ROME: It is Friday, May 24, 1985, the eve of the consistory summoned by Pope John Paul Ii to confer the Cardinal's Red Hat on 28 prelates from the four corners of the world. The distributing of the hats and rings' would take place significantly that weekend, the Feast of Pentescost, the birthday of the Church.
It is late afternoon, an incessant Roman sun beats mercilessly down on the Janiculum Hill, made bearable only by an occasional gentle breeze.
Cardinal Josef Tomko graciously accompanies me to two chairs in the spacious grounds of Propaganda College overlooking the massive Piazza and Basilica of St Peter's. As we walked slowly to our seats, deep in conversation, the Cardinal, just recently appointed Prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, the Church's Missionary arm, brought to my attention two Nigerian seminarians cleaning the grounds and burning brush. A puff of white smoke drifts upwards in the hot air.
"Eminenza," I quip, "Habemus Papam — we have a Pope."
He stops, smiles and looks me in the eyes and says, "You are right. Do you know we have three Popes in Rome? We have the Holy Father, of course, the Man in White. There is the Black Pope, the Jesuit General, and finally there is myself, the Red Pope, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples."
Josef Cardinal Tomko is a suave, humorous intellectual, very similar in many ways to Pope John Paul II. Tomko portrays a great internal strength and character moulded and forged in the crucible of suffering and exile which is the lot of the Slav Church.
Who is this Red Pope, a longtime friend and confidant of the Polish Pontiff, and a man considered by many to be eminently papabile?
Josef Tomko was born on March 11, 1924, in Udavaske in Eastern Slovakia. Ile completed his college studies in Bratislava. At a young age he decided he had a vocation to the priesthood. His bishop sent him to Rome to do his studies. Ile attended both the Lateran and Gregorian Universities, majoring in theology, canon law and sociology.
He was ordained a priest in the Eternal City on March 12, 1949. At that time he became friendly with a young priest from Poland, also studying in Rome, Karol Wojtyla. Because of the communist takeover of his native country after World War II, the neophyte priest, Josef Tomko was unable to return home.
From 1950 to 1965 Fr Tomko served as Vice Rector of the Pontifical Nepomucene College for priests studying in Rome from various countries, especially Latin America. His eyes were gradually being opened to the unity and diversity plus the needs of the global church.
From 1962 to 1966 he also ministered in the Holy Office, presently known as the Congregation for Doctrine and Faith. In 1976, the then Monsignor Tomko was nominated sub-secretary for the Congregation of Bishops under the powerful Sebastiano Cardinal Baggio.
With the election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul 11 in October of 1978, the internationalisation of the Vatican curia gathered more momentum. The new Pope named Josef Tomko titular Archbishop of Dodea, and Secretary General of the International Synod of Bishops.
In an unprecedented gesture, the Holy Father personally ordained him to the Episcopacy on September 15, 1979 in the famed Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. It was the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, the patroness of Czechoslovakia. One of the co-consecrators of the new Archbishop was the genial retired Bishop of Gary, Indiana, Bishop Grutka, a long time friend of Tomko's and himself also of Slovak ancestry. The whole ceremony was filmed by a Canadian friend of Tomko's, and the Cardinal proudly showed me the stunning movie of pageantry and history in his residence.
On the death of Archbishop Dermot Ryan, early in 1985, the former Archbishop of Dublin and pro-Prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, for only six months, the Pope called Tomko to that prestigious position. At the age of 61 he had become the Red Pope and a Cardinal as well.
All his life has been a preparation for that moment. He has written books on canon law, sociology and spirituality. He has travelled extensively visiting the Slovak people in Diaspora, in the United States, Canada and various parts of Europe. He is fluent in many languages including English, Slovak, Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese.
He is a founding member of the Institute of Sts Cyril and Methodius on the outskirts of Rome for Slovak priests studying there. Its present director is Bishop Dominic Hrusovsky, special delegate of the Holy Father for the spiritual care of Slovaks in exile. The latter is a gracious, ebullient ever smiling man. I attended an
emotional Te Deum in the Institute's crowded small but beautiful chapel in honor of Cardinal Tomko.
Cardinal Tomko has visited the five continents. In 1970 he assisted at the Pan Asiatic Conference in Manila, in the Phillippines. In 1973 he represented the Vatican at a plenary session of the oceanic Bishops in Sydney, Australia. In 1979 he attended the Puebla Conference of Latin American Bishops. In 1980 he attended the 25th Anniversary of the founding of Celam in Rio, Brazil, and in 1981 a meeting of Secam in Yaunde Africa.
He has prepared many synods and is very involved in the extraordinary synod called by the Pope in November of 1985 to assess Vatican II twenty years after. The Universal Church is now Cardinal Tomko's parish.
"Eminenza," I ask him. "In' the November synod will there be a retrenching on Vatican II?"
"No," he swiftly replies. "There will be no restoration as some imply. Pope John Paul It is a man of Vatican H. However, there were some abuses . . ."
When I put the same question to 81-year-old Cardinal Pietro Pavan who was the architect of Pope John XXIII's encylical Pacem In Terris, he gave a similar response: "No, there will be no going back on the dream of Papa Giovanni. Wojtyla is firmly committed to the council documents."
Tomko's jurisdiction comprises the Propagation of the Faith offices worldwide, the Society for St Peter the Apostle for Native Priests, and the Society of the Holy Childhood.
He has under his care in Asia, India, Africa, parts of Latin America, 904 mission dioceses, 1200 bishops, 52,000 priests, 100,000 sisters and brothers and countless schools, hospitals and leper colonies in the Third World.
He will have a budget of over $100 million, most of which' comes from the USA and West Germany and the power of presenting to the Holy Father numerous bishops for the mission fields.
"I am deeply grateful to your late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who made the needs of poor of the Third World known in the whole United States. My job will be to be a begger for those same poor," Cardinal Tomko remarked. "During the Slovak Republic," he continues, "the number of Slovak missionaries, percentage wise, was the highest of all nations." He grins. "The Slovaks are the Irish of Central Europe."
The sun is now setting over St Peters and gives a golden hue to the buildings. The Cardinal introduces me to his matka — his 81-year-old mother — dressed in her babushka. She travelled alone from a church of silence behind the Iron Curtain to he present at her son's receiving the Red Hat. 1 noticed tears of joy in her eyes, and the Cardinal's glistened too as he looks lovingly at her.
The Cardinal and I stood up. He pointed out to me Bernini's colonnaded Piazza and he said: "Through these elliptical files of columns, Bernini made the Basilica of St Peter's the great mother reaching out her arms to embrace all humanity. "DobreDobre" (Good-Good, in Slovak). The Red Pope — Cardinal Josef Tomko's church is now all humanity. especial]) its poor, sick and hungry. His is a great man's challenge. Tomko exhibits that greatness.