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.

Meanwhile, O'Malley himself remains careful not to project the imposing "churchman" image that Law cultivated. His parish visits are low-key affairs, with lots of listening and flesh-pressing. And he always deflects praise: "It's not me, it's the prayers of the people," he likes to say. While Cardinal Law was feared as the basso profondo voice of Catholic orthodoxy, O'Malley embodies St. Francis' famous motto, "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words."

That statement (while likely apocryphal) neatly sums up the Franciscan spirit and helps explain O'Malley's compassionate approach to victims of clergy sexual abuse, which differs markedly from that of many of his fellow bishops. That became evident a decade ago when O'Malley was named to head the diocese of Fall River, Mass., then the focus of a previous round of sex scandals. O'Malley earned a reputation for listening patiently to abuse victims, often for hours, and for negotiating out-of-court settlements that even had plaintiffs' lawyers praising him.

Thus it was no surprise when he was sent to the Diocese of Palm Beach in 2002 after its second bishop in a row resigned in a sex scandal. This time around, with Boston in dire straits, Rome was desperate for a savior for the American church-and its choice of O'Malley made perfect sense. Still, it has surprised veteran Vatican hands-and O'Malley himself, who hoped for a missionary assignment in Latin America-in part because he was installed in Florida just a few months before his appointment to Boston.

At his introduction to Boston Catholics in June, O'Malley quickly made a distinct and positive impression, not only by wearing his trademark Capuchin robe and sandals to his inaugural press conference, but also by heading straight to a meeting with abuse victims. He promised to work for quick settlement for the hundreds of outstanding claims: "We must step up to the plate. People's lives are more important than money." And he indicated he would avoid the mansion where Cardinal Law lived. "Obviously, as a Franciscan brother, I prefer to have the simplest quarters," said the man who invites people to call him Archbishop Sean.

In the months after his July installation-a service highlighted by a homily considered a roadmap to the church's recovery-O'Malley put his words into practice. The day after his installation, O'Malley replaced Law's hard-line legal team with his own lawyer and promised to seek settlements with hundreds of victims whose claims Law's attorneys said the church could not afford to pay. Less than six weeks later, in September 2003, the Archdiocese of Boston reached an agreement to pay $85 million, settling more than 500 sexual abuse lawsuits in the largest payout ever made by the church. Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer representing more than 100 victims, described the agreement as "an act of repentance."

More was to soon come.

O'Malley indeed moved out of the opulent, Italianate mansion that had been the home and symbol of power for Boston prelates since the 1920s and into a modest apartment behind the cathedral in the city's less-than-tony South End. Then in early December, he announced he was putting the mansion up for sale to help pay abuse settlements, a move Law had refused. At the same time, O'Malley announced a plan of short-term loans and mortgages on diocesan properties so that the payouts could be made while the sale of the mansion went through.

"This is a man who has come to do the very large task of trying to repair the church," says Post, of Voice of the Faithful. "He has a sense of what he must do." Several bishops have perceived VOTF as a threat to their authority and banned chapters from meeting on church property. Cardinal Law would not meet with the group. But in November, O'Malley met with Post and VOTF in a surprisingly cordial meeting, though Law's meeting ban remained.

These moves almost immediately reversed the negative energy coursing through Boston. And yet the actions were in keeping with O'Malley's track record, and again pointed to the difference between diocesan and religious clergy. Order clergy are historically the engines of church reform, and they are often as zealous toward themselves as they are in renewing the faith among others. O'Malley's Capuchin branch of the Franciscans was begun in 1525 by an Italian friar who felt the original Rule of St. Francis to live humbly was not being followed closely enough. He started a community whose members could wear a beard, sandals without socks, and a brown habit with a long pointed hood, or cappuccio-the Capuchins thought the small, rounded hood that had come into vogue among Franciscans showed a slacking of religious zeal-as signs of their humility. It is the same garb O'Malley wears daily; he is the only one of the more than 400 bishops in the U.S. hierarchy to wear a habit.

But more than monastic rigor, the freedom to reform is a result of the traditional place of religious orders as outsiders. This dynamic can be seen at the local level, in the disproportionate number of religious orders running Catholic schools and soup kitchens and parishes in poor neighborhoods. Diocesan priests, on the other hand, with their close ties to the bishop, often seek plum assignments in wealthier, burgeoning parishes.

The lack of access to ecclesial power also translates into a lack of promotions to bishop for religious-order clergy. Today, as in the past, more than 90% of all bishops in the American hierarchy are drawn from diocesan clergy. Out of 410 active and retired bishops, just 38 are members of religious orders.

This isn't to say that order priests are somehow "holier" than diocesan clergy, or that Capuchins are the sole answer to the crisis. History is full of authoritarian Franciscans as well as saintly diocesan priests and bishops. Moreover, it is important to make room for variety in religious life.

But it is true that religious-order priests can bring a fresh approach when they become bishops. In today's church, that's vital. American Catholics are more furious at the way the church was managed by men like Law, who shielded abusive priests, rather than at particular church teachings. Archbishop O'Malley is certainly as orthodox as Cardinal Law on matters of sexual teachings and abortion, for example. Yet they are poles apart in how they relate to the faithful-a relationship that, if cultivated, can be the shortest avenue to resolving the crisis.

What is important in this penitential era of Catholicism is that the people-centered approach of priests like O'Malley remains a sign to all clergy, and especially to bishops representing the official church in a hostile environment. In this daunting situation they may do well to remember the advice of the English Cardinal Basil Hume, a Benedictine who died in 1999: "A monk is valuable in the marketplace if he preserves a nostalgia for the desert."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad