The City of Champions can claim a new American title: No. 1 in producing cardinals for the Catholic Church.
With the expected elevation of Cardinal-designate Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., four living cardinals will have grown up in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Cardinal-designate Wuerl is also the fourth former bishop of Pittsburgh to receive the red hat. No other U.S. diocese has four living members of the College of Cardinals, said Rocco Palmo, an ecclesiastical analyst who blogs at Whispers in the Loggia.
After the Nov. 20 ceremony, three of the 13 Americans eligible to vote for the next pope will be Pittsburghers.
"It just seems that the ethos of Pittsburgh is something that [Pope] Benedict sees as a template for effective leadership in the church," Mr. Palmo said.
Cardinals advise the pope, and those under 80 vote in papal elections. With 20 new electors, there will be 121 eligible to vote.
Cardinal-designate Wuerl, who is from Mount Washington, was bishop here from 1988 to 2006. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston grew up in Castle Shannon and was a priest here; Cardinal Adam Maida, the retired archbishop of Detroit, is a native of East Vandergrift and was a parish priest and canon lawyer here; Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston attended first through sixth grades at St. Gabriel in Whitehall and spent eight years at the former St. Fidelis Capuchin seminary in Butler County.
Former Pittsburgh bishops who became cardinals were Bishop John Dearden (1950-1958), who became archbishop of Detroit; Bishop John Wright (1959-1969), who later worked at the Vatican; and Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua (1983-1988), the retired archbishop of Philadelphia.
Pittsburgh has a large pool of future talent. Another six of its priests are diocesan bishops: Bishop Paul Bradley of Kalamazoo, Mich.; Bishop Edward Burns of Juneau, Alaska; Bishop Bernard Hebda of Gaylord, Mich.; Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I; and Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh.
"It's in the water," quipped the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center and author of several books on the U.S. hierarchy.
He believes that Pittsburgh's flight of cardinals is actually due to savvy bishops who sent talented priests to work at the Vatican.
"A lot of these guys worked in Rome as priests, where they came to the attention of the leadership in the Vatican. They make friends. They see that they're hard workers, see that they're loyal, see that they have the Romanita [finesse] necessary for this kind of leadership. So they are trusted, and they get promoted to bishop and archbishop and to positions where they can become cardinal," he said.
"Bishops who are willing to let good men go over to Rome to work are well-liked in the Vatican."
Cardinal-designate Wuerl was Cardinal Wright's assistant in Rome from 1969 to 1979. Cardinal DiNardo worked in the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops from 1984 to 1990. Cardinal Maida was an accomplished canon lawyer who never worked in Rome but was highly regarded among Polish-American prelates who were close to Pope John Paul II.
Cardinal O'Malley traveled a different path to the college.
"He accidentally fell into it because he did very, very well in cleaning up sex-abuse scandals in a couple of smaller dioceses. They sent him to Boston because they wanted someone who was experienced with that," Father Reese said. Boston has traditionally had a cardinal.
The Rev. Lou Vallone, a pastor from McKees Rocks who enjoys ecclesiastical handicapping, said Pittsburgh had an uneven history of Rome assignments. Bishop Vincent Leonard (1969-1983) sent no one to work or to study in Rome. He is the only Pittsburgh bishop from 1950 to 2006 not to have become a cardinal.
"We went 14 years without anybody in Rome," Father Vallone said. Then-Bishop Bevilacqua sent the future Cardinal DiNardo to work in Rome and then-Bishop Wuerl sent the future Bishop Hebda and some others.
But Father Vallone doesn't believe that Vatican employment is key, because most Pittsburghers in the hierarchy didn't work there. He believes that Rome has seen Pittsburgh as a microcosm of America and a training ground for churchwide responsibility.
"Whatever you would find in the church in America, you would find in Pittsburgh," he said. "We had the ethnic groups, we had the Eastern Catholic churches. We were East Coast enough to be part of that church culture, but we were also the gateway to the West, where the church was loosening up. The only thing that's missing is the Latino experience."
The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, vicar general and spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, does suspect that it's in the water. Many ancient religious traditions view a confluence, such as Pittsburgh's three rivers, as sacred, he said. He likes to see it as a sign of God's presence here.
"This is a special city that's been blessed by God in many ways," he said, noting that the blessing includes good relationships between different faiths and strong families that raise virtuous children.
"From special cities come special people," he said.