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Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley: A New Voice in Boston
By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
Last summer a new kind of shepherd arrived at the scandal-ridden Archdiocese of Boston and quickly took up the task of repairing a broken Church.


A Sudden Change in Plans
O'Malley's Guiding Principle: 'Do Whatever He Tells You'
Arrival in Boston: Taking a Cue From St. Francis
Archdiocese Moves Quickly Under O'Malley's Leadership
The Process of Healing Must Go On
Where Are We Now?
Walking in the Footsteps of St. Francis
Marriage of Irish Wit and Franciscan Joy
St. Patrick and St. Anthony

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley

Photos by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley

Archbishop O'Malley's Coat of Arms.

Named after the famous fifth-century missionary to Ireland, young Patrick O’Malley also had dreams of becoming a missionary to foreign lands. One of the big reasons he decided in 1958—at age 13—to enter the high school seminary of the Capuchin Franciscans in Butler, Pennsylvania, was that his chances of becoming a missionary were quite good. The Pittsburgh-based Capuchin Province of St. Augustine that he hoped to join had missions in Papua New Guinea and Puerto Rico—and they told him one third of their friars ended up as foreign missionaries.

Patrick—whose name was changed to Sean when he donned the brown Franciscan habit in 1965—had good reason to believe in 1970, as his ordination day approached, that he was well on his way to becoming a missionary. During his deacon period as a friar-theologian, his Order sent him to Easter Island, far off the coast of Chile, to work with the Rapa Nui Indians. Already for some time he had been studying Spanish on his own and now he happily began learning Rapa Nui. He was almost certain that he would be going back to Easter Island after his ordination.

But this great dream of adventure was soon to collapse like a house of cards. It so happened that Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., asked Father Sean’s provincial to assign the young priest to work with the Spanish-speaking community in his archdiocese. Father Sean Patrick O’Malley would remain in the nation’s capital for almost 14 years. He became director of its Spanish Catholic Center and later vicar of Hispanic ministries. Along the way, the young Capuchin priest also earned a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature at The Catholic University of America.

The friar’s hard work and achievements eventually led to his appointment in 1984 as bishop of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Eight years later he became bishop of Fall River, Massachusetts, and in 2002 bishop of Palm Beach, Florida. In both Fall River and Palm Beach, Bishop O’Malley was brought in to solve huge problems: He received high marks for dealing sensitively and effectively with the clergy sex-abuse crisis and high-profile scandals that were rocking both dioceses.

Then in December of 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop of Boston, where the clergy sex-abuse crisis had become one of the saddest chapters of U.S. Church history. The Vatican launched an intense search for the best possible spiritual leader to head the repair operations in Boston’s troubled and polarized archdiocese. By any standards, it would be a most daunting assignment. Finally, on July 1, 2003, Pope John Paul II appointed Sean Patrick O’Malley as the new archbishop of Boston. He had been bishop of Palm Beach for only 10 months.

In late November, St. Anthony Messenger went to Boston to talk with the new archbishop. The interview took place at the three-story mansion where former cardinals and archbishops had lived. Archbishop O’Malley was still using the building as a convenient space for his office, but he had already moved into the rectory next to the cathedral, located in a more multicultural neighborhood.

During the interview, the archbishop, wearing his simple brown Capuchin habit, responded thoughtfully to a wide range of questions. His manner was friendly, brotherly and unpretentious. We sat alone at the end of a table in a spacious conference room. O’Malley spoke softly, sometimes fingering his bearded chin as he reflected on certain topics.

The archbishop says that he sees God at work in the major steps of his religious journey. He views each of his assignments—whether given by his Capuchin superiors or by the pope—as important “turning points” of his life. This was true of his assignment to Washington, D.C., in which he had to set aside his dream of being a foreign missionary, as well as of his four appointments as bishop, including his appointment to Boston with its overwhelming challenges.

“I suppose every time we get an assignment it’s a kind of turning point,” he says pensively. “This is especially true in religious life when unexpected things can happen. I interpret it as God’s will when superiors ask us to do something.”

O’Malley’s spirit of obedience and generous service is clearly conveyed in the Latin motto he has chosen for his coat of arms as archbishop of Boston: Quodcumque dixerit facite. The English translation is “Do whatever he tells you.” These are the instructions of Jesus’ mother to the servants at the Wedding of Cana, as Jesus is about to seek their help in changing the water into wine (see John 2:5).

As O’Malley explains it, the motto’s words are “the last words of the Blessed Mother in the Gospel. After that, Mary is silent. Of course, she appears again in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles, but the last time anyone attributes words to her is her advice to ‘do what Jesus tells us’ near the beginning of John’s Gospel. And for me it always seemed to sum up the entire message of her life. Her first words in the Gospels are, ‘May it be done to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38), and her last words to us are, ‘Well, you do his will too!’”

Do whatever he tells you is a guiding principle of O’Malley’s life. It has been the motto on his coat of arms for each of his episcopal assignments, beginning with the Virgin Islands.

On July 1, 2003, just two days after Pope John Paul II named Sean Patrick O’Malley the new archbishop of Boston, O’Malley addressed the people of the archdiocese at a press conference. He wore his Franciscan habit and sandals. That was not the only clue that he takes seriously his identity as a follower of St. Francis of Assisi. He also referred directly to an incident in St. Francis’ life in which the saint heard Christ address him from the crucifix in the crumbling chapel of San Damiano with the words: “Francis, repair my Church!”

After briefly telling that story, the new archbishop looked directly into the television cameras and, using the same words that inspired Francis, invited his “fellow Catholics of Boston” to help rebuild the broken Church of their day. “I ask you and plead with you,” he said, ‘repair my Church.’”

When St. Francis first heard Jesus’ words, Archbishop O’Malley explains to St. Anthony Messenger, “He at first interpreted the instructions very literally and started physically rebuilding the church [of San Damiano, where the crucifix spoke to him]. Only later did it become apparent to Francis that his way of living the gospel is what would renew the Church during the crisis of his day.

“And I think that today’s crisis is an opportunity for us to refocus on what is essential in our faith, namely, our sense of communion, the centrality of the sacraments and our call to holiness and service. I hope this deeper awareness will help the people get beyond the anger, the upset and confusion brought about by this crisis in the Church.”

During his installation ceremonies at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross on July 30, 2003, Archbishop O’Malley made clear what his standing before them “as a friar” meant: “As your archbishop, I am your shepherd; as a friar, I am your brother. I have come to serve you, to wash your feet, as Jesus says, and to repeat the Great Commandment: Love one another as Christ loved us.”

O’Malley tells St. Anthony Messenger that he knew from the beginning that, to repair the local Church, a financial settlement for the victims and their families would have to be reached quickly. “We’ve tried to fashion a global settlement that would compensate people without the need of entering into long and painful litigation with the Church. And we have made it a policy in the archdiocese that we give psychological help and counseling to the victims and their families as long as they need it. I have been meeting with victims and their families on the average of two afternoons a week—going out to meet them in their homes.”

Within six weeks of O’Malley’s installation as archbishop, he had already reached an $85 million settlement covering 552 lawsuits, a feat for which he has been widely admired.

Are the settlements more or less complete?  “Yes,” he replies. “Almost everyone has come aboard. So now we are in the process of trying to borrow the money to pay that off. It’s a large amount of money for us, but I feel that it’s a justice issue. And it’s important for the Church to respond in as compassionate a way as possible.”

On December 3, the Boston Archdiocese announced that it would be selling the former cardinals’ residence (where our interview was held) and some 28 acres of surrounding land to pay off a good part of the $85 million sexual abuse settlement money. Insurance money, it is hoped, will cover the rest of the payment.

On December 22, less than five months after O’Malley’s installation as archbishop, checks were signed and lawyers began distributing them to 541 people who had been abused. Arbiters determined and awarded victims the amounts, ranging from $80,000 to $300,000, according to the duration and severity of the abuse. Only 11 victims chose not to take part in the settlement.

Archbishop O’Malley is quick to admit that “no sum of money can adequately compensate” those who have suffered abuse. “Part of our Franciscan vocation,” he says, “is to bring about reconciliation. These victims have been harmed so much by representatives of the Church, and we have to try to help them find reconciliation. Some are very alienated from the Church. Some are very angry. Still others have a desire to reconnect. And particularly in these cases I think we have a great need to reach out and try to help them find healing and to restore their faith in the Church.”

What would Archbishop O’Malley most want to say now to those still suffering from sexual abuse by priests or religious? “They should realize, first of all,” he replies, “that God’s love is so great that, no matter how terrible the things are that happened to us, God still loves us and is calling us to participate in his love forever. I would also emphasize to them the sorrow and regret we feel as Catholics, as clergy, as hierarchy for whatever we contributed to their pain. And I would encourage them not to blame themselves, because, as we know, victims sometimes blame themselves for being co-opted into this, or for not speaking up sooner and so forth. It is not their fault.

“And if they have stepped away from God and the Church, I would ask them not to blame God for what has happened—and to realize that not all priests are like the ones who abused them. I would also ask that they turn to prayer as an important part of healing—and also to realize that part of healing has to be forgiveness. For it’s only at that point that we can really be free.”

“I think we are through the worst of the sex-abuse crisis,” says O’Malley. “Most of this abuse took place many, many years ago. It was not dealt with in a way that it would be dealt with today. We are reaping the results of those mistakes of the past. But national policies, endorsed by the Holy See, have been put in place and the bishops are committed to follow these policies. So I think great strides have been made, even if we still have a way to go. But the worst of the crisis is behind us.”

How has the archdiocese responded to O’Malley’s presence in Boston and to his efforts to repair the local Church? “Very, very well!” he answers. “I’m very gratified and humbled by the kind of welcome I’ve received. As I told the priests, I was very intimidated by the thought of coming to Boston. There is a huge diocesan clergy here, and yet the people and the priests have received me very well. I’m very gratified by that!”

There are even signs that tensions between the Archdiocese of Boston and Voice of the Faithful are lessening.  Voice of the Faithful is a worldwide group of Catholics, originating in the Boston area, which seeks to support victims of sexual abuse and to gain a greater voice in correcting conditions in the Church that gave rise to the sex-abuse crisis. By coincidence, representatives of this group were meeting (for the first time) with Archbishop O’Malley and other archdiocesan leaders immediately before our interview at the archdiocesan mansion. An article in the Boston Globe the next morning (November 20, 2003) reported that, according to the participants, the private hourlong meeting  “was characterized by a level of mutual respect that was not present at meetings between the lay organization and Cardinal Bernard F. Law.”

During our interview, Archbishop O’Malley speaks about his desire to reach a better understanding with Voice of the Faithful and about the common concerns he shares with the group. “We share a desire,” he says, “to make the Church safe for children and to avoid the mistakes of the past. I’ve told them I want to make sure that our Church structures allow our laypeople and priests to have a greater voice in the formulation of policies, namely, through our priest council, our diocesan pastoral councils and parish pastoral councils. I really want to see those as the way that people are able to participate in a very active manner in the whole decision-making process....I know that many people who belong to Voice of the Faithful are faithful, committed Catholics.”

If Voice of the Faithful asked him how they could most effectively serve the people of God at this juncture of Church history, what would the archbishop advise them? “Well,” O’Malley quickly replies, “support your parishes; be active in your parish. I think many are already doing that and helping to support their own parish councils in the process of community building at that level.”

Would he have other advice for the group concerning attitudes, which could be seen as counterproductive? “Well, how to put this?” O’Malley asks as he searches for the right words. “Some members come across, at times, as angry at the Church, or angry at the hierarchy,” he says. “I understand people’s anger over the crisis, but I think we need to move beyond the anger mode to one of unity and reconciliation.”

In three of his four episcopal assignments, Archbishop O’Malley has opted for downward mobility. In the Virgin Islands and Palm Beach, as in Boston, he chose to move from the bishop’s mansion to simpler living quarters in the cathedral rectory. One of the reasons was to be closer to the people of the cathedral parishes. “I realize that this is not always practical. In Fall River, for example, it was not practical and the cathedral was within walking distance of his residence,” he explains.

Another reason behind Archbishop O’Malley’s search for simpler living conditions is his Franciscan vow of poverty. When a friar is appointed to be bishop or archbishop, he could reasonably justify a more upscale kind of residence and the material conveniences needed to carry out his responsibilities. How does O’Malley, as a Capuchin Franciscan, look at the ideal of poverty?

“I think this ideal is very central in our spirituality. For Francis, as for the friars, it’s an expression of the way we love God. We make ourselves poor for God’s sake. It’s not that material things are bad, or that we must automatically reject the finer things of life. Rather, we seek to be more closely identified with Christ who emptied himself, took on the form of a slave and became poor for our sake as an act of love. We try to get rid of those things that clutter our lives and impinge on our freedom—a freedom to be closer to people, and to serve them well.”

Back in the mid-1970s, when young Father O’Malley was director of the Catholic Spanish Center in Washington, D.C., stories circulated about his disregard for material possessions and his concern for the poor. According to a story published in U.S. News & World Report (July 14, 2003), a co-worker, Armina Guardado, described O’Malley as “always giving away to us whatever he had.” She recalled seeing him one day walking barefoot down a side street in the snow after giving his shoes to a homeless man. When I ask O’Malley if the story is true, he laughs uncomfortably and says, “I’m not going to comment on that.”

On a second story, however, he readily comments. The story, as U.S. News & World Report published it, is that Father O’Malley “bought a car only when the diocese forced him to. It was an old Ford Pinto that came to be called ‘Scarface’ because of all its dings and dents.”

“Oh, that’s true,” O’Malley says with a hearty laugh. “Scarface was our car! We also had an old telephone repair truck that was donated to the center,” he adds, “with a ladder on the back of it! We didn’t have fancy vehicles, but they got us around.”

In the homily that Archbishop O’Malley gave at his installation ceremony on July 30, 2003, to Boston’s packed Cathedral of the Holy Cross, he included a glowing affirmation of what his Franciscan identity has meant to him: “After 38 years,” he stated, “being a Franciscan brother is still the great joy of my life!”

Asked to comment more about this, the archbishop says, “I think it is self-explanatory: I love my Franciscan vocation. It brings me great happiness. It gives great meaning to my life. I cannot imagine not being a Franciscan brother.”                       


After O’Malley pointed out in his installation homily that St. Patrick was “the patron saint of the Archdiocese of Boston,” he told this story: “When Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary bishop, he was preaching one day in County Mayo (where the O’Malleys come from). A very fierce and famous chieftain asked to be baptized and received in the Church, and, since there were still no churches in Ireland, they gathered in a great field. A huge crowd arrived to witness the event,” continued the archbishop.

“St. Patrick arrived in his bishop’s vestments with his miter and his crosier. He stuck his staff in the ground and began to preach a long sermon on the Catholic faith. The chieftain to be baptized stood in front of Patrick. He grew pale; he began to sweat profusely, and suddenly fainted dead away. When they rushed over to help him, the people discovered to their horror that St. Patrick had inadvertently stuck his staff through the man’s foot. And when they threw water on him and revived him, they asked him, ‘Why didn’t you say something when this happened?’

“And he replied, ‘I thought it was part of the ceremony!’ The poor man did not understand much about Catholic liturgy, but he did know that discipleship means taking up the cross, embracing the cross.” Archbishop O’Malley went on to stress the importance of having a deep appreciation of the cross—and to realize that “we are bought at a great price.”

The archbishop sprinkled a lot of humor, Irish wit and popular stories throughout his July 30 homily. O’Malley drew many a laugh from his listeners, yet deftly unfolded stories in such a way that they ended up making profound points.

Does he see his humor and wit as an expression of Franciscan joy—a way to bring hope to a Church bowed down by crisis? “I often use humor in my talks,” he responds. “I think it helps to focus people. Our religion should bring us joy. And it also keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.”

Asked if the story of St. Patrick puncturing the chieftain’s foot with his staff was a true story from the life of St. Patrick, O’Malley replies with a smile: “Yes, it’s supposed to be. It’s an old story. I hope it’s true. I use it!”


Archbishop O’Malley gives two reasons in particular why he admires St. Patrick: “He was a great missionary bishop and a man who suffered mightily at the hands of the Irish. But rather than seek revenge, Patrick came back to share his faith!

“And I’m sure that that decision—like St. Francis’ decision to love the leper—was something that completely changed the course of his life. The other wonderful thing about St. Patrick—and I did not avert to it until a couple of years ago while reading Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization—was that he was the first figure in history to condemn slavery in his writings.

“Patrick had been kidnapped in the British Isles by the Irish and was brought back to Ireland as a slave. Having experienced slavery himself, Patrick realized how evil the institution of slavery was. And later as bishop in Ireland, Patrick came out with letters condemning slavery very strongly. It’s a very interesting aspect of the history of Catholic social teaching that he is the first one to articulate that.”

Archbishop O’Malley has a special admiration for St. Anthony of Padua not only because Anthony was a Franciscan but also because Anthony was born in Portugal—and O’Malley is an expert on the language and literature of Portugal. O’Malley also enjoys strong connections with Portuguese-speaking people.

O’Malley has even celebrated Mass at St. Anthony’s birthplace in Lisbon, Portugal, where Anthony is very popular and, indeed, is known as “St. Anthony of Lisbon.” For 10 years, when O’Malley was bishop of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, which borders the Boston Archdiocese, he served a quarter million Portuguese Catholics. “It was like having a Portuguese diocese,” he says, and Anthony is a favorite saint among them. Archbishop O’Malley, moreover, has visited Portugal many times and has preached retreats at Fatima to the bishops of Portugal, an experience he considers “a great privilege.”

“St. Anthony is an incredible saint,” O’Malley says. “It fascinates me that people from so many cultures identify with St. Anthony. In many ways St. Anthony seems to be more venerated than St. Francis! And, of course, I identify with Anthony’s desire to be a missionary.” Like Anthony, O’Malley joined the Franciscans to become a missionary, and the dreams of both friars went unfulfilled. “Knowing that St. Anthony didn’t quite make it either, I don’t feel so bad!” Archbishop O’Malley adds with a chuckle.


Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is contributing editor of St. Anthony Messenger, editor of Catholic Update and author of Friar Jack’s E-spirations (a free monthly e-newsletter). His latest book is A Retreat With Pope John Paul II: Be Not Afraid (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

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