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Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez, head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Dominican Republic, came to the city to promote a television evangelization program for his fellow countrymen and other Hispanics living in the United States and Canada.
"We want to establish a spiritual chain," Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez said. "We have found that [Hispanics] like to speak in Spanish and you have to talk to them in their own language and talk to them about their folklore, music and culture."
The cardinal himself already has two television shows in the Caribbean island and is hoping to syndicate at least one of them to areas with a large Hispanic population such as Massachusetts.
He said he has had the idea for the project since he was president of CELAM, the Spanish acronym for Latin American Council of Bishops.
"I see a great need to have the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed with clarity," the cardinal said. "This continent needs the Gospel."
Helping him with the project are the cardinals of Washington, D.C., Mexico, Brazil, Honduras and Chile.
On Nov. 16, Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez celebrated Mass at St. Mary-Immaculate Conception Church. This was a special day for the cardinal: He was celebrating his 22nd anniversary of being named Archbishop of Santo Domingo in 1981.
"What better way to celebrate than with people that I love?" he told the 1,000 people who crowded into the church.
Coming to Lawrence was a sort of homecoming for the cardinal. At St. Mary-Immaculate Conception Church, he met Juana Caceres, 89, who was his first CCD teacher in the Dominican Republic.
Caceres said she remembers the cardinal being a smart boy. “He was a very good student,” said Caceres, who came to the United States 15 years ago. “Look what he has achieved.”
Some consider Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez among the top 20 candidates to be the next pope. Yet, when asked, the cardinal dismisses the notion, noting that any cardinal under the age of 80 is eligible for the papacy.
"I don't think about those things," the cardinal said. "I think the Holy Spirit has already chosen its candidate and that is the one who will be chosen ... We have to pray so that the Lord sends us the pope that the Church needs to replace John Paul II, who has been a great leader."
If he were chosen to be pope, however, Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez would bring a lot to the office.
To begin with, he speaks English, French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Latin.
But his proficiency with languages is not his only asset. In his years of ministry, he worked for 15 years in his home diocese of La Vega. When the diocese of San Francisco de Macoris, the second diocese in the Dominican Republic was formed in 1978, Pope John Paul II appointed him as its first bishop. In 1991, 10 years after Lopez Rodriguez was named Archbishop of Santo Domingo, Pope John Paul made him a cardinal.
Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez was also instrumental in establishing the country’s Catholic university in 1987.
He hosted Pope John Paul’s visit to the Caribbean country in 1992 to open the Latin American Conference in Santo Domingo. Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez has also been a special delegate for the pope, including the ceremonies celebrating the 500th anniversary of the first Mass celebrated in Honduras last August and the Fourth National Marian Congress in Ecuador.
Father William F. Walters, OSA, pastor of St. Mary-Immaculate Conception Parish, said that over the years the parish has welcomed the Irish, Polish, Portuguese, Italians, German, French, Lithuanians and, since the late 1960s, Hispanics.
"This is a continuation of all of that," Father Walters said.
He said the cardinal’s visit was good for both the cardinal and Dominicans in Lawrence.
"It's a sense that they are thought of and cared for," Father Walters said. "I think it's nice for him to see how active and involved so many Dominicans are."
Speaking after the Mass, Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez reflected on several key issues affecting the Church today, including youth and clergy abuse scandal.
"We have to understand and listen to youth ... We have to let youth express themselves and we have to have an open mind to understand them, even when they are rebelling," said the cardinal, who has devoted much of his ministry working with youth and couples.
He said he holds gatherings with teenagers throughout the year. At the end of each, he has question and answer sessions during which youth ask him questions and voice their concerns.
He does not believe the youth are a lost cause.
"It's completely the opposite," Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez said. "I'm convinced that if we teach them about the faith, we help them, we're sincere with them, listen to their doubts, their concerns, their problems, there's hope. If we explain the reality to them, they will be open. You have to be sincere and not dismiss any of their questions."
The cardinal also praised the vocation of marriage. “Marriage is as much a vocation as mine,” he said.
He also said he does not regret becoming a priest and not being married. “I’ve accepted my celibacy with absolute liberty and I have no regret, which is why I am a totally happy man,” he said.
Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez does not believe allowing priests to be married would solve the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. “Celibacy is a vocation, a charism. Whoever has it, let him live it and the one who doesn’t, should not get into it.”
"Just as we have priests with this problem [of abusing children], if we have married priests, we'll be faced with infidelity," the cardinal said.
"I don't think the solution is having married priests because if you don't have a married man with an authentic spiritual life, he will be looking here and there," he continued. "A priest is a person who is constantly in contact with people and if a woman with a crisis comes to him, it's easy for her to find refuge in him, even if he is married."
Instead, he believes priests who are aware of their sexual problem should “have the honesty and courage to withdraw from the religious life” so they may live their lives as they choose.
"The most radical solution to this problem is getting rid of seminarians who have this problem," Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez said. "We have to form authentic priests who are spiritually strong. Otherwise, the problem will never go away."
Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez said one of the biggest challenges facing the Catholic Church today is secularism, a way of thinking that dismisses the need for God. “We don’t believe that is so,” Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez said. “We understand that God is the creator of everything we see and is the father of all men and women without distinction of color and race.”
Because of the increase in secularism, he believes the Church should work harder to evangelize.
Noting Pope John Paul’s 1998 encyclical about faith and reason (“Fides et Ratio”), he said, “We don’t have to invent anything. What Jesus Christ preached 20 centuries ago is the truth that the world needs. None of this is against science.”