A Bishop in Sandals Is a Welcome Change

New York Daily News
July 6, 2003

'The old style of the imperial bishopric is on its way out in the United States," Eugene Kennedy was saying the other day. "And someone like Ed Egan probably doesn't realize it, but his days are numbered. Catholics want their church back."

Kennedy is a former priest, a writer and a friend and biographer of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. He was on the phone to me as soon as Rome announced that Bishop Sean O'Malley had been sent to Boston to replace Bernard Cardinal Law, who came to symbolize the rot, corruption, indifference and blindness to the fact that many in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church - Edward Cardinal Egan right up there - had spent more time protecting a pack of perverts in Roman collars than they did in helping heal their victims, many of them children.

O'Malley's appointment reminded me of that long-gone summer when Bob Lemon was hired to replace Billy Martin as manager of the Yankees, a team that had imploded in dissent under the deeply troubled Martin. The new guy was a pro, a veteran; plus Lemon had the type of calm demeanor that brought stability and confidence to a clubhouse shaken by the insanity and alcoholism of the tortured guy he replaced.

O'Malley showed up for his press conference wearing the brown robes of a Franciscan. He is 59, with a well-trimmed and deeply gray beard and mustache that cannot hide a warm smile and eyes that invite conversation.

He has been around the edges of many of the sex scandals that have shaken the church, first in Fall River, Mass., where he arrived in the wake of revelations that a single parish priest, James Porter, had been a serial predator for decades, sexually abusing dozens of children. Then, quite recently, O'Malley was in Palm Beach, Fla., dispatched by Rome after a couple of bishops were forced to admit that they couldn't keep their hands off teenagers.

Nobody would ever confuse O'Malley with the pompous Egan. The Franciscan took an oath of poverty when he was ordained and, quite clearly, took it seriously, too.

Apparently, Egan and several other church leaders think their principal mission is to live well, get front-row seats and free parking, hang with the rich and generally behave like 18th century nobility. Staff is always on hand to keep them a good distance from the poor.

"The days of the lordly manner in a bishop are over," Kennedy noted. "Especially those guys like Ed Egan who treat Catholics belonging to groups like Voice of the Faithful as outsiders or as a threat. They're not a threat. They are the real future of the church."

Maybe it's a generational thing - or perhaps it's rooted in economics - but when I was growing up, priests from the parish climbed tenement stairs when people were sick or in trouble. They were in hospitals and taverns, too, praying over the ill or suggesting it was closing time for some of the customers at bar side, urging them home instead of leaving half a paycheck on a countertop alongside a murderer's row of empty beer bottles. It always seemed as if the priests were Democrats and the bishops were Republicans. The priests were among the people. The bishops were with the country club set.

Now, all these years later, Catholics have O'Malley and Egan representing arguably the two most important church posts in this country. On paper, they are separated only by a shuttle flight and a few years in age.

But O'Malley, brown tunic, sandals on his feet, openness in his demeanor, is potentially Egan's worst nightmare: A true priest, uncomfortable with phony trappings of wealth, privilege or power, standing alongside a guy who lives like a monarch and seems to have the impression that he is entitled to live as if any past problems with these pedophile priests belong to someone else and he is too important to be bothered by a demand from common Catholics for answers or justice.

O'Malley is a priest. Egan is a pol. O'Malley is the future. Egan is the past.

"The Catholic Church is changing," Kennedy said. "Bishop O'Malley isn't going to suddenly change dogma. There will be no deviation from church policy on things like married clergy, abortion or gay marriage from him, but there will be an openness that a lot of Catholics have sought and not seen for a long time.

"He is a healing man who listens and has great sympathy for victims. He has an ear and an eye for the pain of the poor as well as the ordinary faithful.

"Some of these other guys have forgotten who they are and where they come from. Not Sean O'Malley."


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