ROME – In a further confirmation of the seriousness of the stroke he suffered in mid-March, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, didn’t attend the annual rector’s Dinner at Rome’s North American College, the city’s seminary for future US priests, despite the fact he was the evening’s main honoree.

DiNardo was honored along with a couple from Houston, Mr. and Mrs. George Strake, Jr., both of whom received the “Rector’s Award.” The Strakes are longtime benefactors of the North American College, and his father, a wealthy Texas oilman, was a major (and, for decades, secret) donor to the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica in the 1940s that resulted in the discovery of what St. Paul VI would later certify as the bones of St. Peter himself.

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In place of attending, DiNardo sent a letter to the banquet that was read aloud by Father Peter Harman, the rector and a NAC graduate himself. Harman also announced that the NAC intends to put together a smaller dinner in DiNardo’s honor sometime in the fall, when he’s well enough to travel.

Harman said DiNardo was being honored for exhibiting “the heart of a shepherd with devotion to his flock.”

In his letter, DiNardo, who graduated from the North American College in 1976 and later taught there during a stint as an official in the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, said the institution is “near to my heart.”

He began by offering thanks for the “outpouring of support and prayer from all over the world” he said news of the stroke he suffered March 15 had elicited.

“I’m hopeful for a full recovery in short order,” DiNardo wrote, adding that for now his medical team had advised him against making a long trip to Rome.

In an indirect reference to the clerical sexual abuse scandals that have rocked Catholicism of late, Di Nardo wrote that “the past year has put a spotlight on the formation of healthy and holy priests, men of zeal and integrity.”

DiNardo closed by promising his prayers “for each of you, and for the future of the Pontifical North American College that we all hold so dear.” The letter drew sustained applause.

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The Rector’s Dinner is the NAC’s main annual fundraising event, generally drawing a crowd of several hundred benefactors and Catholic VIPs to Rome’s Gianicolo Hill.

Among the churchmen on hand Thursday night were Cardinals Blase Cupich of Chicago; Sean O’Malley of Boston; Donald Wuerl, resigned from Washington, D.C.; Edwin O’Brien, Pro-Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre; Cardinal James Harvey, Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls; and Cardinals William Levada and Francis Stafford of the U.S. and Francis Arinze of Nigeria, all now retired from Vatican posts.

DiNardo, now 69, had been leading a “healing and purification” liturgy at a parish across the street from his downtown Houston offices on March 15, when problems with standing and walking compelled him to leave the event in a wheelchair.

Though the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston initially issued a statement saying DiNardo had suffered only a “mild stroke” and that he looked forward to getting back to work, the aftermath of the stroke was still serious enough in mid-April to compel him to miss a keenly anticipated trip to Rome by the leadership of the bishops’ conference to discuss of accountability for bishops amid the abuse scandals with senior Vatican officials.

DiNardo was released from the hospital on April 5, and he has gradually been resuming his duties and public activities in Galveston-Houston.

Going forward, the next test of DiNardo’s recovery is likely to come in June, when the U.S. bishops meet June 11-14 in Baltimore for their plenary assembly.

They’re expected to adopt new measures for accountability, building on the results of the April meetings in Rome led by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the body’s vice president, and also the recent norms issued by Pope Francis titled Vos estis lux mundi.

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