Obituary: Cardinal John Krol

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Typical of American press myth-making on the subject of Cardinal John Krol - "Krol the Pole" as he was invariably and inevitably known - was an article by Carl Bernstein in Time magazine in February 1992. This alleged a "holy alliance" between Pope and President 10 years previously to undo Yalta and rescue Poland from the Reds.

Bernstein cites CIA sources as saying, "Krol hit it off very well with President [Ronald] Reagan and was a constant source of advice and contact." William Casey, head of the CIA, and Judge William Clark, Reagan's National Security Adviser, both "devout Roman Catholics", "went to Krol, confident he was the one who really understood the situation in Poland".

To believe any of this, you haveto swallow a number of myths. The first is that "Krol the Pole" actually knew something about Poland. True, his father was born there, but Jan Jzef was not and did not seriously speak Polish. He knew "Krol" meant "king", could say dzienkuje (thank you) in restaurants and dzicki Bogu (thank God) in church, and was capable of intoning the first lines of "Sto Lat!" ("May you live to be a hundred years!") But you didn't have to be Polish for that.

Krol notoriously launched into "Sto Lat!" on 16 October 1978, as the champagne corks popped for the election of Karol (= Krol) Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, as the first non-Italian Pope for 350 years. Time concluded: "John Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia . . . was the American churchman closest to the Pope."

No doubt that is what Time would expect. But one characteristic of Pope John Paul is that he does not have intimates, least of all Polish Americans who, in his view, are more American than Polish. Canadian Poles, never popped into the melting pot, are different, retaining their languages and something of the culture.

In American eyes Krol may have looked sufficiently Polish, but that is not how Poles saw him. Those "devout Roman Catholics", Casey and Clark, who sought him out to "discuss covert operations" with "the one who really understood the situation" were displaying their naivete. Krol did indeed push for sending the funds for Rural Solidarity via the clergy in Poland, but that was what any sensible person would have done and did not mean he could distinguish Tarnw from Torun.

The "devout Roman Catholics" are another myth. In the United States that means belonging to the Knights of Malta, rich businessmen who according to Time combine an appreciation of "the moral force of the Pope and the teachings of their Church with fierce anti-Communism and their notion of American democracy". Krol was chaplain to the Knights of Malta or rather, since that is too lowly a title, their Grand Protector. If the Knights in Europe count their quarterings, in North America they count their dollars.

The US bishops are instinctive Democrats, but among them is usually a Republican. This was Krol's speciality in the pre-John Paul II era when a Polish-American bishop was a rarity among the massed ranks of Irish-Americans who had dominated the Church since the 19th century. The "revival of ethnicity" did not bring him any kudos. It merely led to endless "Polish jokes" about incompetence and light-bulbs and impracticality.

Krol's career was built on shrewdness and being in the right place at the right time. The fourth of eight children of a butcher in Cleveland, Ohio, he was ordained priest in 1937, doing graduate work in canon law at the Catholic University in Washington. There he had the good fortune or the prescience to meet the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Amleto Cicognani, to whom he made himself useful as chauffeur, automobiles being a novelty in the clerical world.

Legend has it that when Cicognani and a clerical friend were discussing a knotty canonical point in the back of the car, their silent driver astonished them on arrival by producing a neat and elegant solution. He wrote it up and was named auxiliary Bishop of Cleveland in 1953.

In 1958 the newly elected Pope John XXIII called Cicognani, the forgotten man of Vatican diplomacy, back to Rome and made him Cardinal Secretary of State. He did not forget his chauffeur-canonist, and in 1961 Krol advanced to Philadelphia, one of the few dioceses in the US which guarantee a cardinal's hat. In New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman, for long the king-maker of the hierarchy, read the news in the New York Times and snorted, "You'd think they'd let a fella know before they do this kinda thing." But the world was changing, even for "Spelly".

Krol was the coming man, l'uomo ascendente. He became one of the six under-secretaries of the Second Vatican Council. There was one for each of the major languages. His task was to keep business on schedule, paper moving and the organisation efficient. It was not a theological post, but it brought him into contact with Cardinal Pericle Felici, a dry canon lawyer who ran the Council like a brusque headmaster and was capable of making good jokes in Latin. His performance was more admired than his theology. Krol learned much from Felici, and departed from his line only on the question of Jews: he would have no watering down of the Council's statements on the Jews. He was thinking of the folks back home.

The Council ended in 1965. In 1967, Krol was made a cardinal. His main interest was in canon law, specialising in marriage about which he was fierce and intransigent. As a long-time "defender of the bond" he argued strongly for written promises for the non-Catholic partner in a "mixed marriage" (now called an inter-faith marriage). He tended to oppose dispensation because "experience teaches that when the availability of a dispensation becomes known requests for it increase and escalate". "Mere whim", he believed, would be blown up into "grave reasons", to the scandal and ultimate detriment of the faithful.

It was a very restrictive view of the role of canon law which can be used to help people in difficuties. That was not Krol's approach. He was opposed to much of what was happening in the post-conciliar Church. The "Call to Action" Congress in Detroit in October 1976 roused him to anger. The congress demanded among other things public accountability of church finances, the ordination of women, local participation in the selection of bishops. Krol denounced the "rebels" who had taken over the meeting and "manipulated a naive group of little old ladies". He set up a task force to counter this menace. Nothing was ever heard from it.

Krol's life was transformed by the election of Karol Wojtyla in 1978. It did not really mean that as "the friend of the Pope" he was now close to decision- making. But Pope John Paul did put him on the committee of cardinals whose task was to oversee the financial operations of the Vatican and, eventually, introduce some clarity and transparency into their dealings.

Here he made a real and positive contribution. He understood real estate and could read a balance-sheet. One suspected he did not much like Mgr Paul Marcinkus, the then chairman of the Vatican Bank - a Chicago Lithuanian to a Cleveland Pole. But he successfully got Cardinal Edmund Szoka, a Grand Rapids Pole, named head of Apsa (the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See) which was where the shortfall lay.

Krol retired from Philadelphia in 1988, three years after the date when he had to tender his resignation. One can only suppose that Pope John Paul II wanted him to hang on. That, in a way, is a tribute to him.

Peter Hebblethwaite

John Joseph Krol, priest: born Cleveland, Ohio 26 October 1910; ordained priest 1937; Professor of Canon Law, St Mary's Seminary, Cleveland 1942; Vice-Chancellor, Diocese of Cleveland 1943-51, Chancellor 1951-53; Titular Bishop of Cadi, Auxiliary Bishop to the Bishop of Cleveland 1953-61; Archbishop of Philadelphia 1961-88; created Cardinal 1967; member, Pontifical Commission for Mass Media Communications 1964-69; Vice-President, National Conference of Catholic Bishops and US Catholics Conference 1966-72, President 1973-75; died Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 3 March 1996.

Peter Hebblethwaite died 18 December 1994