Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston and now a cardinal five years into his difficult tenure there, cracked wise in his installation homily about his “lace-curtain” pretensions given that he’d moved to Florida (Palm Beach, no less) from his posting in Fall River, before being called back to Boston.
It was one of the many O’Malley moments that charmed me from the start, though many closer to the scene have far different views of “Cardinal Sean,” as the Capuchin likes to be called. And charm only goes so far. Still, I find the harsher criticisms of him untenable, as well as uncharitable. Every time he’s been called by the church it has been to clean up an awful mess of the hierarchy’s making, and he has done extraordinary work in exrtaordinarily difficult circumstances. He sold the mansion, and much else, and lives as humbly as any prince of the church I’ve seen.
And he has kept his sense of humor. And his sense of God. As the Boston Globe’s first-class religion writer, Michael Paulson, leads in this anniversay profile, O’Malley held no grand celebrations in his own honor for the anniversay, but instead “skipped town, checked into a monastery, and prayed.”
Five years after he was installed as the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, O’Malley remains in many ways the most unusual of public figures – the prince who dresses as the pauper, the leading man who hates the spotlight, the shy man prone to bouts of silence who has, in his own inexorable way, tackled one crushing problem after another, delivering the archdiocese from something close to free-fall to something akin to stability.
He arrived in Boston on July 30, 2003, confronting, for the third time in his career as a bishop, a diocese thrown into crisis by clergy sexual abuse. But if the situations confronting the Fall River and Palm Beach dioceses had been grim, the situation in Boston was ruinous. So bad, in fact, that when Pope John Paul II asked him to move to Boston, O’Malley unsuccessfully sent a plea to the pope to reconsider.
“I dropped the phone . . . it was quite a shock,” O’Malley said in an interview Tuesday. “I did ask him to reconsider, and it came back immediately with, no, this is what he wants you to do.”
O’Malley ticked off the litany of woes that confronted the archdiocese that summer: parishioners angry and bolting over the abuse crisis, the church’s coffers in “economic free-fall,” money-losing hospitals, failing pension funds, a rapidly emptying seminary, and 1,000 lawsuits against the diocese.
“When I got here I found out that things were worse than I had feared,” he said. “Things were just in very, very bad shape.”
He still faces enormous challenges and has many critics…