Cardinal-elect Robert McElroy meets the press

Under the quiet shade of a magnolia tree, Bishop Robert McElroy told of the flood of texts that awoke him at 3:30 a.m. Sunday.

The spiritual leader of San Diego and Imperial County Roman Catholics on Tuesday said he saw only titles: congratulations, congratulations, congratulations.

“Congratulations on what?” McElroy thought.

It was news that Pope Francis had named him to the Sacred College of Cardinals — the only active American west of Houston. Francis wanted to have a cardinal on the West Coast, McElroy suggested.

Now addressed as cardinal-elect, McElroy, 68, was asked if he said a little prayer.

No, a big one, he replied — “several prayers because I was stunned and so shocked by this. Prayer of thanksgiving.”

But as a 25-minute press conference wrapped up at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Bay Park, McElroy was asked about the prospect of his becoming pope.

He replied in a blink.

“I don’t think an American should be pope,” he told a collection of TV crews.

The United States has so much power “in so many levels,” he said, that having an American pope would be a “counterpoint to the witness that the church has to continue to be giving.”

He added: “I would oppose any American being elected pope” even though he didn’t think it would ever be in the cards.

On foreign trips, he said, “you see all of these different perspectives, and the world looks quite different from our reference points. That doesn’t mean our reference points are wrong. But it means those wider perspectives need to be added to it.”

Cardinal-elect Robert McElroy speaks.

McElroy parried queries on serious issues — the priest-abuse scandal, his defense of giving communion to politicians who support abortion rights and whether married men, or even women, should be allowed to become ordained priests.

And also some less serious: How well did he speak Italian? Did he go back to sleep after the early morning texts?

(He said he studied Italian more 30 years ago while earning a doctorate in moral theology at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “I can use it a bit when I’m over there, but I’m certainly far from fluent.” And no — he didn’t go back to sleep. He was under pressure to release a reaction statement.)

McElroy also gave an update on his health in the wake of four-way bypass heart surgery in November, revealing he was treated at Scripps Mercy Hospital.

His chest was opened, he said, not because of a heart attack “episode” but because fluid was found in his lung — and four blocked arteries.

He said he was “shocked” at having no complications. He felt “no pain” afterward, a relative rarity, his doctors said.

On what he called “the abuse crisis” — a major issue among 8,000 attending church “listening sessions” with him in late 2018 — he said: “Clearly people were angry about how it was handled.”

He offered Tuesday: “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.”

The biggest shame wasn’t the fact individual priests abused minors — “all groups in society (suffer) that,” he said.

“The great problem in the church was when they got reassigned after it was known they had abused,” he said. “That was a terrible, sinful pattern in the life of the church.”

McElroy again decried the communion ban on abortion-rights supporting leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was first hit by Salvatore Cordileone, the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco (and former San Diego prelate), and then in other dioceses.

He said he wrote his first article on the issue in 2004 when Catholic John Kerry was running for president.

He said it was “destructive” to forbid political leaders from receiving communion based on their actions in public policy.

“Partly because it diminished the eucharist, in my view,” he said. “It contributes toward the weaponization of the eucharist. And even more so, it contributes toward the increased partisanship within our society.”

He bemoaned a deep division “seeping into the life of the church. That’s a great tragedy. So it’s important that we not go in that direction.”

In 2019, as the only North American attending a gathering of Amazon Basin bishops at a Vatican synod, McElroy heard how some areas of nine countries could offer Mass only once a year — a “radical shortage” of priests, he said.

So by a two-thirds vote, he said, solutions were proposed — including ordaining select married men as priests and allowing women to become deacons — one step below the priesthood.

“At least those are live issues now,” said McElroy, who will receive his red cardinal cap Aug. 27 at St. Peter’s in Rome.

(Southern California, especially in the Hispanic-heavy border areas of San Diego, isn’t hurting so much for priests and parishioners, he said, but a youth outreach strategy devised before the pandemic still needs to be rolled out.)

In a narrow courtyard, McElroy stood only feet away from the statue of Saint Martin de Porres — apt for a pandemic era press conference.

Born in Peru in the 1570s — the illegitimate son to a Spaniard and a freed slave from Panama — Martin became the patron saint of people of mixed race, innkeepers, barbers and public health workers.

“During an epidemic in Lima, many of the friars in the Convent of the Rosary became very ill,” said one biography. “Locked away in a distant section of the convent, they were kept away from the professed. However, on more than one occasion, Martin passed through the locked doors to care for the sick.”

Like Martin, McElroy attends to his flock. He recounted his relatively mundane schedule Sunday after being elevated to the heights of the Catholic Church.

After taking congratulatory calls from long-ago people in his life, including high school classmates and Stanford roommates, McElroy returned to the business of a bishop.

He attended a 10:30 a.m. confirmation at St. Thomas More Church in Oceanside and later drove to Brawley for a confirmation there at 6 p.m.

He hasn’t spoken with Pope Francis since the news.

“It would not be a normal thing to speak to the pope,” said McElroy, stressing his pleasure at being able to stay in San Diego.

“That delights me,” he said.