ROME — Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley will be back in his nondescript brick office building in Braintree by the end of the week, the splendors of Rome and the drama of the papal conclave behind him.
But he will not be quite the same archbishop he was when he left. O’Malley’s unexpected emergence in the last month as a serious papabile, or contender for the papacy, has elevated his image in Rome and in Boston, where he has led the Roman Catholic archdiocese since 2003.
Observers say that O’Malley’s moment in the spotlight could propel him into a more prominent role in the worldwide church. It might also offer a boost at home, where a decade into his tenure, he continues to face daunting challenges: Pews are emptying, finances remain strained, and he is in the midst of an ambitious effort to reorganize the archdiocese in hopes of changing those dynamics.
The Rev. Chip Hines, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Medford, said he was glad to see photos of O’Malley in Rome looking “relaxed and content” while spending time with the other cardinals.
“Sometimes, I think the stress of being here in Boston, making all these decisions — the buck stops with you — I think that puts a lot of pressure on Cardinal Sean,” he said.
After the conclave last week — when Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen to succeed Pope Benedict XVI — O’Malley deflected a question about how his brush with the papacy would affect him going forward.
“I hope it means I get free dinners in the North End,” he said with a laugh.
But John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, said O’Malley emerges from the conclave with a new status.
“I don’t know before this anyone looked at Sean O’Malley as any kind of superstar, but on the back of the Roman love affair of the last three weeks, people will probably see him through a new lens,” he said.
Allen said O’Malley has long been regarded as a specialist in addressing sexual abuse, but his papabile moment has broadened his profile. In the coming months and years, Allen said, the Boston prelate may be offered more invitations to advise Rome on church councils and commissions.
Allen said O’Malley may also be asked to speak at major events, perhaps at World Youth Day, which often attracts more than a million young people, and he will be in Brazil this summer. (O’Malley usually attends World Youth Day and had already planned to attend.)
O’Malley could also be considered for jobs in the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy. There’s no way of knowing the likelihood of O’Malley being chosen for a post in Rome — which would require him to leave Boston — but one possibility for the Capuchin friar would be running the department that oversees religious orders.
Many observers, however, doubt O’Malley would want such a job. And Allen said the Vatican may see the cardinal as more valuable in helping advance the church’s agenda in the United States.
When the Vatican says, “ ‘We need a cardinal who can step in and hit a home run for us on something,’ they will tend to think of O’Malley,” Allen said.
Thomas Groome, a Boston College theology professor, said O’Malley might also be someone Pope Francis leans upon for advice, particularly because the leader of the Boston church appears to have much in common with the new pope.
O’Malley is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and is a member of the Capuchin Franciscans, a religious order named for St. Francis of Assisi, in whose honor Bergoglio chose his papal name.
Like Bergoglio did as archbishop of Buenos Aires, O’Malley lives in a modest rectory rather than a fancy chancery.
O’Malley visited Bergoglio at his home in Buenos Aires in 2010 while on business for the US bishops. He described it as a social visit, and said they talked about mutual friends and that Bergoglio gave him a CD of an Argentine Mass.
“He is, I’d say, a friend of this new pope,” Groome said. “I could definitely see the pope calling on Cardinal Sean for advice.”
If so, sexual abuse watchdog groups say they hope O’Malley will push Francis to hold bishops accountable for enforcing policies to protect children and remove abusive priests from ministry, something O’Malley identified as an important issue in an interview before the conclave.
“Even though we have all kinds of bones to pick with him,” said Terence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, “I think he has much to contribute.”
Groome said he would like to see O’Malley advocate for something bold, such as the end of mandatory priestly celibacy.
Some say this rule may change eventually because there is no theological obstacle, and married Anglican priests are now being allowed to convert to Catholicism as clergy. Eastern Orthodox churches allow priests to marry.
This may be wishful thinking; O’Malley is a firm traditionalist and has never raised the issue. But Groome said the cardinal might consider it because of the shortage of priests.
O’Malley has also deepened relationships with other prelates during the conclave, something that Scot Landry, the archdiocese’s secretary for Catholic media, said might prove helpful in getting phone calls or letters answered more quickly.
“Italian culture puts an emphasis on good relationships,” he said.
In recent years, O’Malley has receded from the spotlight in Boston, as the controversies that dominated the early part of his tenure — clergy sexual abuse and church closings — have quieted.
Bookish and somewhat reticent, he is not as politically or socially connected as some of his predecessors, such as Cardinals Bernard F. Law and Richard Cushing. His responsibilities as a cardinal require him to travel a great deal, further distancing him from local events.
His sudden status as a papabile thrust him back into the conversation, and much of the attention has been positive. Monsignor William Fay, pastor of St. Columbkille Church in Brighton, said his parishioners noted the similarities between Francis and O’Malley with pride.
“I think what people are feeling is, ‘My gosh, he really could have been elected,’ ” he said.
Landry said many bostonians may have gotten to know o’malley better by watching and reading about him during the conclave.
“I think these holy week liturgies may be the most packed ever,” he said, referring to the masses o’malley says at the cathedral of the holy cross.
But soon, O’Malley is likely to be consumed with a sweeping “pastoral planning” project, an ambitious and risky effort that will dominate his agenda for at least the next five years.
In an effort to conserve money and deal with the declining ranks of priests, the archdiocese is trying to group 288 parishes into about 135 clusters, assigning one or more priests and a single contingent of staff and lay leaders to each cluster.
Hoping to avoid the public relations catastrophe that occurred nine years ago when the archdiocese closed dozens of churches, O’Malley has approached this plan with caution. No churches will be shuttered; clergy and parishioners were widely consulted during a two-year planning phase; and leaders at every level will undergo extensive training intended to help make the plan work.
But it will undoubtedly cause consternation. Many priests will assume responsibility for multiple parishes, in some cases adding stress to an already difficult job. Parishes will have to work more closely with each other than ever before. And some parish staff may lose their jobs.
“In some places, collaboration is going to work great, it’s going to go smoothly and be wonderful,” said Hines, the pastor from Medford. “In other places, it will be like pulling teeth, dragging people along.”
For O’Malley, “the challenge is going to be just being able to put a public smile on the whole thing,” he said.
The ultimate goal is to bolster what the church calls “The New Evangelization” — bringing inactive Catholics back to church and inviting new people in. It is an urgent concern of O’Malley’s at a time when surveys have shown that just 16 percent of baptized Catholics go to Mass each week, down from 70 percent in 1970.
But some skeptics see the plan as a backdoor way to close churches, despite assurances from the archdiocese that this is not the goal.
“A decade ago, when the downsizing tsunami was set in motion, there were about 400 parishes; by the latest plan, the total will shrink to about 130 ‘collaboratives’ in a few years,” said Peter Borré, a Boston lawyer who advocates on behalf of churches facing closure.
“This retreat is completely at variance with the expansive vision of the Jesuits, one of whose ‘soldiers’ ” — Pope Francis, a Jesuit — “has now scaled the heights.”
The archdiocese said that in fact there were 357 parishes before the church closings almost a decade ago and that it is not closing churches or parishes this time.
Kellyanne Dignan, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the whole point of O’Malley’s reorganization is to strengthen parishes so they can address what the church sees as the root cause of its priest shortage, financial issues, and empty pews.
“The cause is that people have become weary of faith, have forgotten about the centrality of Christ in their lives,” she said. “If we address that cause — that’s what the New Evangelization aims do — then the symptoms go away.”
O’Malley is also fighting to keep Catholic schools from closing; as in much of the country, enrollment has been declining for decades.
Jack Connors Jr., a retired advertising executive and leading fund-raiser for the Catholic schools, said O’Malley is determined to reverse that trend, too.
“The cardinal has drawn a line in the sand and said, ‘We’re going to fight to keep some of these great schools open,’ ” Connors said.