Cardinal Levada and Pope Benedict greet one another in 2005. (Vatican photo)
Cardinal Levada and Pope Benedict greet one another in 2005. (Vatican photo)

UPDATED: Sept. 27, 9:50 a.m.  

WASHINGTON — Cardinal William Levada, the former Archbishop of Portland who later was tapped for one of the most important roles in the universal church, died today in Rome. He was 83.

In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI chose him to lead the church’s agency that protects and promotes the church’s teaching on faith and morals. Cardinal Levada served there until 2012. No other American has held so lofty a Vatican post.

Cardinal Levada, a trusted ally of Pope Benedict XVI, was a key mind behind the revised Catholic catechism and a favored consultant for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, even before he became its prefect.

“We are sincerely grateful to God for his years of service here as our shepherd,” said Archbishop Alexander Sample, current leader of the Archdiocese of Portland, expressing sadness. “He is fondly remembered. May God grant him the reward of a good and faithful servant.”

Archbishop John Vlazny, who headed the archdiocese from 1997 to 2013, was an ordination classmate of Cardinal Levada’s at the North American College in Rome.

“I was blessed to be his successor,” Archbishop Vlazny said. “He had handled so many matters in the archdiocese, many of them quite challenging, well.”

At the same time, Archbishop Vlazny said, his predecessor was generous and faithful in his service of the wider church.

“God be good to him,” Archbishop Vlazny said. “He was good to us.”

Cardinal Levada often said his experience leading major U.S. dioceses prepared him for his role at the Vatican. He was Archbishop of Portland from 1986 to 1995.

“I firmly believe that what I have experienced in my ministry among God's people . . . has been a great grace for me and has enriched me for the new service to the universal church,” he said during a Mass attended by more than 3,000 people at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco, just before he left that archdiocese for Rome.

Archbishop Levada was the first to choose a lay woman as chancellor for a diocese.

It was easy to recognize Cardinal Levada’s intelligence and to see his love for the church,” said Mary Jo Tully, the woman he picked for Portland in 1989. She remained in the post until 2016. “I had the opportunity to see his generous spirit. He  knew my talents and my weaknesses. Neither his tone of voice nor his words ever conveyed anything other than reverence and respect. He trusted me with the tasks I was given—and even some I took upon myself. He taught me how to be a chancellor.”

Before moving to Portland, for three years he served as an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, where earlier he had served as an associate pastor, teacher and campus ministry chaplain. He also served as secretary of the California Catholic Conference, a public policy agency of the state's bishops.

In Portland, he made moves to support retired priests, including establishing St. John Vianney residence in Beaverton. He was the first Portland archbishop to attend a Jewish service. In a 1989 homily marking the first Mass in Oregon, he said immigrants should be welcomed and he visited migrant worker camps.

Archbishop Levada argued that the church must be involved in environmental concerns. He was a constant voice for unborn children, calling federal abortion law “repugnant.” He faced Oregon’s move to legalize assisted suicide, calling on Catholics to donate to defeat the measure.

It was on his watch that St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was renovated.

When he was archbishop of San Francisco 1995-2013, he was a key figure in the approval of new norms to handle cases of priestly sexual abuse.

In 2002, he was a member of the U.S.-Vatican commission that made final revisions to the norms, which laid out a strict policy on abuse and provided for removal from ministry or laicization of priests who have sexually abused minors.

He also had experience with the pastoral side of another issue that had drawn increasing attention from the Vatican's doctrinal congregation: same-sex marriage. He told a Synod of Bishops in 1997 that his own experience in San Francisco had taught him how easily dialogue can be overtaken by political pressure on this issue.

In San Francisco, he opposed a city ordinance requiring all agencies contracting with the city to provide spousal benefits to domestic partners of their employees. Noncompliance could have jeopardized the church's social service contracts with the city. The city of San Francisco changed the ordinance so that employees of church agencies could designate any legally domiciled member of their household for spousal benefits.

In 2004, Archbishop Levada helped lead a prayer rally for the defense and promotion of marriage after the city of San Francisco decided to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said in a statement announcing the cardinal’s death that he had known him “ever since he was my seminar moderator in my first year of theology. I always appreciated his guidance and to his commitment to the integrity of the church’s faith.”

Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, said: “The cardinal always gave of himself selflessly to the church that he loved so much, and he used all of his abilities in her service. The gift that always impressed me most was the gift of his heart. He had great compassion for the priests and people of the church.”

As Archbishop of Portland, Cardinal Levada was chairman of the board for liturgical publisher Oregon Catholic Press. He remained a board member even after leaving for San Francisco.

“I was struck by his intelligence, his administrative abilities, and by his pastoral sensitivity,” said John Limb, retired OCP publisher. “Many people thought Cardinal Levada was a bit aloof, but I think he was actually rather shy. Once you got to know him, you discovered a man who was quite warm and loving, always ready to help in any way he could. I will miss him.”

Funeral services for the cardinal will be at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, but no other details have been announced.

— Catholic News Service contributed to this report.