It is one of those dank, dreary nights on Skid Row, when swollen-eyed men hunker beneath cardboard lean-tos and the stench of urine poisons the evening dew.
Inside his residence at St. Vibiana's Cathedral in Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony is rattling doors, a routine security rite before bedtime prayers. Tonight the deadbolt on the 2nd Street door is jammed.
\o7 Clang! Clang! Clang! \f7 Within moments, His Eminence, wielding a hammer, is pounding the twisted deadbolt with the ardor of a television evangelist. It is after 10 o'clock, the door wide open at one of downtown's grittiest crossroads, and the man who will help elect the next Pope--\o7 who could even be the next Pope--\f7 is tending to a thumb-sized chunk of metal.
Someone less impetuous might phone a locksmith or, at the least, summon a fellow priest to keep sentry. Not Mahony. Got a problem? Let's fix it. Now.
"He is not a man ruled by caution," said Msgr. George Niederauer, whose friendship with Mahony dates to the mid-1950s when they were seminarians. "He has enormous faith, great vision for the church, and is a man of real zeal and optimism."
Another colleague, avowedly less admiring, likened the 56-year-old cardinal's approach to living on a high-speed carousel spinning out of control: The ride may seem exhilarating, but you never know how long the other riders can--or really want to--hold on.
It has been nearly seven years since the bishop of Stockton bid farewell to the vineyards and hayfields of the San Joaquin Valley to become the fourth archbishop of Los Angeles, the spiritual leader to 3 million Catholic souls scattered across three Southern California counties and holder of one of the most coveted religious posts in the West.
In a church whose history spans two millennia, and in a city founded by Catholic missionaries more than three centuries ago, Mahony's tenure in Los Angeles is relatively brief. Just one year ago, on June 28, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals, becoming the first Los Angeles-born cardinal and only the third cardinal in the city's history.
Yet Mahony's no-nonsense and fast-paced attitude already has left an indelible mark on the most populous archdiocese in the country.
He has shepherded an ambitious $100-million endowment campaign for parochial schools, undertaken a sweeping restructuring of the chancery's entrenched bureaucracy and led efforts to build church-subsidized housing in poor neighborhoods. In a major focus of his ministry, he has reached out to Latinos, most recently by starting a Spanish-language church newspaper that offers everything from recipes to advice columns.
But the Hollywood-born prelate has stretched his ministry far beyond the parish halls of his most faithful. Despite a deceptively low-key and uninspired delivery, Mahony has spoken his mind on everything from AIDS to nuclear war, becoming an enduring but unlikely celebrity in a city that often measures fame in cold cash, not heated convictions.
Admirers praise the lanky archbishop as decisive and audacious, a hands-on, can-do priest whose selfless devotion and spiritual fortitude have propelled him to the upper echelons of the world's most influential church.
Detractors see a man who is doctrinaire and unyielding, a calculating prelate whose pious pursuits become sullied by self-promotion and an assaultive--even ruthless--style. What is he after anyway, they ask.
"Half the people love him, the other half hate him," sighed his brother, Neil Mahony, a salesman in Ventura County who as a rule does not talk church business with his sibling. "No matter what he does, even if he doesn't do anything, a bunch is going to be mad about it."
Mahony has little patience for such talk. He believes he has been called to spiritual service--and there is no time to waste.
"My theory is that if we make the wrong decision, we can always abandon it or change it, or fine-tune it," he said one morning from his office in a run-down neighborhood west of downtown. "But taking forever to ever get to the decision, to me, that is one of the faults of the church over the centuries."
Quick to flash his toothy smile and partake in good-natured practical jokes (he once sent an urgent note to a subordinate to call Mr. G. Raff at the zoo), Mahony finds little humor in the assortment of names and ideological labels that have been hurled at him during his frenetic tenure here.
Indeed, the habit of many cardinal-watchers of viewing Mahony's every move through their own ideological prisms has confused the public and mistakenly characterized him as everything from a right-wing fundamentalist to a closet socialist, some church scholars say.