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03.12.13

The Case for Cardinal Sean O’Malley

With a history of tirelessly helping the poor, Cardinal Sean O’Malley has shown just the kind of qualities the world needs in a new pope, argues Christopher Dickey.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Sean O’Malley, who may stand a better chance than any American in history of becoming pope when the conclave convenes in Rome on Tuesday. I knew him in the late 1970s, and even then he had the qualities that I think a lot of people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, would like to see in the person who will be called Holy Father.

O’Malley, 68, is a cardinal now, and the archbishop of Boston. But in those days we were both very young. I was in my 20s and a fledgling metro reporter covering immigrant communities for The Washington Post. He was in his early 30s, but had already spent several years running a center for Hispanics out of a semi-derelict old building called the Kenesaw in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

The people who came to him for help often had no papers and were living on the edge of personal disaster, far from their families and homes in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Peru and Bolivia. But this bearded Franciscan friar in the long brown robes, the pointed hood and the sandals of the Capuchin order, who looked so strange on the streets of the nation’s capital at the height of the disco era, seemed wonderfully familiar and reassuring for the immigrants. He was an unabashed icon of the church they knew, the human embodiment of the charity they hoped for, the worldly and wise friend who could help them straighten out their lives. “Padre Sean,” they called him.

When we first met, it was in the center’s offices, if that’s what they could be called. Big maps of Central and South America were pinned to the wall with letters cut out of colored paper like in elementary school. They read PAZ (peace), JUSTICIA (justice), and AMOR (love).  He seemed so at ease with the people there, and they with him, that I asked uncertainly where he came from.

“Didn’t you know there’s a long line of El Salvadorans named O’Malley?” he said,  laughing.  “No, actually I’m from Lakewood, near Cleveland, Ohio. The people who come here, many of them are poor and have little education. They don’t see anything strange about my name. I don’t speak Spanish with an accent, and a lot of them think I am from Spain.”

This was an idea that obviously appealed to O’Malley, as I wrote in the profile of him that I reported for the Post back then. As proud as he was of his Midwestern origins and family, his heart seemed to be in Latin America. This was a time of ferocious wars and revolutions, when many priests talked of taking “the option for the poor” in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or the slums of Managua. O’Malley had taken that option in Mount Pleasant.

O’Malley didn’t use the militant Marxist rhetoric associated with the “theology of liberation” that attracted many young priests and nuns. But he was a militant community organizer. Among other things, he and the nuns who worked with him were the scourge of diplomats who brought servants from their home countries and kept them as virtual slaves. O’Malley and his association worked tirelessly to “bring out” domestics trapped by their employers. “In the diplomatic circles we are sort of looked on as troublemakers,” O’Malley told me, clearly chuffed. “We’re hoping that the association will be feared.”

It’s telling that O’Malley, more than any other figure from any continent, is the favorite of the Italian public.

That would be turning the tables, he said. “You can’t understand the fear that these women have. To get in a cab or a bus and go away from the place where they've worked—especially when their employer is telling them that they can't do it—that he will rip up their passports or take reprisals against their families back home. We help to educate them; tell them their rights.  But there are many, I'm sure, who are afraid to come to us."

Other projects included legal action against slumlords, medical assistance, and helping immigrants find employment.  O’Malley and the Catholic Center in the Kenesaw were used by the community, in fact, as troubleshooters for almost any problem that came up. "When they can't think of anybody else to call, they call us,” he told me. “We had a Romanian refugee sent over to us by the Catholic Immigration Service, and occasionally we get drunken Greek sailors…" O'Malley laughed a little wearily. “He runs around like crazy," one of his associates told me. "He's always at meetings, at a mass, or burying or marrying somebody."

In 1980, partly inspired by what I had seen in Washington’s Hispanic community and the people I had met through Padre Sean, I went to Central America to cover its wars up close. I have lived overseas, essentially, ever since, and long ago lost touch with O’Malley. So it was only recently that I made the connection between the friar I knew in Mount Pleasant, the bishop assigned to Boston a decade ago to try to help that city recover from the horrific priest-abuse scandals in its past, and now the cardinal in Rome for the conclave. 

Other Americans also are given decent odds to become the next pontiff.  Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is described, almost invariably, as “larger than life,” and may not be campaigning for the job (which his fellow princes of the church would consider unpardonable chutzpah), but there’s no doubt Dolan has the charismatic demeanor of a glad-handing politician.  A recent profile in The New York Times reads like a campaign biography. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washingon, D.C., with his German roots and scholarly mien, is more in the line of Pope Benedict XVI, whose resignation set this whole process in motion.

O’Malley has enormous experience as a pastor, an international background and a decade trying to heal a big and deeply troubled archdiocese. Those are the kinds of attributes the cardinals in the conclave are said to be looking for. If O’Malley has a flaw, it’s that he’s not thought to be an administrator who is well enough organized and sufficiently ruthless to reform the Vatican bureaucracy. But, is that really what 1.2 billion Catholics think they want and need in a pope? An efficient CEO?

It’s telling that O’Malley, more than any other figure from any continent, is the favorite of the Italian public. That’s no small thing for the man who will have among his many titles “Bishop of Rome.” Milan’s Corriera della Sera newspaper recently asked eight prominent Vatican watchers which cardinals they thought most likely to be elected pope, and O’Malley was mentioned by five of them, tied with Odilo Scherer of Brazil and one ahead of Milan’s own Angelo Scola. Wuerl and Dolan only scored one vote apiece. Still more striking results came from a readers’ poll. Corriera reported that O’Malley beat Scola 38 percent to 18 percent, followed by Louis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines with about 14 percent, and the rest of the field far behind.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter suggests the readers were swayed by description of O’Malley as a leading advocate of church policy against sexual abuse. (The activists of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests would beg to differ, claiming he still hasn’t been tough enough on the accused.) The Italians also like the fact that O’Malley criticized the widely hated Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, for calling the anguished criticism voiced by victims of abuse “petty gossip.” As Allen points out, Italians are in a cantankerous mood these days. Whether in secular politics, where recent elections have made a comedian the parliamentary kingmaker, or in the church, Italians (and many other people around the world) are desperate for inspiration and emotion after the desiccated intellectualism of Benedict.

The Italians also have a soft spot for Capuchin Franciscans, who have long been known for their work with the poor. Nor would it hurt “Padre Sean” that his robes and his beard suggest a resemblance to the Italian Franciscan Padre Pio, widely revered as a miracle worker, who died in 1968 and was canonized in 2002.

Naturally, O’Malley has demurred whenever he’s been asked directly if he might be the next pope. Typically, he jokes about not wanting to waste his return ticket to Boston. But a homily he delivered in tribute a few years ago to Padre Pio, in the saint’s hometown of San Giovanni Rotondo, gives some notion of his views. “Many saints are hidden from view and remain unknown,” O’Malley said (in Italian). “But some saints are placed in the world to capture the attention of a society that has forgotten about God.”

That is also the role of a pope, and one that O’Malley may be uniquely equipped to play.