Seán O’Malley

If you would have asked me a few weeks ago which American Cardinal had the best chance of following in the footsteps of St. Peter, Cardinal Seán probably would not have been my first thought.  But after thinking and reading about what characteristics our next Pope may need, I think his name is being tossed about for some very good reasons.

John Allen did a great interview with him (here), and he asked him what he thought about the fact that his name was on papabile lists. O’Malley said he bought a round-trip ticket and expects to use it.  When Allen asked him “You’re able to laugh it off?” O’Malley admitted, “If I think about it, it’s very scary. Because I think the possibility is so remote, it’s not something that I worry about.”

So, papabile or a “very dark horse,” as he called himself?  Let’s take a look.

Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley is a Capuchin, which means it is proper to call him “Cardinal Seán,” as strange and informal as that might sound.  While it is traditional for diocesan priests to go by their last names, religious priests use their first name – the name they were given at vows.

In the early years of his priesthood, after teaching at Catholic University, O’Malley began ministering to the Hispanic community in DC.  During this time, he started DC’s first Spanish newspaper.  In 1978, Cardinal Baum appointed him episcopal vicar for the Haitian, Portuguese, and Hispanic communities in D.C.  (Remember the Latin American church is looking for a Pope who understands them, even if he isn’t from Latin America himself?)

In 1984, John Paul II appointed O’Malley coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of St. Thomas, and the following year he became bishop there.  Now, you may be thinking “Diocese of St. Thomas? What state is that in?”

We’re talking St. Thomas… the island.  Yes, he was bishop of the US Virgin Islands.  While at first glance, this seems like just a neat biographical note (what do the Virgin Islands really mean for his chances to become Pope?), I do think we can mark this down under the “pastoral” column.  He is remembered there for his work with the homeless (something that also marks his ministry in Boston) and for opening a shelter for AIDS patients.  Frankly, I know very little about the Virgin Islands.  But if I had to hazard a guess, I would assume that the bishop there spends more of his time with his people than he does in red tape.


This is not to say that O’Malley doesn’t have his experience in administration.  After the Virgin Islands, O’Malley became bishop of Fall River, MA and had to deal with an awful sex abuse scandal.  Ten years later, he became bishop of Palm Beach when the bishop there stepped down because of an abuse scandal.  A year later, as the abuse scandal broke in Boston, who did the Vatican choose to send in to that crisis?  Bishop Seán.

Cardinal Seán has been a light in a very dark time.  We can’t underestimate what he has done — the way he has dealt with the muck in Boston and the healing he has brought to a situation that will always be raw and devastating.  No one can ever erase what has happened.  No amount of money can make the victims whole again and no priest or bishop can ever bring complete healing in these situations.  Only Christ can do that.  But Cardinal Seán has faced the problem head on, made changes, and begun the healing process.

Other attributes that I think add to Cardinal Seán’s appeal — he was the first Cardinal to have a blog and began using podcasts to reach his people. As I’ve mentioned before, this willingness to engage technology is a good sign in this new Evangelization.  I think the fact that he’s a Capuchin is great, and not just because I think it would be cool to have a religious on the Chair of Peter again.  For all the secularists who complain about the riches of the Vatican, a sandal-wearing Capuchin who opened an AIDS hospital sounds pretty good to me.  (Although he’d have to exchange his Franciscan brown for Dominican white!)

Cardinal Seán’s humbleness is not just in his outward appearance. A good friend of mine witnessed this recently in a touching exchange.  He and some friends ran into Cardinal Seán at one of the Capuchin monasteries.  My friend, knowing who Cardinal Seán was, winced as one of  young men introduced himself to the Cardinal– “Hi, Father, I’m –”  Not wanting to embarrass the young man, O’Malley didn’t miss a beat and introduced himself as “Father Seán.”  That evening, a Prince of the Church returned to being a “Father”- both in word and in action.

O’Malley caused some furor when he allowed Ted Kennedy to have a public Catholic funeral and attended the funeral.  But while many American Catholics hold this against him, will this matter to the Cardinals?  While I believe the Kennedys are to blame for political-ecclesial problems America faces today, we have to remember that some of these Cardinals have “Catholic politicians” like Silvio Berlusconi on their hands.  I don’t think Ted Kennedy’s funeral will play a part in the decision process.

Why he won’t…. He’s American. Cardinal Pell, like so man others, predicts that the College of Cardinals will not elect an American because we’re a superpower (watch his statement here.)  That’s been said again and again and again.

But maybe they’re all wrong.  Maybe it’s time for an American to come in, clean house, and get some work done.  America may be a superpower, but we’re also a persecuted Church.  Perhaps the Church is ready for a Pope who doesn’t come from a Catholic country.


5 thoughts on “Seán O’Malley

  1. I guess I always assumed/hoped that the Holy Spirit guided the conclave a bit more than that–I didn’t think God dealt in political games (“um, no, can’t be from there, they’re a superpower”). 😉

    Random note: when was the last time we had a Pope with a beard?

    • joanallegretti says:

      I don’t think God does, and hopefully they will all be listening to Him! : ) However, I don’t think we can downplay the fact that these men are looking for the best candidate, and that requires looking at all aspects of him. In the end, though, we have to assume that if the best candidate comes from a superpower, he won’t be looked over just because of that.

      It’s not as if the cardinals just gather together in prayer and wait for the Holy Spirit to tell them who to choose. There is a lot of prayer going on these days, and we should all be grateful for THAT! But the Holy Spirit’s relationship with the conclave is a lot more complex. As Ratzinger said in 1997, we can’t say the Holy Spirit is directly responsible for who is picked — there have been too many bad Popes for that. He had the great quote: “I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope. … I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”
      That should comfort us and terrify us. Pray for the cardinals! : )

      • That’s a good quote. And it is comforting and terrifying. 😉 Thanks for helping clear this up a bit.

        Still, though, an American Pope might not be a bad thing…depending on the Cardinal. 😉

    • joanallegretti says:

      Great point about the beard– it used to be a staple of the Popes! (Notice I avoided saying Papal staple.)
      It looks like Innocent XII was the last. So we’re about three hundred years overdue.

  2. Thanks for this Joannie. I’m learning a lot from this series of posts. Love the “Father Sean” story.

    “Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.” Wow.

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