Despite his highly influential religious office, he makes time to sit with the people, comfort the sick, and help the poor. He often forgoes traditional fancy threads and maintains a quiet, humble disposition. He is, above all things, a pastoral man.
If you think I’m talking about Pope Francis, think again.
If you were to see Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley walking around in his characteristic brown smock, with a small ego but a big laugh, you might not even realize that he is the single most important American prelate. As one of the eight cardinals Pope Francis famously selected to advise him in April 2013, and the only one from the United States, O’Malley has the ear of the pope. As Francis stirs a worldwide resurgence of interest in the Catholic Church, it’s worth noting that American Catholics have a pastoral cardinal of their own who’s shifting views of the church.
His support transcends ideology. Both conservatives and liberals seem to really love him.
— Christopher Hale, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good
Many people who know him refer to him as “Francis before there was Francis.” What they mean is, Cardinal O’Malley is the quintessential embodiment of a Francis bishop — a religious leader whose priority is being of the people.
“He’s a powerful person who uses power sparingly,” says John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. Carr worked with O’Malley in the 1980s in the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., and remained in contact with him while serving on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for more than two decades. “He doesn’t throw his authority or his access to the Holy Father around at all.”
Update: Today, Pope Francis named Cardinal Seán O’Malley as one of eight members in the new Vatican anti-abuse commission confronting child sex abuse scandals. He is the lone American on the commission.
On top of that, he’s beloved and respected by his brother bishops. “I think he’s by far the most popular American cardinal,” says Christopher Hale, who works for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. “His support transcends ideology. Both conservatives and liberals seem to really love him.”
While O’Malley’s life is marked by praise, he is not without criticism. He recently had a female Lutheran minister anoint him in a sign of ecumenism, which received backlash as a “farcical ritual” by the far right. He was also criticized when he participated in Senator Ted Kennedy’s funeral, because of Kennedy’s pro-choice stance.
His response? “Our ability to change people’s hearts and help them to grasp the dignity of each and every life, from the first moment of conception to the last moment of natural death, is directly related to our ability to increase love and unity in the church, for our proclamation of the truth is hindered when we are divided and fighting with each other,’’ he wrote as part of a longer statement defending his actions.
To call O’Malley a “liberal Catholic” would be incorrect. He is staunchly pro-life, often participating in marches to end abortion. In 2006, Boston made headlines when Catholic Charities under his leadership stopped adoptions instead of complying with laws to allow gay couples to adopt children. And just this week, O’Malley encouraged caution among those who predict the Church might change its stance on divorced Catholics seeking communion, a matter that has been widely discussed since Francis became pope.
He was the first cardinal with a personal blog, written so he could connect with a younger audience.
A year ago, many Vatican observers thought O’Malley would be selected as pope. He is fluent in several languages, including Spanish and Portuguese. He founded the Hispanic Catholic Center in Washington D.C. and has been praised widely for helping Boston heal after clergy sex abuse scandals rocked the city, where he began serving as archbishop in 2003 and continues to this day. He’s served as a bishop in the Virgin Islands and Florida, traveled to Portugal to represent the pope and conducted seminary visitations on behalf of the Vatican across Latin America. He was the first cardinal with a personal blog, written so he could connect with a younger audience. He pushes for immigration reform. Many Church observers say that if it were up to the people of Italy to decide the pope, O’Malley would have been chosen last year.
Much of O’Malley’s legacy up until this point has been tied to the enormous challenge he faced when starting out as archbishop to Boston. Clergy sex abuse is still a problem that plagues the Catholic Church today, and O’Malley may be positioned to help combat the problem on a wider scale with his rising prominence.
“Boston was the epicenter of the sex abuse crisis in 2002,” says Michael Sean Winters, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter who has known O’Malley for more than 18 years. It was the first time in U.S. history that a cardinal had resigned, making the circumstances of O’Malley’s arrival in Boston unprecedented, Winters explains. “He had to meet with the victims, deal with the settlements. He slowly but surely turned the Church around.”
It was an act of courage to call attention to the hurt, loss and anger that had occurred with these victims…
— John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life
O’Malley may be humble, but he has a head for the business side of the Church. Winters says every single account at the Archdiocese was in the red when O’Malley arrived, and they are all now in the black. St. John’s seminary went from 34 students to 106, and Catholic school enrollment in Boston has slightly increased in the past two years and for the first time in forty years.
Carr similarly complimented the work O’Malley did in Boston, and brought up a story he heard about when Pope Benedict XVI visited Washington D.C. O’Malley arranged a quiet meeting between Benedict and the victims of sexual abuse. He also gave the then-pope a book containing all of the names of people who had been sexually abused in Boston. “He asked the pope to look at every page in that book to see the scale of the harm that had been done,” says Carr. “I’m told that the pope had tears in his eyes.” Carr points out that, when dealing with the pope, many people want to talk about the great things the Church does, and that it was an act of courage on O’Malley’s part to call attention to the hurt, loss and anger that had occurred with these victims. And now, it seems O’Malley continues his fight. In December 2013, O’Malley announced Francis was assembling a commission to advise him on clergy sex abuse.
“The Pope is setting the agenda,” says Winters. O’Malley advises the pope when asked, and is careful not to lobby him.
Winters adds that O’Malley is “quite conservative” but rather than aggressively fighting culture wars, he is pastoral in how he applies his views. ”He thinks change is best done gradually. He consults widely before he makes his decisions, kind of like Francis,” says Winters. “He thinks change, if it’s going to happen, should happen organically. You don’t use power to force it.”
It sounds like O’Malley and Francis are a match made in, well, heaven.
Why you should care
If you are a fan of Pope Francis, you should get to know someone who was cut from the same cloth and is right in our backyard.