It’s hard not to think positively of Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s being mentioned as a contender to succeed Pope Benedict. Media interest (see Vatican reporter John Allen’s recap in the National Catholic Reporter about how Italian media have fueled the speculation) has given credibility to the idea in the now hot sport of speculating about Papal selection.
Imagine the symbolism of a Capuchin priest, clad in the sandals and rough brown garment of his order, becoming the head of the church whose hierarchy has become chided for its opulence and scandal since at least the Reformation! Pressed to pay for settlements in sex abuse cases pre-dating his tenure, O’Malley sold the official (and imposing) chancery residence in Brighton and moved into a simple rectory in the South End. More significantly, he introduced into the management of the archdiocese of Boston a very Franciscan style of listening and dialogue that worked to keep all constituents of the flock together.
As many writers, including Lisa Wangsness of the Boston Globe, have noted, the idea of his elevation has merit. He is highly intelligent (dual doctorates in Spanish and Portugese literature), is multi-lingual, and connects easily with a much needed younger generation. He’s the first Cardinal to have his own blog. A significant percentage of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics reside in Spanish- and Portugese-speaking countries, especially in South and Central America. They are, however, under-represented among the 117 cardinals. Cardinal Sean is not only fluent in both languages (plus French and Creole) but has also ministered to Latinos in the United States and Chile. That could be a plus.
He is thoughtful and articulate and doctrinally conservative. He is committed to opposing abortion and would be very traditional with respect to canon law barring the ordination of women. But in his administrations as bishop in the Virgin Islands, Fall River, Palm Beach and Boston, he seems always to have included women in his consultation, and in last week’s press conference he did say that, however unlikely, the ban on married priests could change.
The Cardinal was a much welcome successor to Bernard Cardinal Law, widely faulted with covering up pedophile priest scandals for decades. While O’Malley has been criticized by some survivors for not going far enough to punish abusers, this Cardinal has moved light years in addressing the problems and sustaining new policies of child protection during his tenure, beginning with zero tolerance. Pope Benedict sent him to Ireland to help sort out the sexual abuse scandal there.
If anything, the humility that has been so refreshing for the Boston archdiocese could weigh against Cardinal Sean in the papal selection process viewed strictly as a political event. Is his personality forceful enough to lead his flock worldwide? Would he, as a stranger to Vatican politics, be able to survive and surmount the traditional intrigue and infighting? Those who know him personally worry about the impact such an elevation would have on Sean Patrick O’Malley the man. It’s an impossible job, they say, one they would not wish on him, however many pluses there might be for the Catholic Church.
At his press conference last week, the Cardinal said, in typical fashion, that he’s not losing any sleep over this turn of events, and he has bought a round-trip ticket home, perhaps dismissing the likelihood of an American Pope in general and of himself in particular. Nevertheless, one of my Catholic friends tells me that the process is not strictly political and that Catholics should neither anticipate nor underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit in the man who is chosen.
Those of us from other faiths or none who have accompanied them through all the scandals must admit that the prospect raised by John Allen and other reporters is strangely appealing.
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