The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


A humble Franciscan steps into eye of the storm

Selection by pope tells of importance of repairing church

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 7/2/2003

Sean Patrick O'Malley doesn't look like any of the bishops whose portraits grace the halls of the Italianate manse where Boston's Catholic prelates reside.

Yesterday, he arrived at his first news conference as archbishop-elect in a black Mercury Grand Marquis bearing the same low-number license plate, 80, that has graced the automobiles of archbishops of Boston for decades.

But as he stepped out into the bright sun, it quickly became apparent that this is a different kind of bishop: a smiling, bearded man in a brown robe and sandals, a man who went on to offer a plainspoken analysis of the crisis in Boston and to field questions with a combination of humility, occasional, quiet humor, and a notable want of defensiveness.

''You can't help but be struck by the contrast between Cardinal Law's formality and Bishop O'Malley's personable, warm nature,'' said Stephen J. Pope, the chairman of the theology department at Boston College. ''There could be something slightly misleading in that - my impression is that Bishop O'Malley's theology for the church is exactly the same as Cardinal Law's - but the way he conducted himself today, he's going to have an awful lot of people on his side.''

O'Malley's orthodoxy and humility struck many who watched him yesterday. He garnered acclaim, as progressives found in his personality - and conservatives in his theology - reason for hope.

''He is vibrantly orthodox, pastorally persuasive, and he evinces a response to the call to holiness, and God knows that's what's needed in the church and our culture,'' said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of First Things, a journal of religion and public life and a favorite among Catholic traditionalists. ''His wearing of the habit is not only picturesque, but it also reminds people of the rich diversity of traditions within Catholicism, and I would hope that the more affluent Catholics of Boston would not see that as something declasse, but as something that powerfully testifies to the authentic devotion of Catholicism to everybody.''

Across the broad spectrum of the Catholic Church, which is experiencing division after the sex abuse crisis, priests and lay people expressed a collective desire to see O'Malley succeed. And scholars said the choice of O'Malley by Pope John Paul II points to the importance to the church of repairing the church in Boston.

''Of all the possible choices, this is the strongest statement the pope could have made about taking this seriously,'' said the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a theologian at Gregorian University in Rome. ''He has appointed the most competent person available - not that he was really available - and it is only because of the delicacy of this issue, and the importance of it, that the pope would make this kind of move.''

O'Malley is an unusual bishop - there is only one other Capuchin friar in the United States serving at such a high level, and he said as much in his remarks to the media. The Capuchins are a conservative branch of the Franciscans with a particular interest in serving the poor and needy. O'Malley was never a parish priest, and envisioned his life as a missionary, working with immigrants in the United States, or with Catholics outside the country.

''I've always told the nuncio that I feel as though Capuchin bishops should be bishops only in the missions, but apparently my advice was not taken,'' O'Malley said. ''I started off in the missions and was kind of surprised to come back to the States. ... When you're a Capuchin seminarian, being a bishop in the United States is not on the radar screen, believe me, especially Boston.''

Many, however, are hoping that this Capuchin friar is just what Boston needs.

''Jesus wore sandals, too,'' said Jack Connors Jr., the chairman of Hill Holliday and a Catholic layman. ''We need to get back to work, we need to get past the lawyers and the accountants, and get these cases settled as quickly as possible and as honorably as possible, and we need to get back to the works of mercy.''

Some who watched O'Malley yesterday, or who knew him previously, took heart from his evident faith. Around his waist, he wore two symbols of his piety: a white cord with three knots representing his vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and an oversized Franciscan Crown rosary. The only signs of his office were the pectoral cross and the purple zucchetto, or skullcap, of a bishop.

''Here he is, a barefoot Franciscan friar bringing a spirit of social justice, reaching out to the immigrant community, and healing in the Franciscan tradition,'' Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon, a friend of O'Malley's and an ally of the pope, told reporters at the seminary. ''It shows that this old pope of ours is not sleeping at the switch over there. He made a bold and imaginative choice.''

And papal biographer George Weigel, in an e-mail from Poland, called O'Malley ''a holy man, a convinced Catholic, and a humanly engaging personality - three of the qualities essential for real reform in the Archdiocese of Boston.''

''Real reform isn't Catholic Lite,'' he said. ''Archbishop O'Malley can get Catholics excited again about the adventure of orthodoxy.''

Even some of those who don't use phrases like ''the adventure of orthodoxy'' were willing to give O'Malley a chance.

Voice of the Faithful leaders expressed great hope about O'Malley's arrival. The archbishop-elect has no real history with the group - it did not exist in Fall River when he was there, and its new chapter in Palm Beach, Fla., has been meeting at a Passionist retreat house and has not sought access to diocesan property - but the lay group said O'Malley's avowed willingness to talk with lay people would surely include them.

''We see a man from a tradition of service put into an archdiocese that had an imperial style,'' said Dr. James E. Muller, one of the founders of the lay organization and its past president.

O'Malley's humility has been evident throughout his career. For example, when he was installed as bishop in Palm Beach, he eschewed many of the grand trappings of a new bishop, demanding a simpler ceremony. Yesterday, he said he does not know whether he will live in the archbishop's residence or seek something smaller.

''Obviously, as a Franciscan brother, I prefer to have the simplest quarters, but it will take time before I have the lay of the land and see what is the most practical thing for me to do,'' he said.

Quoting from the public radio show, ''A Prairie Home Companion,'' O'Malley said jokingly that he might need a make-believe product mentioned on the show that is supposed to help shy people.

''Well, I'm going to eat those powder milk biscuits, you know, the ones for shy people, and you eat them and get up and do what's got to be done,'' he said. ''That's what `Prairie Home Companion' tells us.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A22 of the Boston Globe on 7/2/2003.
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