable.”
“He is a deep thinker and very wise in his decision-making,” Father Pham said. “He is very caring and mindful of the needs of all peoples and cultures. I am very blessed to watch him in action and to learn from him.
“Our diocese is truly blessed to have such a great leader to guide our church.”
The world stage that is the Vatican was on the mind of the diocese’s Chancellor, “Marioly” Galván. She said Cardinal-designate McElroy will be able to raise the pastoral needs of the local church to Pope Francis, other cardinals and the Roman curia.
The diocese is currently consulting its faithful in San Diego and Imperial Counties to identify those needs in the latest synod, which “is close to Cardinal-designate McElroy’s heart.” She noted that he has once more pledged to implement its recommendations to strengthen the voice of the faithful at all levels of the diocese.
Back at Corpus Christi Church, Father Bautista asked the Mass-goers to pray for their shepherd.
“We have to entrust our Cardinal-designate to the mercy and love of our heavenly Father,” the pastor said. “That’s the responsibility of each of us as members of his flock. We have to ask our Lord to guide him in this new work that he has been called to do.”