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A new Archbishop for Boston Boston Globe
JULY 30, 2003
A new Archbishop for Boston Boston Globe

'To those victims...we beg forgiveness'


This is the text of Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley's homily. The archbishop preceded his remarks with greetings and expressions of fellowship offered in Spanish, Portuguese, and Creole.

First of all, I want to express my gratitude to our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, for the great trust he placed in me, making me a bishop 19 years ago today and now sending me to you as your archbishop. I wish, publicly, to express my loyalty and affection to the successor of St. Peter. We are all pleased that the Holy Father's personal representative, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, is here with us today. Archbishop, please tell our Holy Father that the Catholics of Boston, together with their new archbishop, love him and congratulate him for the 25th anniversary of his pontificate. And we thank him for his magnificent letter on the rosary in the Year of the Rosary. Today in Boston, we too can say, ''Mary, totus tuus [totally yours].''

It's a great joy for me as I look out to see so many members of the O'Malley clan here. I'd ask them just to stand so that we can acknowledge their presence. The faith of my parents and my family have been an unfailing support for all of my years of ministry and my vocation. I call them my ''Great Big Fat Irish Wedding.'' And these are only the relatives that we're talking to. You can imagine if all of them came. Some of them were teasing me. They said I'm like the lace-curtain Irish: I can say I wintered in Palm Beach. Now you know.

I want to welcome the cardinals and archbishops and bishops of New England and other distinguished prelates who are joining us for the celebration. We greet our public officials and representatives from other churches and faith traditions. And a very special greeting to my very dear friend, Metropolitan Methodios, and with special affection, we welcome our Jewish brothers and sisters. And I recognize here so many wonderful friends from the Virgin Islands, from Fall River, and Palm Beach. It was a privilege and a joy being your bishop, and I thank you for your many kindnesses and your friendship. I also welcome my Capuchin brothers who are here: Archbishop Charles, and my provincials, and all my brothers in St. Francis whose love and support have always meant so much to me. After 38 years, being a Franciscan brother is still the great joy of my life.

I wish that, after so long, I were doing it better, but my community and my God have not given up on me. Although, when I have been bishop in those lovely vacation spots, my provincial used to say, ''O'Malley, when will you get a real job?''

Well, Brother Paul, does this count?

At this moment, I would like to say a very special word of thanks on my own behalf, on the behalf of the people of the Archdiocese, and indeed of the whole church, to Bishop Richard Lennon for the magnificent job he has done as our administrator.

And finally, I greet all of you who form part of this great Archdiocese of Boston: the bishops, the priests, the deacons, the religious, and the laity. As your archbishop, I am your shepherd; as a friar, I am your brother. I have come to serve you, to wash your feet, as Jesus says, and to repeat the great Commandment: Love one another as Christ loves us. In his love, we are bound together. The immensity of his love is measured by the cross. St. Francis was not a learned man, but he had a wisdom of simple believers. He used to say that the cross was his book, and in that book we find the world's greatest love story: the story of the shepherd who laid down his life for us, for his flock, for his friends.

The patron saint of the archdiocese is St. Patrick, a great saint, indeed. When he returned to Ireland as a missionary bishop, he was preaching in County Mayo, where the O'Malleys hail from. That's why they say ''Mayo God help us,'' I guess. A very fierce and famous chieftain asked to be baptized and received into the church, and, since there were still no churches in Ireland, they gathered in a great field. A huge crowd arrived to witness the event. St. Patrick arrived in his bishop's vestments with his miter and his crozier. He stuck his staff in the ground and began to preach a long sermon on the Catholic faith. The chieftain to be baptized stood in front of Patrick. He grew pale; he began to sweat profusely, and suddenly fainted dead away. When they rushed over to help him, the people discovered to their horror that St. Patrick had inadvertently stuck his staff through the man's foot. And when they threw water on him, and revived him, they asked him, ''Why didn't you say something when this happened?''

And he replied, ''I thought it was part of the ceremony.'' The poor man did not understand too much about Catholic liturgy, but he did know that discipleship means taking up the cross, embracing the cross.

Today, this ceremony began with a dramatic gesture, indeed. At every installation ceremony, the new bishop is presented with a crucifix at the door of the church so that he can kiss it. This is a gesture very familiar to us Catholics. On Good Friday, an endless line of Catholics around the world draw near to kiss the cross.

We can never allow this to be an empty gesture. When we kiss the cross, we are kissing God's love and mercy that is crucified. We are acknowledging that salvation is not a cheap grace, that we are bought at a great price.

St. Francis, in his last testament, told about his conversion. He tells us that he could never stand to see lepers. But one day, God's grace invaded his heart. And when Francis encountered the leper, instead of fleeing to safety and holding his nose, he drew near, he embraced the leper, and he kissed him. On that day Francis truly kissed the cross and his life was changed because his heart was changed.

Jesus began his public ministry in Nazareth with the liturgy of the word. Even as we watched our lectors draw near the podium this morning to proclaim God's word, we might imagine Jesus as the lector, taking the scroll and reading from the book of Isaiah: ''The spirit of the Lord God is upon me and has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim a year of grace.''

Jesus came into our world to reveal the merciful face of the Father. In a world of suffering and violence, of injustice and pain, the love and mercy of our God is made manifest to us in Jesus. Jesus could indeed say, ''Today, these words are fulfilled in your hearing.'' We who are his church are called to carry on these tasks in today's world.

'Embracing the cross'

The concept of preferential love for the poor is not a modern notion. In the Gospels, the poor, the sick, the marginalized are the protagonists, and Jesus defines his mission in terms of being sent to bring glad tidings to such as these. Jesus tells us he prefers mercy to sacrifice. As God's pilgrim people, we struggle to advance the mission that he has entrusted to us, in spite of our shortcomings, in spite of our unworthiness. At the beginning of the new millennium, the Holy Father asked Catholics around the world to ask forgiveness for our sins, sins that have obscured the church's mission and compromised our efforts to announce the good news over the centuries.

I dare say, in the United States we could have had no idea. We could never have imagined how important this gesture of asking forgiveness would be for us. Little did we realize the dimensions of the problems that beset us. As Catholics, each time we celebrate Mass we begin by asking forgiveness for our sins. We are sinners and we say that we are sorry. For Catholics, this third millennium has opened with one long penitential rite, and at the beginning of this installation ceremony, I again ask forgiveness for all the harm done to young people by clergy, religious, and hierarchy.

The whole Catholic community is ashamed and anguished because of the pain and the damage inflicted on so many young people, and because of our inability or unwillingness to deal with the crime of sexual abuse of minors. To those victims and to their families, we beg forgiveness and we assure them that the Catholic Church is working to create a safe environment for young people. It must never be business as usual, but rather a firm commitment on the part of every diocese, parish, and school to do all we can to avoid the mistakes of the past and create safeguards for the future.

Even now, an audit, an independent audit of the compliance with the Charter of the Protection of Children, is being done in every diocese of our country. Much has been done; much needs to be done. Many Catholics feel that it is unfair that national concern on sexual abuse has focused so narrowly on the Catholic Church without a commensurate attempt to address the problem in our contemporary society at large. Yet, we can only hope that the bitter medicine we have had to take to remedy our mismanagement of the problem of sexual abuse will prove beneficial to the whole country, making all of us more aware of the dreadful consequences of this crime and more vigilant and effective in eradicating this evil from our midst.

How ultimately we deal with this present crisis in our church will do much to define us as Catholics of the future. We must not flee from the cross of pain and humiliation. If we stand firm in who we are, in what we believe, if we work together - hierarchy, clergy, religious, laity - to live our faith and fulfill our mission, then we will be a stronger and a holier church. This should be of some consolation to those victims who have opened old wounds in their hearts by coming forward. Your pain will not be in vain. Our church and our nation will become a safer place for children.

I'm pleased that so many victims have come to this installation Mass. The healing of our church is inexorably bound up to your own healing; you are the wounds on the body of Christ. I am sure that many are skeptical and think that the church leaders are like Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross only under duress and not from a genuine desire to help. Perhaps the journey began that way, but what we see in the community of faith today is a spirit of repentance and a desire for healing. Despite the understandable anger, protest, and litigation we see in you, our brothers and sisters who have been wronged, we thank you for coming forward. For this crisis has forced us to focus on what is essential: on Christ, on the saving power of the cross, and on our call to follow in his mission to make the loving mercy of our heavenly Father present in this world.

When our ancestors in the faith built this magnificent temple, they were people who were despised for their religion, for their accents, for their rough ways. They were the object of ridicule and discrimination. The know-nothings were burning our churches and convents. They were familiar with suffering, poverty, and hardships. And they rightly name their cathedral, our cathedral, for the Lord's cross. Today, the church of Boston gathers at the cross still stunned from the shame and the pain of the church's crisis. We come here to ask God to make our suffering redemptive. We gather here with so many priests, so many good priests, struggling to make sense of it all.

'We beg forgiveness'

But I tell you today, Jesus never promised us that nothing would ever go wrong. But yes, he promised that he would be with us always. Each of us who are priests will recall, that on our ordination day, the ordinary bishop presented us with the paten and the chalice and told us: ''Accept from the holy people of God, the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing and imitate the mysteries you celebrate.'' Model your life on the mystery of the Lord's cross. This must be the program of our life in ministry at the service of God's holy people: imitating the mysteries we celebrate, imitating Christ's self-giving, modeling our life on the mystery of the cross. This life of sacrificial love can be lived only if nurtured by fidelity to prayer, and, too, by a priestly fraternity we build by dying to self and bearing one another's burdens. Our Catholic people love and support their faithful priests. My brothers, never forget that serving Christ and his people is worth suffering for.

We are all so grateful to our Catholic laity to have been supportive to their church during these times of trouble. To those who've stepped away: I invite you to return to help us to rebuild the church and carry on the mission that Christ has entrusted to us. In Palm Beach a few months ago, on the first Sunday of Lent, 500 new Catholics came together with their sponsors in the Cathedral of St. Ignatius of Loyola for the rite of election, as they were joining the Catholic Church. It was necessary to have two sessions to accommodate all the candidates and their relatives and fellow parishioners who accompanied them. I was so moved that, in the midst of all of these troubles, these men and women could see something beautiful in our church, and that their spiritual lives were being nourished in communities of faith that were helping them find a path that leads to God.

These new Catholics understood that, despite the sins and the failings of priests and bishops and the crimes of Catholics over 2,000 years, Christ is with his church. Christ is the bridegroom, not the widower. Christ does not exist separate from his church, his people. As Catholics, we place our faith in him who died and rose to save us. Jesus came to call sinners, and he called us to do his work. It is humbling and, although we lived through a sad chapter in the church's history, we must recall that it is a chapter. It is not the whole book.

The Catholic Church in the United States has made invaluable contributions to the spiritual and material well-being of our country. As Catholics, we have so much to be thankful for, so much to be proud of. We must be proud of the fact that millions upon millions of Americans have been educated in our schools, saving US tax payers billions upon billions of dollars and giving countless children from immigrant and working class families an excellent education. Even today, there are almost 3 million students in our Catholic schools and colleges. Twenty-percent of the hospitals in the country are run by the Catholic Church. The largest social service agencies and relief organizations in the land are agencies of the Catholic Church. And this is not just a philanthropic enterprise, it is an expression of Christ who opened the book of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth and said, ''The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, and anointed me, and sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, and relief for the oppressed.'' The followers of Jesus are anointed - Christian means anointed - anointed to be part of the same mission, to reveal the face of our loving and merciful father.

Once an archbishop of New York, sitting in his office, received a call on the intercom from the new receptionist at the chancery. She said, ''Your eminence, there is a man in the lobby who says he is Jesus Christ. What should I do?'' The archbishop replied, ''Look busy.'' Although the archbishop's words merited a chuckle, on the other hand they are dead serious. The homeless, schizophrenic man off of his meds who says he is Jesus Christ is Jesus Christ in a distressing disguise.

Jesus is present to us in the least of our brothers and sisters. He is with us in the hungry, the poor, the Alzheimer's patient, the unborn, the homeless person with AIDS, all of whom have a claim on our love. He is here, where two or three are gathered in his name. Here we recognize him the breaking of the bread and his sacraments. We recognize Christ present in his church, his people. We must not only look busy, we must be busy fulfilling the great commandment he has given us. For even more important than the great educational, health care, and social institutions of the Catholic Church is the mission of the church to build a community of faith around the word of God and around the Eucharist. In our parishes we gather each Sunday around the altar, as Christ's body, the church fed by Christ's body, the Eucharist, that we find there the strength to lead good lives, generous lives, faithful lives. We know that by carrying the Gospel and the sacraments in the life of the incarnation, the church does enjoy a culture-transforming power that can bring about a civilization of love. The work of Christ's church is the work of salvation, making Christ's kingdom more visible here and now, and preparing us for eternal life.

In a community of faith we learn to worship our God, to forgive one another, to serve those around us, to discover the true dignity of each and every human person made in the image and likeness of God; no matter how small the unborn, no matter how debilitated or unproductive the aged or the infirm, we must take care of each other. No one is expendable. Each and every person counts in God's sight. The Gospel of life will always be the centerpiece of the church's social teachings.

Where shall we find the strength to move ahead? To bring healing and reconciliation, to live out the mission of Jesus, to be the face of God's mercy in the world? We find that strength in the shadow of the cross. Today, I invite all of you to renew with me our baptismal commitment to take up the cross each day and follow Jesus Christ.

When I was a young priest at the Centro Catolico in Washington, a Salvadoran refugee came into my office. He was crying uncontrollably, and handed me a letter that he'd received from his wife. I read the letter. She was berating him for having abandoned her and her eight children.

He had come to Washington because the wars were raging in his country. He came so that he could work and send money home to his family. But after several months, his wife had not received any of the money he had been sending home, and his family was literally starving to death. He told me how he washed dishes in two different restaurants. He would eat the scraps of food on the dirty plates rather than spend money. He walked to work so as not to spend any money on bus fare, and he sent all of his earnings back to his family each week. But nothing arrived.

I asked him if he sent checks or money orders. He said, ''Oh, no, Padre, I put the money, the cash, in an envelope and I drop it in that blue mailbox on the corner.'' I looked out the window and I saw that blue mailbox. It was a spiffy trash bin, part of the District of Columbia's beautification project. It brought home to me how hard the lot of immigrants is in a strange land. Not knowing the language and the customs can cause such a sense of disorientation and alienation. In the case of this man from El Salvador, his toil was really not futile because it betokened love and selflessness that bound him to his wife and his children. But too often, people's quest for success in culture is misguided. To have lots of money, to be good-looking and thin, to be popular. It's not enough. If this is the measuring stick for success, the lock box is just another blue trash bin.

'I invite you to return'

Reflecting on the plight of this campesino, I find a parable for our own lives. In great part, that man's problems resulted from not knowing the language and the ways of the land. For us believers, the language of faith is prayer. Prayer is the language that allows us to communicate with our heavenly father. It's a window that allows light into our life. Some people have forgotten that language. Without prayer, we become spiritually disoriented. Our relationships suffer, we begin to be isolated, alone, confused, and often overwhelmed. In the letter ''Novo Millenio Ineunte'' [an apostolic letter issued on Jan. 6, 2001], Pope John Paul II says that it's a mistake to think that most Christians can get along on a superficial prayer life. Especially in today's world, which tests our faith, such persons become mediocre Christians or Christians at risk.

Formation in prayer must become the determining point in every pastoral program. In prayer, we shall discover the primacy of grace and discover that without God we can do nothing. In prayer, we will find the strength to carry out the mission entrusted to us to walk in humility and love and practice mercy with all. St. Ignatius put it so well: ''We must pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended upon us.''

If we are a praying people when we gather at the Eucharist, we will know God's language and be a part of the miracle of self giving that is the Eucharist. There we will find the strength to make a gift of ourselves to God and to each other. There we shall find the strength to wash one another's feet and to live the Great Commandment of love.

On Calvary, there were but few people because it takes great courage to stand by the cross. Today, we of the church of Boston stand before the cross, but we are not alone. From the cross, Jesus gave us his mother: ''Behold thy mother.'' We Catholics all have a tender love for our blessed lady. With her help and protection, we will be faithful disciples, and we shall be sure that those who sow in tears shall reap rejoicing.

In the words of St. Francis, we pray: ''We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world.''

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 7/31/2003.
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