Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is shown at the 2004 dedication of the new rectory at Our Lady of Vietnam Parish in Silver Spring.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is shown at the 2004 dedication of the new rectory at Our Lady of Vietnam Parish in Silver Spring.
As he marks his 50th anniversary as a priest this Saturday, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick remains at heart a family man.

On May 31, the exact date he was ordained a priest 50 years ago, Cardinal McCarrick will celebrate a 5:15 p.m. Mass of Thanksgiving at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and most of the people praying with him will be members of the extended family of faith he gained after he was installed as archbishop of Washington in 2001 and retired there five years later.

"This really is for Washington, my last family," said Cardinal McCar-rick, who earlier served as archbishop of Newark, founding bishop of Metuchen, N.J., and as an auxiliary bishop of New York.

The cardinal speaks in family terms of the man he asked to preach at his anniversary Mass, his successor leading the Archdiocese of Washington, Archbishop Donald Wuerl. "He's been a very gracious brother," he said.

And joining Cardinal McCarrick at the Mass will be many men that he calls his "sons" - the priests and bishops he has ordained over the years and remains close with. Since being ordained a bishop 31 years ago, he has ordained more than 320 priests and 12 bishops.

"One of the reasons the Lord has blessed us with vocations is, we all realize we're a family," he said, adding that he always tried to get to know each of his seminarians personally before he ordained them.

Fifty years later, he can smile about his own ordination day, but it wasn't so funny back in May 1958. "A disaster happened at the seminary the day before," he said, remembering that about one-half of the 32 men about to be ordained priests for the Archdiocese of New York fell deathly ill the day before, probably from food poisoning. The night prayers of the men about to be ordained took on special meaning, as the sound of ambulances could be heard at the seminary during the night.

"I was fine, thank God! Of the 32 to be ordained, some looked like death warmed over. Everybody got through," Cardinal McCarrick remembered, adding, "I was afraid when they prostrated (during the ordination), they wouldn't get up." The men were ordained that day by New York Cardinal Francis Spellman.

Humorous memories aside, moments from his ordination and the subsequent ordinations he presided at remain special to him.

He remembers at his ordination when his name was called, and he responded in Latin, "Ad sum."

"You say, 'here I am,' 'ad sum.' Now they say, 'present.' That's the real call. That's the vocation. I'm here to serve, to do whatever. That's a special moment (in the ceremony)," he said.

Lying prostrate reminds the man about to be ordained a priest that he is giving himself totally to the Lord, Cardinal McCarrick said. "I'm here because I want to give you (God) everything."

A famous prayer from St. Ignatius of Loyola remains among his favorites:

"Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,

my memory, my understanding

and my entire will,

All I have and call my own.

"You have given all to me.

To you, Lord, I return it.

"Everything is yours; do with it what you will.

Give me only your love and your grace.

That is enough for me."

Interviewed recently at Redemptoris Mater, the mission seminary in Hyattsville that he established for the Archdiocese of Washington and where he lives in his retirement, Cardinal McCarrick said he experiences God's love every day. "I'm amazed at the goodness of God, the mercy of God. Here I am, 50 years a priest."

After his ordination, he dreamed of being a parish priest, but God had other plans for him, he said. "In 50 years (since) I've been ordained, I've only had two years of parish work," he said. As a young priest, he even turned down a Rome assignment, because he thought it would take him from parish work. "There's an old saying, 'If you want to make God smile, make plans!'"

Over the years, he served as a chaplain and dean of students at the Catholic University of America, as president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, then back in New York as associate secretary for education and later as priest secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke. In 1977, he was ordained an auxiliary bishop of New York and served as vicar of East Manhattan and the Harlems. Four years later, he became the founding bishop of the new Diocese of Metuchen. Then he served as archbishop of Newark from 1986 until being named archbishop of Washington.

Of God's grace, the cardinal said, "I experience it most in his forgiving love. He gets me up every morning and gives me another chance to serve. He forgives my sins, and He loves me. I'm very conscious of that."

Bringing the sacraments to people has been a special gift of his priesthood. He has baptized more than 100 members of his family. Baptism, he said, marks another birthday, as someone becomes a member of God's family. "You think of Jesus' baptism, and how powerful a sacrament it is, it is again the beginning of life," he said.

Of Communion, he said, "To be able to celebrate Mass day after day after day, and as archbishop to celebrate it with my people. That was a special gift I had for 25 years... We are a Eucharistic people. The Eucharist is the center of our priesthood."

For every priest, administering the sacrament of Confession offers a special sign of God's love and mercy, the cardinal said. "You know it is not you, it's the Lord that forgives. It's a great closeness you feel to the Lord at those moments.

"The more a person who comes to you needs that forgiving grace, the more present the Lord is, and the more wonderful is His forgiving love, of which you are the minister. You know your own weaknesses. You're very conscious of your own sinfulness, weakness and frailty, all the more awesome it is that God uses you as His instrument," Washington's archbishop emeritus said.

Asked about administering the sacrament of Confirmation to young people, the cardinal said, "You pray so hard this grace of the Holy Spirit will really make these young people strong in these gifts the Holy Spirit gives, (that) He will use them not only to be faithful Christians, but to be witnesses to His love."

Reflecting on the sacrament of marriage, Cardinal McCarrick said, "In all the sacraments, you're conscious you're a minister of God's grace. The sacraments are really the priest's moments to touch the lives of his people."

In marriage, a priest tries to nourish and strengthen a couple for a happy life together. "For every priest, you touch the lives of your people in all these" sacraments, he said.

All the sacraments serve as instruments through which God's grace is channeled, the cardinal said.

"At those extraordinary moments when you ordain or consecrate, you're preparing others to do the same, to carry the Lord to other people," he said.

Cardinal McCarrick said he has been inspired by the generosity and goodness of the priests he has ordained. "I'm so proud to see them taking care of God's people," he said.

One of his happiest accomplishments as archbishop of Washington was encouraging people to pray for vocations at all Masses.

"That was the first thing I did when I came down. That was our great need, for vocations. Vocations come from God, through families," he said, noting that God has answered those prayers. "That's why we're getting vocations here," he said. The archdiocese now has 74 men studying for the priesthood, nearly triple the amount of seminarians from a decade ago.

The cardinal said his greatest surprise in his 50 years as a priest has been to see "how good God is. A priest is able to see the goodness of God in awesome ways."

When he retired in the summer of 2006, Cardinal McCarrick said he prayed that he could continue to do three things:

¥ to work for peace in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, where he continues to visit four or five times a year, working with religious leaders in that effort;

¥ to help with dialogue between Islam and the Catholic Church, which he said is "so important for peace in the world, and for the future of the world;"

¥ and to continue to serve the poor, work that he continues as a board member for Catholic Relief Services, traveling around the world on that agency's behalf. "The poor have been such extraordinary examples in my life," he said, noting he experienced the poor as a young bishop in Harlem and he witnesses the plight of immigrant families today as a retired archbishop. "These are people so close to the Lord," he said of the poor.

Now in his busy retirement, in between his travels, Cardinal McCarrick gets to have breakfast about once a week with the seminarians at Redempt-oris Mater, and he especially loves celebrating Masses at parishes in the archdiocese that he continues to call home.

"It's always a joy to be with the people," he said.

And on Saturday, members of that extended family of faith will gather to pray with Cardinal McCarrick, in thanksgiving for his 50 years as a priest.