Mixed Blessing

Sean Patrick O'Malley considers his followers a people in exile. Which is a funny way of looking at things when you're the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston. After all, this city is full of Catholics — more than two million at last count. We see them on Beacon Hill, in the business world, on the evening news. Catholics have been running the show here since Honey Fitz was elected mayor nearly 100 years ago. ¶ Yet Archbishop O'Malley insists his large flock has been cast out in the wilderness. “To me, one of the best metaphors to describe the reality of the church in the United States is the biblical notion of exile,” he has said. “For today's world, the central claims of the faith are increasingly unwelcomed and they are received if not with hostility, at best with the yawn of indifference.”

O'Malley uttered those words during the notorious “culture of death” homily he delivered on Holy Tuesday, when he said baby boomers were religious illiterates lost in limbo thanks to the sexual revolution, feminism, and divorce, among other things. That part of the speech is what people remember, rather than O'Malley's dismay over how an indifferent world ignores what good Catholics believe.

That's unfortunate, because his point about being ignored is an important one. It's precisely the treatment many Catholics believe they're getting from O'Malley.

Since his installation one year ago this month as the sixth archbishop of Boston, the 60-year-old Franciscan friar has proved not quite a disappointment, but certainly not the healing savior Catholics expected.

O'Malley arrived here with one immediate goal laid out before him: to salvage the archdiocese before clergy sexual abuse lawsuits left it both financially and morally bankrupt. While he seems to have averted financial disaster, some in Boston's Catholic community say they wanted a change in leadership and in the way in which the archdiocese deals with the laity. That's not what they got. And it's over those deeper, lingering tensions — about empowerment of laity, control of money, parish closings, sexual morality — that O'Malley has left many local Catholics almost as disillusioned as his predecessors did.

While activist groups like Voice of the Faithful want a say in how their church operates, O'Malley comes from another perspective: the theologically conservative hierarchy assembled and presided over by Pope John Paul II. In that world, the hierarchy delivers the church to its people, not vice versa.

How Archbishop O'Malley expects to balance these two warring points of view — or, indeed, if he does expect to — is unclear. In the year since he arrived, he has never granted an interview to the Boston media. True to form, he declined to comment for this story. Most often, he presents his views in columns in the archdiocese's weekly newspaper, the Pilot, and otherwise zigzags between popular gestures of Christian charity and grating examples of righteousness.

Catholics far and wide have embraced O'Malley for his acts of humility, from his selling of the lavish cardinal's mansion in Brighton to pay for the abuse scandal settlements to his begging forgiveness during his installation ceremony for church cover-ups. But they also cringe over several of his decisions, such as his exclusion of women from the ritual of washing parishioners' feet at Holy Thursday Mass and his clumsy use of the word “feminism” to denounce secular society. He remains surrounded by some of the same men who worked with his disgraced predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law. And his announcement that 65 parishes will be closed in order to make up for financial shortfalls has provoked an emotional backlash.

After his gaffes on Holy Tuesday and Holy Thursday, O'Malley tried to improve his image in an apologetic column in the Pilot. He promised to consult with Pope John Paul II next month in Rome about the washing of women's feet. But the damage had been done.

“He has to wait until August and a trip to Rome to decide what to do with respect to washing women's feet?” asks John Hynes, who chairs the steering committee of the Boston Voice of the Faithful Council. “It seems a bit un-leaderlike to me. But maybe that's the way it has to be in the church.”

What Hynes leaves unsaid (though others state it frankly) is this: To the concerned parishioners, Archbishop O'Malley is just another conservative administrator imposed on Boston Catholics by the Vatican, the latest in a long line of men who just don't get it.

Physically, O'Malley does not cut a terribly intimidating figure. He stands about six feet tall. He has an average frame with sloping shoulders. In public appearances, he tends to walk with his arms against his sides, adding to the impression he gives that he is just a humble monk. With his long white beard and friendly expression, he looks every bit the pastoral priest.

His voice is another matter. It is surprisingly deep, rich, and sonorous. It rolls out from the lectern, washing over his audience. It jumps instantly from a whisper to a full-volume shout. He does not talk so much as let loose a well-oiled series of words. He rarely stumbles on a phrase or gropes for the right word. Franciscans believe in preaching, and in O'Malley, it shows.

He has been steeped in Catholicism all his life. He was an altar boy in his hometown of Lakewood, Ohio, and had dreams of becoming a foreign missionary. He enrolled in parochial school and, later, at the St. Fidelis seminary in Pennsylvania, both run by the Capuchin order. He studied Spanish and Portuguese literature (he speaks both languages, as well as Creole, fluently) at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and was ordained in 1970.

O'Malley entered the Franciscan Capuchin order in 1965. He is well known for appearing around town clad in monks' robes and sandals, the traditional garb of Franciscan friars. Less visible is the rope O'Malley uses as a belt: a simple cord with three knots, representing the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience that he accepts as a Capuchin. Those vows are at the core of his religious beliefs. In one form or another, his Capuchin values surface in nearly every action O'Malley takes or position he supports.

“He's not at all attached to the trappings of power,” says Thomas Groome, a professor of religious education at Boston College who has met O'Malley. “In that sense, he's a true Franciscan.”

O'Malley is a man sincere in his faith, and that faith tells him to embrace poverty and humility. As a result, he resides in the unremarkable rectory behind Holy Cross Cathedral. He spent his first Christmas in Boston tending to the homeless at the Pine Street Inn.

Thirty years ago, O'Malley was assigned to work at the Centro Catolico Hispano, a community center in the Washington slums. In 1977, he helped a group of mostly impoverished immigrants organize a rent strike against their neglectful landlords. O'Malley moved into their drug-saturated neighborhood himself and lived there for more than a year, chasing away rats and standing guard at night against drug dealers. That is enthusiastic Franciscan faith in action.

O'Malley attacked the clergy abuse crisis with similar vigor and sounded all the right tones of apology and contrition. He dropped all legal wranglings and offered settlements within six weeks of his installation. He met privately with dozens of victims.

“It was very positive. From the first moment, the tone he set there was just right,” says Reverend Robert Bullock, one of the founders of the Boston Priests' Forum, which was formed just before the abuse scandal.

O'Malley's humility, compassion, and insistence on social justice resonate with lay Catholics. But don't forget the other tenets of his faith: chastity and obedience to church teachings. Those two drive his opposition to gay marriage and to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. O'Malley believes such hard-line stances must be followed no matter how unpopular they may be in a secular world. It's his job as an archbishop to sound a strong moral tone for his flock, and he does so with the same enthusiasm he has for ministering to individuals — even when, as Groome says, “how that is being done is challenging for many of us.”

Of course, O'Malley's strict views are not shocking to everyone. Many local Catholics welcome their substance. When he stood in front of the State House in bitter February cold to rail against gay marriage, thousands stood with him.

“He brings a very important quality to Boston that is really lacking in terms of the moral climate in our city and state,” says Raymond Flynn, former mayor of Boston and now president of the socially conservative Catholic Alliance. “He's saying things and will continue to say things that won't be high up in the polls, but they're a moral point of view that needs to be said.”

How O'Malley says these things — unilaterally — is what leaves many Catholics frustrated. More than anything else, rank-and-file Catholics worry that their points of view are not taken seriously. Early in his tenure, O'Malley celebrated Mass in a parish that had been led by an allegedly abusive priest. He met with activist groups. But some worry that those gestures were simply intended to give the appearance that he was open to new ideas. This may be one reason many Catholics seem to be deserting the church; estimates vary, but most no longer attend Mass regularly.

Members of the Boston Priests' Forum had to write O'Malley twice before he finally met with them — a full seven months after his arrival. The archbishop met with members of Voice of the Faithful in October, but entreaties to meet again about parish closings, clergy abuse, and other concerns have gone unanswered, according to Hynes.

“The PR that comes from the chancery would lead you to believe there is an ongoing dialogue,” Hynes says, “but there was one meeting seven months ago. That's been the only one. The number of hours we have spent trying to craft communications to Archbishop O'Malley only to be ignored is just mind-boggling.”

Bullock is more diplomatic, but no less disenchanted. “It's not a personality issue,” he says. “You can say that a wonderful new person has come in, that there's fresh air, that the person has a spiritual center. But nothing has changed.”

Then there are the chancery personnel. The same coterie that worked with Law — chancellor David Smith, legal counsel Wilson Rogers Jr., auxiliary bishop Richard Lennon — still surrounds O'Malley. Bishops who worked closely with Law in the 1980s and 1990s, when the cardinal was shuffling abusive priests from one parish to another, now run various dioceses around the Northeast.

Anne Barrett Doyle, cofounder of a victims' advocacy group called the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, calls priests suspended for alleged sexual misconduct “a long list of unregistered sex offenders.” Unless O'Malley listens to the laity and victims rather than the church hierarchy, she says, “he's another secret keeper. He's just better at it.”

Notes Bullock: “People who have been complicit in the former cover-ups are still now making policy. There's a lot of concern about that.”

But O'Malley is part of the hierarchy. He works in the executive branch of the Roman Catholic Church. While organizations like Voice of the Faithful and victim support groups try to style themselves as a sort of legislative branch, the Vatican does not recognize any authority parallel to its own. Pope John Paul II believes in orderly administration, and O'Malley the administrator answers to him. And there's that vow of obedience again.

At the same time, many of the archbishop's actions have a thoughtful logic to them. O'Malley took care of the abuse lawsuits and sold the cardinal's residence to pay for them. He is closing dozens of parishes in order to reign in an archdiocese budget painfully out of balance. (The Catholic Appeal, a fundraising campaign that is the archdiocese's main source of revenue, fell from around $17 million a year before the abuse scandal to just $7.63 million last year. Even before settling with the abuse victims, the archdiocese ran a net operating deficit last year of $14.9 million.) O'Malley's administrative demeanor may be authoritarian, but his actions are often shrewd and necessary.

Trace it back to his spiritual side: Here is a friar who believes in carrying the cross God puts before him. O'Malley's particular cross is a dysfunctional archdiocese desperately in need of repair, so he has taken up the challenge with gusto. He sees Catholicism as a community and expects the laity to view it the same way.

It's a lot to ask of an archdiocese so violated by its past and so uncertain of its future.

“He certainly has the spirituality to carry it off and sustain him,” Groome says. But of O'Malley's flock, he adds “let's hope his people can.”