An old joke about being the priest-secretary for a Catholic bishop has it that the job description boils down to this: “Always get between the bishop and a bullet, and never get between the bishop and a television camera!”

There may be plenty of publicity-hungry prelates for whom that line fits like a glove, but US Cardinal James M. Harvey is definitely not among them. Even if his secretary were inclined to insulate Harvey from attention, he wouldn’t have much to do, because Harvey does a masterful job of it all by himself.

On Monday, Harvey will briefly stand in the spotlight, or at least on the margins of it, when Pope Francis visits the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, where Harvey has served as archpriest, the prelate in charge, since late 2012.

For the world, it’s an occasion for Francis to lead an ecumenical vespers service marking the end of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. For Americans, it’s also a reminder that his host was once the best-connected American Catholic few people had ever heard of.

In 1998, Harvey was tapped by Pope John Paul II, now St. John Paul, to serve as prefect of the papal household. In that capacity, he was responsible for the pope’s public schedule, including receiving heads of state and other VIPs who came to the Vatican for an audience with the pontiff.

He held the same role under Pope Benedict XVI until November 2012, and for all that time no American had more regular or more intimate access to two popes. He was once dubbed the “second-most photographed man in the world” because of the proximity.

When US President George W. Bush visited John Paul II at the Vatican in 2002 and 2004 and Benedict XVI in 2007, just as when Barack Obama came calling on Benedict XVI in 2009, Harvey’s was the first face and outstretched hand they saw as they exited the presidential limo in the Cortile San Damaso.

(By 2007, Bush was well-briefed on the man who would greet him. Realizing Harvey was from Milwaukee, a grinning Bush got out of the car and asked, “How about those Brewers?” Alas, despite being a former baseball executive, Bush’s command of the game wasn’t quite as sharp; on that June day, the Brewers were 50-52 and eight games out in the NL Central.)

Partly by the nature of his former job, and partly as a result of his personality, Harvey has been almost fanatical about shunning any notoriety except the reflected sort from his boss — no interviews, no speeches, no photo-ops at gala Roman dinners, basically nothing at all. In a time of preening public figures who crave attention the way miners lust after gold, Harvey always has been the ultimate Catholic anti-celebrity.

Crux repeatedly asked Harvey for an interview on the occasion of the pope’s visit to his basilica, and to no one’s surprise, he never responded.

Born in Milwaukee in 1949, Harvey did his high school and college education at the archdiocese’s St. Francis Seminary. He was quickly marked as a rising star and shipped off to Rome for his theological training while residing at the Pontifical North American College, the residence for American seminarians in the Eternal City.

He completed his studies for the priesthood and was ordained in Rome by Pope Paul VI in 1975.

Seminarians tapped for study in Rome tend to be the cream of the crop, but even in that competitive milieu, Harvey turned heads. In 1976, he became a rare foreigner (and rarer still, an American) to be tapped to enter the Vatican’s diplomatic service, which today is still dominated by Italians, and which at the time was virtually an Italian monopoly.

He became a Vatican diplomat in 1980, still at the beginning of the John Paul II years, a time of high political drama for the papacy. He served in the Dominican Republic from 1980 until 1982, and in that brief time managed to leave an impression, starting out as an attaché but finishing as the secretary — the No. 2 man.

Harvey’s impressive qualities — which include fluency in Italian, German, French, and Spanish in addition to English — and growing experience meant he was seen as a valuable commodity by the mother ship in Rome. He was recalled in 1982, holding a series of increasingly important roles in the Secretariat of State, which in that era stood unchallenged as the Vatican’s most powerful department.

Eventually he rose to the role of assessor in 1997, effectively the No. 3 position, and seen in the Vatican as possibly the most demanding nuts-and-bolts job in the place. (It’s currently held by another American, Monsignor Peter Wells, who in many ways is cut from Harvey’s cloth — urbane, ultra-competent, and averse to the spotlight.)

Although Harvey may have been unknown to the outside world, he certainly wasn’t inside the system. He developed a number of friendships with fellow clergy, famously including Bernard Law, who became the archbishop of Boston in 1982 and a cardinal in 1985.

When Law was mired in a massive clergy sexual abuse crisis in December 2002, he came to Rome to submit his resignation to the pope. Just a few days before the end came, Law sought out Harvey’s company, and the two men had a quiet dinner together at a restaurant called Cecilia Metella on the Via Appia Antica, well outside the normal range of Vatican haunts.

(As a footnote, by sheer coincidence I happened to be dining there that night with my wife and some friends, and thus broke the news that Law was in town. The Vatican spokesman at the time, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, later told me that Harvey, ever the alert tactician, phoned after he left the restaurant to warn him the cat was out of the bag.)

When Harvey took over at the Prefecture of the Papal Household in the late 1990s, he quickly won John Paul’s trust. The Polish pope ordained him a bishop in 1998 along with Stanislaw Dzwisz — his priest-secretary, and in many ways the son John Paul never had — and Piero Marini, his master of ceremonies, saying he was doing so because of their “unique service to the Holy See and to me personally.”

In 2003, John Paul made the three men archbishops, titles that officials in their positions had not previously held.

Benedict XVI was elected in 2005 in part as a vote for continuity with John Paul, so it was only fitting that Benedict chose to keep Harvey in place. He remained until November 2012, when Benedict, who may have been contemplating the end of his papacy three months later, designated Harvey as archpriest at St. Paul’s.

One day later, Benedict named him a cardinal.

At the time, some took the move as a demotion, possibly a punishment for the fact that the original Vatileaks scandal — involving the theft of secret papal documents by Benedict’s butler, an Italian layman named Paolo Gabriele, and their eventual publication by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi — occurred on Harvey’s watch.

It’s true that an archpriest at a papal basilica has no real power, and the move meant standing considerably farther from the papal flame. Yet most insiders consider it more plausible that Benedict wanted to reward Harvey with a cardinal’s red hat, and this was simply the most expeditious way of doing it.

On those rare occasions when, by dint of circumstance, Harvey is compelled to make a public appearance, he generally gets high marks. In 2010, for instance, he returned for a visit to his native Milwaukee, among the American dioceses hardest hit by the abuse scandals, and didn’t duck the subject.

“In every age, especially in recent years, priests, bishops, human beings have been placed under huge reflectors, powerful spotlights on stage,” he said. “The harsh lights were focused, the heat on the stage so intense that the makeup cake is running off these actors’ faces, leaving exposed every blemish, every scar, every wart and pockmark for the world to see.”

Yet, Harvey said, “human beings are creatures of this world that God designed to be his instruments for bringing us closer to him.”

In terms of where Harvey stands now, Italians are forever alert to hints about who might be up or down in the Vatican, and some have speculated that the American cardinal might be on the outs with Pope Francis. That’s largely because Francis personally opened the Holy Doors in Rome’s three other papal basilicas for his jubilee Year of Mercy, but not at St. Paul’s, which some read as a snub.

Once again, the truth is likely more prosaic. Francis was obliged to open the doors at St. Peter’s and at St. John Lateran, which was for centuries the seat of the papacy, and he has a special personal attachment to St. Mary Major. In addition, he always knew he was coming to St. Paul’s on Jan. 25.

In all honesty, it would be difficult to know what reason Francis might have to deliver a snub, since Harvey has stayed so thoroughly out of the fray that he’s given almost no possible grounds for offense. One would look in vain, for instance, for a public statement from Harvey about either of the pontiff’s controversial Synods of Bishops on the family.

While Harvey may not be much for grand gestures or hard-hitting commentary, he’s known to insiders, especially those in the world of the Vatican, as deeply gracious, the kind of figure who takes a personal interest in the lives of those around him.

Vatican personnel say that Harvey was always available in his capacity as a priest, occasionally guiding them through a spiritual crisis or helping them prepare for major life moments. Less dramatically, they say, he just always seemed to care.

One of the few people in the media universe to whom Harvey has been close over the years is American Catholic writer and intellectual George Weigel, author of a biography of John Paul II titled “Witness to Hope.” Weigel believes, fittingly enough, that Harvey’s legacy won’t be measured so much by his public as by his private impact.

“When Cardinal Harvey was named a bishop and appointed prefect of the papal household, a longtime Vatican employee pulled me aside one day and said, ‘Your friend: he is the best priest in the Holy See’,” Weigel told Crux.

“I wouldn’t want to get into comparatives,” Weigel said, “but that comment strikes me as the essence of Cardinal Harvey: He is a very, very good priest.”