Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has had a cardinal’s-eye view — shared by only a very select few — of the key events of the first year of Pope Francis’ papacy.
Cardinal O’Malley has devoted much of his vocation to ministering to Hispanic immigrants and working with the Church in Latin America, and he participated in the March 2013 conclave that elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. Appointed subsequently to the eight-member council of cardinals formed to advise the Holy Father, the Boston archbishop has now taken on a more visible role in the global Church, working closely with Pope Francis on Church reforms and announcing the formation of a new Vatican commission to address pastoral issues related to clergy sexual abuse and the protection of children.
On March 18, Cardinal O’Malley headlined “The Francis Factor,” an event sponsored by Archbishop William Lori and the Archdiocese of Baltimore that allowed the cardinal to share the rich and compelling insights about Pope Francis he has garnered during the past year.
Before an audience of 3,000 people, Cardinal O'Malley spoke about Pope Francis as a "quintessential Ignatian Jesuit," who is now sharing the fruits of his long practice of spiritual discernment, anchored in the discipline of the daily examen. Indeed, the Pope's Jesuit formation has made it possible for him to engage his flock in unexpected ways, like the stir he created when he washed the feet of prisoners at a Rome detention center during his first Holy Thursday as pope. The strong reaction to the Pope's surprising action, said Cardinal O'Malley, recalled the 12 Apostles' own "shock" as Jesus washed their feet.
Before the event, which took place at Loyola University Maryland, Cardinal O’Malley briefly spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about his experience on the council of cardinals, his efforts to keep the clergy-abuse issue before Pope Francis and the Pope’s concerns about finding pastoral solutions for divorced and remarried Catholics.
As a member of the council of cardinals appointed by Pope Francis to help him address the most urgent concerns of the Church, how would you describe his approach?
The message of the Holy Father is back to basics. He is focusing on the kerygma, the love of God that sent Christ into the world to die on the cross, rise again and accompany us to the end of time. Christ should be at the center of our lives — Christ who is calling us to missionary discipleship.
He is reminding us of our responsibility to witness to God’s love and mercy by the way we treat one another. He uses the word “tenderness” so much.
As he said in his inaugural Mass, which fell on the feast day of St. Joseph, “Tenderness … is not the virtue of the weak, but, rather, a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love.”
All of us Catholics feel very proud and happy that the Holy Father has touched a chord. His approach is allowing people to take another look at the Church. He wants them to see the beauty of the Church. He talks about the way of beauty and the need to emphasize what unites us, so we can draw people together, before we get to the difficult issues.
One of the hermeneutical keys to understanding this man is his profound Ignatian-Jesuit spirituality. This is manifested in a Christocentric life, a great sense of community and prayer and contemplation that expresses itself in action and service.
You are the only U.S. cardinal on the council of cardinals. Does that role include representing the views and experiences of U.S. Catholics?
We try to help the Holy Father understand the issues we have here, [so he can] be aware of the perspective of the Church in our country.
In our meetings, the Holy Father is very anxious to hear our opinions. It is very humbling.
Cardinals from different parts of the world are on the council. Sometimes our views coincide, and sometimes we have a different perspective because of our experience. The Holy Father is facing huge questions, but he is doing so with a deep serenity.
You have labored to strengthen the Church’s response to the scourge of clergy sexual abuse, and you sent one of your own priests, Father Robert Oliver, to take over as the promoter of justice for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, prosecuting cases that are brought to the Vatican. Are you confident that the Holy See is fully engaged in the effort to implement reforms in churches across the world that will help protect children?
We have tried to help the Holy Father understand [the need for a strong response to clergy sexual abuse]. I know he understands its importance. That is why a commission on child protection is being formed.
Pope Francis has expressed sympathy for Catholics who cannot receive the Eucharist because they have divorced and remarried, and some German bishops say that Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage should be modified. Can you give us any information on this issue, which will be addressed at the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family?
The Church will not change her teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
There will be an effort to help those people who have had a failed marriage and try to sift through ways [to consider what] can be done. The Holy Father is anxious to discuss that, but I think it is premature to make any forecast for how it will play out.
The simplification of the annulment process would be a wonderful first step for addressing a very crucial pastoral problem for the Church.
You have been among Pope Francis’ closest advisers since his election. What has that been like?
It has been gratifying to see the love and enthusiasm that people have for this man. He is helping people to glimpse the love, joy and beauty of the Gospel.
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register's senior editor.