The hard-fought rise of Cardinal Francis Spellman

Many cardinals have had books written about them, but few have become the fictionalized heroes of best-selling novels. Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of New York from 1939 to 1967, was one — possibly the only one.

The novel was called “The Cardinal.” The work of Catholic author Henry Morton Robinson, it topped the best-seller list for many months after its publication in 1950. Later it was made into a movie.

With many embellishments, the story mirrored the real-life career of Cardinal Spellman — hard-fought climb to the top of the hierarchical ladder, trusted adviser to a pope and a president, behind-the-scenes unofficial diplomat engaged in sensitive wartime missions.

When Time magazine, marking his elevation to cardinal, featured his cherubic features on the cover of its Feb. 25, 1946 issue, the artist situated the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and a spire of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the background. They might have tossed in the White House, too — for Cardinal Spellman, operating at the topmost levels of church and state, embodied the fusion of Americanism and Catholicism that had been taking shape for a century and was nearing its apex just then.

Early years

Francis Joseph Spellman was born May 4, 1889, in Whitman, Massachusetts, the oldest of five children of William and Ellen Conway Spellman. His father was a grocer, and both parents were of Irish ancestry. Young Francis attended the local high school, where he was manager of the baseball team, and Fordham University in New York, graduating in 1911. By then he’d decided to become a priest.

As a seminarian of the Boston archdiocese, he studied at the Urban College in Rome, exhibiting a notable talent for cultivating friendships with men who would rise to high positions in the Roman Curia.

Ordained a priest in 1916, he returned to Boston. There he appears to have had some kind of falling-out with Cardinal William O’Connell, the imperious and autocratic churchman who ruled the archdiocese with an iron hand. Whatever the cause, Father Spellman spent the next several years in a series of insignificant temporary assignments.

Even so, he kept up his Roman contacts. The breakthrough came in 1925, when he accompanied a pilgrimage group to Rome. There he secured a post in the Vatican Secretariat of State and wangled the job of director of several Roman playgrounds funded by the Knights of Columbus. He also made friends with American Catholics, Count Enrico Galeazzi, a layman and consummate Vatican insider, and Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Eugenio Pacelli, the Holy See’s nuncio to Germany whom Pope Pius XI named Secretary of State in 1929.

When Pope Pius XI in 1931 issued an encyclical sharply critical of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, the fascists wouldn’t allow its publication in Italy. His superiors then assigned the young American priest to smuggle the document to Paris, where it received international media attention.

Rise to archbishop

In 1932, Father Spellman was named Auxiliary Bishop of Boston and ordained in St. Peter’s by Cardinal Pacelli. With the approval of Pius XI, he adopted the pope’s own episcopal motto as his own: Sequere Deum — follow God.

Bishop Spellman may have been a hero in Rome, but it was a different story in Boston. Cardinal O’Connell hadn’t asked for an auxiliary bishop — and certainly not this one. The cardinal sent his unsought auxiliary into a kind of exile — a parish assignment with as little public visibility as possible.

But Bishop Spellman was not so easily thwarted. With funding from his friend, Boston multi-millionaire Joseph P. Kennedy, father of a future president, he organized a 1936 U.S. visit by his great Vatican friend, Cardinal Pacelli, and accompanied him on a cross-country tour, flying on an airliner chartered by Kennedy. A high point of the trip was a meeting, arranged by Bishop Spellman, between the cardinal and President Franklin Roosevelt at Roosevelt’s Hyde Park, New York, estate.

On Sept. 4, 1938, Cardinal Patrick Hayes of New York passed away. Pope Pius XI died the following Feb. 10, and on March 2 the cardinals elected Cardinal Pacelli to succeed him. He took the name Pius XII. On April 24, the Holy See announced that the auxiliary bishop of Boston had been appointed archbishop of New York. The first person besides family members whom Archbishop-elect Spellman notified was President Roosevelt.

Friends in high places

As the world plunged into war and the United States edged toward entering the conflict, Roosevelt more and more turned to Archbishop Spellman as an adviser on Catholic affairs. At the end of 1939, Pope Pius XII named him to the post of Military Vicar — prelate of a diocese-like ecclesiastical entity responsible for the pastoral care of Catholics in the armed forces. Not only did the role heighten his national and international profile, more and more, a historian writes, he “closely identified Catholicism and American patriotism.”

In January 1943, with Roosevelt’s permission and American government help, Archbishop Spellman was preparing for the first of what would be a series of annual trips to visit American servicemen overseas. At a White House meeting, Roosevelt gave him an additional mission whose nature became clear when on Feb. 12 he met in Madrid with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and explained America’s wartime aims. The session was credited with helping ensure Spanish neutrality during the war.

This remarkable trip extended until July and also included stops at the Vatican and in North Africa, the Middle East and the Holy Land. In London, Archbishop Spellman lunched with Winston Churchill. In Rome, he appears to have met with high-ranking officials of the Italian government. In Istanbul in May, he made the acquaintance of the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli — later, Pope St. John XXIII. Returning to the United States, he urged Roosevelt in several White House meetings to treat Rome as an “open city” and refrain from bombing it — a plea that had only partial success.

In 1944 he was sounded out about becoming Vatican Secretary of State, but he was indifferent to the offer and stayed in New York. During the war, Pope Pius named no new cardinals, and it was no surprise when Archbishop Spellman was part of the first postwar batch, elevated to the College of Cardinals on Feb. 18, 1946.

Making his voice heard

In the years that followed, Cardinal Spellman was active on numerous fronts. As a champion of anti-communism, he was an early supporter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s efforts to out communists in government posts. (Following McCarthy’s largely self-inflicted fall, he privately extended a helping hand to the senator and his family.) A vocal critic of anti-Catholicism, he had a well-publicized falling-out with Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s widow, over aid to parochial schools.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Cardinal Spellman, a theological conservative, supported ecumenism on pragmatic grounds. He also took Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, the theologian of church-state relations, to Rome with him as an adviser and, like other American bishops, strongly backed Vatican II’s endorsement of religious liberty.

In December 1965, during an overseas trip to visit the troops, the cardinal declared support for U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the words of Stephen Decatur: “My country, may it always be right, but right or wrong, my country.” The criticism ranged from sharp to vicious. He died in New York on Dec. 2, 1967.

Loyal to Church, state

Jesuit historian Father Gerald P. Fogarty writes that “American and Roman were the attributes of [Cardinal Spellman’s] career as the most influential American Catholic prelate of his age.” No one has captured that better than Henry Morton Robinson in “The Cardinal.” At a crucial point in the novel, Stephen Fermoyle, the book’s Spellman look-alike hero, finds his dual loyalty to Rome and America challenged by a skeptical churchman. Fermoyle’s subsequent soul-searching has this result:

“After months of intense and disciplined study, Stephen came to the private conclusion that the democratic idea with its emphasis on tolerance and individualism was the most hopeful manifestation of Christ’s spirit in human affairs. And despite [his critic’s] opinion to the contrary, Stephen continued to believe that the American phenomenon of a free Church in a free state had produced a Catholicism as stanch, loyal and vigorous as any that preceded it.”

Isaac Hecker, James Gibbons — and Francis Spellman — would have said, “Amen.”

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.