St. Francis to the Rescue

The choice of Bishop O'Malley to head the Boston Archdiocese raises a question: Can a humble friar rescue the church again?

At the start of the 13th century, in a crumbling wayside chapel in central Italy, a penitent spendthrift was praying before an ancient crucifix when he heard a voice speak to him: "Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin."

The young man took the divine command to heart, and in one of the most enduring conversion stories of Christianity, Francesco Bernadone - later known as St. Francis of Assisi - renounced his worldly belongings and devoted himself to a life of poverty and service. He gathered around him a group of like-minded mendicants, and founded a religious order that would help reform a medieval church plagued by corruption in Rome, sexual sins among the clergy, and social upheaval among the laity.

Some 800 years later, one of his spiritual descendents, a Franciscan friar named Sean Patrick O'Malley, invoked the same phrase as he accepted one of the most daunting jobs in the Catholic universe - head of the Archdiocese of Boston - amid what is widely viewed as the greatest church crisis of modern times. "I ask you, and plead with you: Repair my church," O'Malley said, dressed in his trademark brown robe and sandals.


As the epicenter of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, Boston is both a bastion of American Catholicism and, conversely, its weakest link. As Boston goes, many believe, so goes the rest of the 65-million-strong U.S. church. That makes the choice of O'Malley, who will be installed at a solemn Mass on July 30, perhaps the most crucial appointment of John Paul II's lengthy pontificate. And it raises a question: Can a humble friar once again rescue the Catholic Church?

If the answer is yes, it may be due to the important but often overlooked differences between clergy. O'Malley is a member of a religious order; his predecessor in Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, is a diocesan clergyman, taught to thrive in the competitive matrix of chancery culture.

The divergence between the religious and diocesan ranks of priests begins at the moment of ordination. Priests ordained to religious orders - such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, Carmelites and the like - take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, while priests ordained to a geographical diocese make promises - not vows -- to remain celibate and to be obedient to their local bishop. Of course, implicit in those promises for diocesan, or "secular" clergy as they are known, is the expectation that they will live a simple, Christ-like life. And the vast majority do.

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