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The men who could be pope: Cardinal Seán O’Malley

The Capuchin with a gentle heart

By on Thursday, 7 March 2013

Cardinal O’Malley celebrates Mass in the Archdiocese of Boston’s Bethany Chapel

Cardinal O’Malley celebrates Mass in the Archdiocese of Boston’s Bethany Chapel

Watch the Rome Reports video profile.

Recently I attended a funeral at which Seán Cardinal O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, was the main celebrant. He had flown down to Washington to honour the memory of an old friend with whom he had worked for many years on charitable projects, long before he became a bishop. In listening to the cardinal, I was struck not only by his personal humility, but also by the fact that the Mass was celebrated in a mixture of English, Spanish, and Latin. His willingness to use several different languages to communicate with a very diverse group of people gathered in a large Catholic church, and who all needed to be reached out to in different ways, is rather illuminating of the man himself.

Born in Ohio in 1944, O’Malley professed his vows as a Capuchin friar at the age of 21, was ordained a priest at 26, and began teaching at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. In 1973 the then Fr O’Malley became the head of the Hispanic Catholic Center in Washington, where among other projects he founded El Pregonero, the first Spanish-language newspaper in the American capital. It is still widely read and circulated today in Washington’s growing Hispanic community.

Fr O’Malley’s recognition of the growing importance of the Spanish-speaking Catholic community, and how to use media to reach out to what has often been an underserved population, is something which has continued to characterise the now Cardinal O’Malley’s service as a bishop.

Fr O’Malley was first appointed a coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of St Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, by Pope John Paul II in 1984, coming to serve as the Bishop of St Thomas from 1985 until 1992. He was later appointed Bishop of Fall River, Massachussetts, in 1992, and served in that post until 2002, when he was made Bishop of Palm Beach, Florida. But in 2003, following the disclosure of the sexual abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, Bishop O’Malley was appointed to succeed Bernard Cardinal Law following the latter’s resignation.

Coming into such an environment would have daunted even the most self-assured of prelates. Yet Cardinal O’Malley managed to undertake many of the tasks that needed to be dealt with to address the scandal, and at the same time to show that the Church was not going to slink away into the background because of grievous mistakes that had been made in the past. Under Cardinal O’Malley’s leadership the Boston archdiocese settled numerous sexual abuse claims going back decades, and established a comprehensive set of guidelines for dealing with future reports and complaints. He was made a cardinal in 2006.

Part of this effort to clean house involved the closure of parishes and sale of Church property in order to pay for these settlements, something which was painful and controversial. In the end Cardinal O’Malley’s decision to undertake these actions in order that the archdiocese could continue, became a path for other bishops, faced with similar disasters, to emulate. It was no doubt this track record of doing what needed to be done which later caused Pope Benedict XVI to name O’Malley apostolic visitor to Dublin in 2010, after the sexual abuse scandal broke in Ireland, with the task of observing and reporting back to Rome on how the scandal and reforms were being addressed there.

Cardinal O’Malley at the present time is the only Capuchin member of the College of Cardinals. This alone would no doubt make him stand out in the eyes of many, perhaps as a curiosity or the answer to a pub quiz question. But what is arguably far more interesting, particularly in the present age, is that in 2006 Cardinal O’Malley became the very first cardinal to have his own personal blog, and began podcasting soon after he started blogging.

One element of Cardinal O’Malley’s apostolate that has been particularly striking, but in keeping with his experiences as a young priest serving the local Washington Hispanic community, is his embrace of all forms of media for evangelisation. He established a Secretariat for Catholic Media in the Boston archdiocese, which includes a broad array of services from CatholicTV – a cable and internet-based television station providing much of its own original content – to newspapers, magazines, radio, book publishing, and new/social media. He is always happy to employ the new media and to speak about how those involved in it can use their skills as an opportunity for evangelisation to an audience which may not often hear, or even be receptive to, the Christian message.

“Regarding the use of media Cardinal Seán thinks and acts broadly,” says Fr Robert Reed, president of the CatholicTV network, “seeing every viable means as a way of connecting people with Christ in the Church. Be it a Spanish language newspaper in Washington DC, a television station on the island of St Thomas, or his own personal blog as Archbishop of Boston, he never misses a realistic and sustainable opportunity to communicate.

“From the very first moment he asked me to lead the CatholicTV Network, His Eminence has been a consistent supporter of our creative development and growth in reach,” says Fr Reed. “Whenever I tell him the good news that a cable provider or diocese has picked up CatholicTV, his eyes light up, simply because he knows this represents another opportunity for evangelisation through television and the internet.”

Cardinal O’Malley has appeared on the short list of several Catholic commentators and opinion-makers as a possible next Supreme Pontiff. It is certainly not a position that he would seek out, given both his nature and the particular charism of his being a Capuchin. And there is, of course, always that strike against him that he is an American, which in the eyes of many seems to automatically disqualify him or indeed any American cardinal from consideration.

Still, as one of the family members at the funeral mentioned at the beginning of this article describes him, Cardinal O’Malley is someone who has “a very large sense of humour. He is a gentleman, and a gentle man. I have never seen him act in a confrontational mode… his way seems to be, rather, that of bringing the other person round.”

Perhaps these aspects of his personality, in combination with his embrace of all the tools at his disposal to spread the new evangelisation, will be qualities which his brethren in the College will find worthy of consideration as they enter the conclave to elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI.