ARCHBISHOP EDWIN O’BRIEN has circled the globe as head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services.
On Oct. 1, he will “settle down” as archbishop of Baltimore.
Archbishop O’Brien will succeed Cardinal William Keeler, who retired due to health reasons at the age of 76. Born in the Bronx, N.Y., Archbishop O’Brien, 68, has for the past 10 years been head of the archdiocese that cares for the spiritual and pastoral needs of U.S. military personnel and their families throughout the world.
A former seminary rector in New York and Rome, he also recently headed an effort to examine U.S. seminaries in the wake of the clerical sex abuse scandal.
Archbishop O’Brien spoke with Register correspondent Stephen Vincent from the military archdiocese’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
You’re going from a worldwide archdiocese in which you’ve traveled to U.S. bases around the globe to the oldest diocese in the United States. Are you ready to “settle down?”
It’s a great honor. Baltimore, of course, was the first diocese in the United States. It’s called the premier see, but not the primatial see, since we don’t have a primate in our country.
There’s a great history that goes back to the foundation of the nation, with a long line of outstanding bishops and archbishops. It’s rather inspiring to be part of that. In my first year or so, I will get to know more and more about the present life of the archdiocese as I learn about our priests and the work that they do, as well as the many fine religious and the laypeople in the parishes and the many apostolates that are active in the archdiocese.
The faith of the people runs very deeply there. They have a strong spirit. I’ll look to that a lot in my first days there.
You’ve been the priest secretary under two cardinals in New York, the rector of two seminaries in New York and Rome, a chaplain in Vietnam, the shepherd of Catholics in the military throughout the world, and now you’re the successor to the first bishop of the United States, Bishop John Carroll. Is it as exciting as it sounds?
Yes, I have a lot to be thankful for to God. The priesthood is very rewarding. I have always liked the verse from the Book of Wisdom, “In the midst of his people, he spoke.” The role of the shepherd is to be in the midst of the people and speak the Word of God, to serve the people with love, to bring them the sacraments and the peace and consolation that the Shepherd himself has offered through his Church. All my assignments have been great opportunities to live up to that ideal.
I’ve been blessed to have a good series of mentors, beginning with Cardinal [Terence] Cooke and then Cardinal [John] O’Connor. I’ve also lived most of my priesthood under the guidance of Pope John Paul II.
What are your memorable experiences with the Military Archdiocese? Did you fly into Iraq?
I just had a couple of times in Iraq. I wanted to get there more often, but conditions prevented me.
The main purpose of the archdiocese is to bring pastoral care and the sacraments to the people in uniform and their families, here in the United States and abroad, and to serve the VA hospitals and facilities. This means a lot of travel, and dealing with people, most of them young, in sometimes difficult situations.
I have been very inspired to see the strength and the faith of these young people. It’s not always a formal or informed faith. They have a practical idealism, a way of putting the highest ideals into practice in very real ways that are healthy and necessary. Their optimism and faith have made me so hopeful for the future. These young people are disciplined. They set their mind to do what is right.
During your time at the Military Archdiocese you’ve built a new headquarters in Washington and started programs to bolster the faith of the soldiers. Would you comment on that accomplishment?
The headquarters is a dream come true. So many people contributed to the effort, and that fact reflects the great respect that the American people have for their military. The Knights of Columbus were very instrumental in providing funding for the project, as they have been in so much of what we do at the archdiocese.
We have a faith enrichment program called “Catholics Seeking Christ.” I think it’s going very well. We train soldiers to be catechists and to lead groups of their fellow soldiers in learning about and growing in the faith.
It’s a great challenge because of the mobility of our military people. No sooner do we train a team then they are off in different directions on another assignment. But they get to bring the Gospel to wherever they go.
There’s been some speculation that you’ve been sent to Baltimore because of your experience as a seminary rector and the overseer of the recent Vatican visitation of U.S. seminaries in the wake of the clerical scandals. Are you going there to “clean house?”
I honestly have no idea why I was chosen for Baltimore. I was asked to go and I responded in obedience to the Holy Father’s request.
I have a great amount of gratitude for the confidence the Holy Father has placed in me. The fact that I have many years of experience in the seminary might have been a factor in my appointment.
Baltimore is unusual in that it has two major seminaries within the archdiocese. As I see it, we’re going to work very closely together as I get to know the fine work they are doing. There’s not any sense of a clean-up intended, but a close collaboration.
What is your view of the sexual scandals?
The faith of the people is very strong. The fact that the people are still active and strong in our parishes and dioceses after what we [the clergy] have done is a strong testament to the faith of the people.
We pray that those who have been hurt will find help and healing. And we work hard every day to make sure that these terrible incidents never happen again. God’s grace will overcome.
Do you have a plan as you prepare for your installation Oct. 1?
This is a new venture, no doubt, and I begin with some degree of hesitancy and even concern. But I think once I get into the role, I’ll find the confidence I need to go forward and meet the challenges ahead.
I know I will gain strength and support from the great people who are preaching the Gospel, and the laypeople who are living out the faith each day. I will draw upon their faith and experiences as I go forward.
Stephen Vincent writes from