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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.

  • Tom Jones

    He…. would rather not rock the boat, ie, goes along to get along, than press the Truth.
    Precisely why he’ll be selected!

  • Francesco Totti

    For someone who professes to be Catholic, I don’t recall any commandments that say “thou shall accuse your brother…”  Cardinal O’Malley was a fantastic, model Bishop, and now a fantastic Cardinal, and always true to the ways of St. Francis.  It would be a tremendous blessing to have him as pope.

  • E T Perez

    If anything, and I know Cardinal Sean personally, he does not shy away from conflict. He bruised some egos in Boston by selling the Archbishop palace, He has been chosen many times to solve the problem of abuse in several dioceses and has done so.
    His humility, sense of duty, and loyalty, puts him as an example of what a priest should be.
    He is what the Catholic Church needs right now in the Vatican. If so, God give him strength

  • Bill

    Please help me understand your position. Contact me directly via FB message box. Thank you.

  • southofboston28

    To Tito:  Could you please be more specific regarding your assertion that Cardinal O’Malley is a poor manager of the Chancery?  And what mess are you referring to inside the Boston Archdiocese Chancery?  I am unaware of any of these things but am interested in learning about them.

  • Chesire11

    When you accuse a man of neglecting his duty to protect the unborn, and surrounding himself with sychophantic “dissidents and heretical Catholics” to puff up his ego you very directly question the authenticity of his piety.

    Personally, I have little respect for people who so glibly tosses around accusations of heresy, but at least, if you’re going to question a man’s piety, please have the integrity, and respect for your audience’s intelligence not to pretend that you didn’t.

  • Ghengis

    St. Francis was a holy monk but he would not be a good model for a position that requires managerial, tactical, and organizational skills. We live in the physical world and must obey its laws; being a nice person is not the most important trait of a true leader. O’Mally may well have been a good charitable social worker or monastic charitable organizer but this is not enough for an executive position; those that see Jesus as gentle hippie forget he violently threw people out of the temple for desecrating it.  There are heresies desecrating the temple today and we need someone strong to throw them out.

  • Mike Hurcum

    you have to be joking right.

  • Benedict Carter


    The time is long, long past that the laity should assume the best about our priests, our Bishops, even our Popes. 

    Things are so bad that I (and many others) assume the worst now by default, and most of the time we are proved right.

  • Suzy Rogers

    are obsessed with sex abuse in the Catholic church from 40 and 50 years
    ago in the same way that Republicans were concerned about perjury in a
    civil case in the impeachment proceedings of Bill Clinton.

    It’s hilarious.

    Go here to learn the hidden agenda behind  the liberal media’s jihad of exaggeration, bias
    and misinformation about the Catholic church and ancient claims of sex abuse.


    Stop the bias!  Stop the lies!  Tell the truth! 

    Speak truth to the power of Big Media!

  • Top Scientist

    Last I checked, running one of the world’s largest archdioceses counts as an “executive position.” 

  • DianaG2

    Don’t assume anything. Just keep an open mind.

    We’re Catholic because of Our Lord and his Sacraments. There’s no need to keep trying to figure these things out.

    I am a survivor of abuse done by a priest.

  • Benedict Carter

    Keep an open mind about heresy, sacrilege and blasphemy?


  • Abraham

    Simply because you are a pious monk with a gentle heart you shouldn’t be chosen! He still sided with the sexual abuse priests shielding them while using church funds for thier defense, paid out a fortune to settle legal suits and bankrupted many parishes. is that the correct way to go? I think not

  • Annie

    As one who is blessed with a Capuchin as parish priest, I have nothing but admiration for the wonderful Franciscan spirit of selflessness and forbearance in all circumstances but this does not mean weakness, sometimes pure unalloyed love and compassion is a force stronger than any evil which stands in its way…maybe it is time for a follower of St Francis to be chosen. God’s will be done.

  • Hermione

    From what I have read here and having no other knowledge of Cardianl O’ Malley, he might just be the kind of Pope who would get rid of puffed up titles such as Princes of the Church.  If Jesus called Himself our servant why should they feel the need to be known as greater than HIm.  This is just one of the many many things that I would like to change in order that, we the laity, can believe that they feel they are called to serve us and not be like Pharisees in our midst burdening us with laws that they don’t obey and don’t uphold.

  • liquafruta

    You wouldn’t think it was hilarious if you had been a victim of sexual abuse at any time. You should be ashamed to write such things particularly as we have recently lost our one and only cardinal for alleged sexual misconduct.

  • Guest234

    always true to the ways of Francis…really. I think you are blind sighted. This cardinal has been talked up as a genius.But on closer examination he is nothing of the sort… Just the same as the rest… Look what he did in Boston.

    Settled the lawsuits paying millions of church money to the victims. They were sworn to secrecy. Again the identity of the criminal abusive priests were protected. He protected the church’s reputation so he is great. He protected the perpetrators so he is great…

    St. Francis would actually be appalled at what this capuchin did. Its another form of coverup using monies. Then what happened. Parishes and schools had to close because the archdiocese has no money to maintain them all. This is a good guy? You should think again… Rubbish.

    I wouldn’t have done it that way at all. I would have handed the priest files to the police and the attorney general of the state and say if the evidence is enough..if the case is not time barred go ahead with prosecution under civil law. The criminal and abusive priests would be hung out to dry. Thevictims would get justice. many of the abusive priests deserve to be in jail for what they have done.

    But because they took a vocation of celibate priesthood, they work for the church and the church protects them to the end. This is absolutely disgraceful. St. Francis would be appalled. Jesus Christ would also be appalled at this capuchin’s behaviour…

  • Guest

     Oh and i forgot one thing. He use the Catholic TV network to burnish his image. To show the world that he is a great priest and cardinal….

  • Aspiring lay capuchin

    Agreed. This would be the worst choice for pope, capuchin or not…..

  • secular franciscan

    Not this guy surely. Due to this POOR handling of the Boston clerical abuse scandals. He used church money to settle the cases of abusive priests with their victims. As usual the identity of the priests kept secret and the victims sworn to secrecy. Church moneis, millions used for settlement to save the face of the church. Because of this schools and parishes closed because no money to fund them because all spent on the priest settlement. Gentle heart? My foot! Another conniving church official who works to protect his hierarchy. Of course he looks good in Rome and USA because he saved the church. I don’ know who was better? This guy or Bernard Law (the straightforward honest do nothing guy). The guy well he swept everything under the carpet and paid millions in hush money to silence the victims bankrupting the church in the provess. If you think he did good, you should think again. Have a long hard think at his ethods which have lead to the bankruptcy of parts of his archdiocese. (Mind you Timothy Dolan did the same thing and is also held up as a hero….)

    The proper way to go, Gentlemen cardinals, hand over the files of your abusive priests to the civil authorities – to the police and the attorney general’s offices in your states. If there is evidence let them prosecute and hang the criminal priests out to dry once and for all. St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint for this man will be appalled by what he did…

  • aspiring lay capuchin

    just because he sold the palace and downgraded his apartment, he is goos. what about banrupting parts of his archdiocese with the settlements for the priests in the abuse scandals. again protect the priest, protect the church and silence the vistims by paying them shut up.hush money. Is this the way to go. If this guy is Pope end of the Church because the Vatican will be further corrupted inside. Sorry for you American chaps, I don’t want any American as Pope because the whole church there is tainted by association. I prefer the Pope came from a “clean” country where there is no sexual abuse.

  • brother francis – franciscan

    agreed. you forgot to mention using the Catholic TV network to brush up his image. you can see/hear his homilies there on the youtube. Clever image management which other cardinals do not have to prmote themselves and to project a certain kind of image. Its brainwashing of the best kind