The leading vote getters in our advisory poll for the Most Inspiring Person-V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop, and President Bush-were also the two most controversial figures on our list. There are some similarities between them. Each inspires great passion, love, and hatred. Advocates for each man cited his courage and moral clarity-and added that the other guy was not merely mistaken but evil. Such is America as we begin 2004.

Despite their many admirable qualities-and the large numbers of people clearly inspired by them-we decided not to choose either Bush or Robinson as the most inspiring person of 2003. While each man has shown the courage of his convictions-sparking both admiration and bitter dissent-we thirst this year for our Most Inspiring Person to be someone who unites.

We were deeply moved by the heroism of Capt. Zan Hornbuckle and Spc. Lori Piestewa, the extraordinary soldiers whom we chose to represent all of the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who separates conjoined twins and is devoted to educating kids from impoverished backgrounds like his own; and Susan Tom, a single mother who adopted 11 severely disabled children, remind us of how powerfully individual efforts can improve the lives of others. Teen surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost an arm in a shark attack but has continued to surf, is a role model to those attempting to conquer personal fear and tragedy. Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Prize for her peace and human rights work in Iran, struck a blow not only for women and democracy, but for progressive Islam. And Pope John Paul II this year demonstrated not only adherence to principle but determination to age gracefully.

But in the end, we have made an unusual selection: Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston.

O'Malley arrived at an archdiocese in spiritual crisis. Under Cardinal Bernard Law's administration, the church's response to known sexual abuse in its ranks had become an Orwellian perversion of its mission. Church authorities not only enabled and covered up child abuse, but made matters far worse by treating victims with hostility. In too many dioceses around the country, the temptation to protect church finances pitted the bishops against the victims.

Following advice from their lawyers, bishops viewed their role as protectors of the church as an institution rather than as guardians of their flocks. Determined to avoid fiscal bankruptcy, they chose spiritual bankruptcy.

O'Malley, a Franciscan friar, took a very different approach. "People's lives are more important than money," he said upon his selection. He quickly moved to cut short the bitter legal fight and come to a settlement with the victims. As he had in his former diocese of Fall River, Mass., O'Malley began meeting with-and listening to-lay Catholic and victims' groups, rather than trying to marginalize them. And instead of blaming the press for reporting the crimes or victims' groups for threatening the authority of the church, he took the genuinely Christian approach of confessing the church's sins:

"The whole Catholic community is ashamed and anguished because of the pain and damage inflicted on so many young people and because of our inability and unwillingness to deal with the crime of sexual abuse of minors," he said at his installation Mass. "To those victims and their families, we beg forgiveness." (For the full homily, click here.)

The crisis has undermined the faith of all Americans not only in the Catholic Church, but in religious leaders generally. O'Malley understood that the country was watching the Catholic Church for signs of whether it would provide genuine spiritual leadership or simply more bureaucratic thinking. O'Malley saw an opportunity:
How we ultimately deal with the present crisis in our Church will do much to define us as Catholics of the future. If we do not flee from the cross of pain and humiliation...if we work together, hierarchy, priests, religious and laity, to live our faith and fulfill our mission, then we will be a stronger and a holier Church.

This should be of some consolation to those victims who have opened old wounds in their own hearts by coming forward. Your pain will not be in vain if our Church and our nation become a safer place for children.
As a dramatic symbol of his commitment to placing the well-being of Catholics above the well-being of the bureaucracy, he moved to sell the archbishop's residence-a mansion surrounded by parklike grounds-to help pay for the abuse settlements. For those who know O'Malley's background, it was an unsurprising gesture. While working with Hispanic immigrants in Washington, D.C., he lived among the poor and needy. He has always chosen to lead by example.

Archbishop O'Malley is a rare religious leader who has managed to unite and inspire a wide variety of people. Even those who dislike his conservative views on sexual or moral issues appreciate his heartfelt efforts to restore spiritual credibility to the church.

Finally, we chose O'Malley in part to make a point about journalism as well. The media are all too happy to whack religious (or other) leaders when they're messing up. Beliefnet is no exception, having been unstinting in its criticism of bad bishops. But the media have an obligation also to shine the spotlight on those men and women who are trying to correct the very failings we have criticized in the past.

If you look at the vote tally on our poll, you'll see that Archbishop O'Malley came in last. In that sense, he is the least acclaimed of our finalists, the humblest. How appropriate for Archbishop O'Malley.

For living the words supposedly spoken by St. Francis of Assisi-"Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words"-Archbishop O'Malley has earned the honor being Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of 2003.

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