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, dressed in his trademark brown robe and sandals, said last June.

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, installed at a solemn Mass last July 30th, perhaps the most crucial appointment of John Paul II's pontificate. If, once again, a humble friar can rescue the Catholic Church, it may be due to 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 chancery's competitive matrix.

Priests ordained to religious orders-such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, Carmelites and the like-take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Priests, such as Law, 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 clergy is the expectation that they will live a simple, Christ-like life. And the vast majority do. But it is also possible for diocesan priests to own a home, or to salt away investments or an inheritance for retirement. Father Andrew Greeley, for example, is a Chicago priest and best-selling author who has made millions from his popular novels. But he has liberally dispensed his earnings, donating close to $2.5 million to the archdiocese and to the University of Chicago, where he teaches.

Order priests generally do not have that option-they surrender anything they inherit or earn to their community of monks or friars. Besides this egalitarian orientation, religious-order clergy tend to dedicate their lives to the poor, the sick, and the marginalized, often in missionary postings overseas. O'Malley, for example, first became a bishop in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he promptly moved out of the previous bishop's grand residence and focused on ministering to the poor. Early in his career as a priest in Washington, D.C., he moved into vermin-infested housing in a run-down neighborhood. When he became the Bishop of Palm Beach in 2002, O'Malley rejected the large home that each preceding bishop had enlarged, instead moving into a small convent and letting the nuns use the larger quarters.

The challenge for religious-order priests who become bishops, like O'Malley, is that when they take charge of running a diocese, their outsider status means they can run afoul of pre-existing church politics. O'Malley has so far made no major changes in the Boston curia, whose support he needs as he moves into an even more difficult year. In 2004, he is expected to face tough decisions over the fate of dozens of parishes. Clergy shortages and the drop-off in donations and mass attendance due to the scandal have made the "reconfiguration" a necessity, but one that will test O'Malley's credibility with his flock and with his diocesan staff.

"One of the biggest challenges he faces is that he's still surrounded by the old bureaucracy that was there with Cardinal Law," says James E. Post, president of Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), the national lay-led reform group that sprouted in Boston and around the nation in the wake of the scandal.

O'Malley did bring the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a widely respected priest and author who had been running Catholic Charities USA, from Washington to run Boston's enormous charitable agencies. While that "cabinet" post gives an important forum to an outspoken priest who can challenge bureaucratic thinking, some wonder whether it will be enough cover for O'Malley to effect all the changes he wants to make.

Moreover, in a surprising non-decision, Pope John Paul II did not name O'Malley a cardinal in October, when he created a new batch of red hats for the College of Cardinals that will elect his successor.

Vatican officials said the move reflected no lack of confidence in O'Malley, only recognition that he has his hands full in Boston and needs no further burdens. But not only does that leave the future conclave "vote" on behalf of Boston Catholics in the hands of Cardinal Law-he remains a cardinal in full and a member of many key church offices in the Roman curia-but it also signals to archdiocesan officials that the Vatican is withholding final judgment on O'Malley.