Shepherd to a Troubled Flock

By Eric Convey and Tom Mashberg
Boston Herald [Boston MA]
July 27, 2003

The Archdiocese of Boston, once known for sending priests to missionary dioceses around the globe, becomes a missionary project of its own this week.

Sean Patrick O'Malley, a 59-year-old Franciscan and scandal-hardened administrator, is set to take over the leadership of 2 million Catholics who for 18 months have been buffeted and bewildered by one of the worst scandals in the annals of the Roman Catholic Church.

A former bishop of Fall River and a man known for simple ways, O'Malley conceded Friday in a Boston Catholic Television interview that he feels "intimidated" by the complex challenge of restoring pride and purpose to this bastion of American Catholicism.

"Sometimes the task seems overwhelming and our resources are very limited," O'Malley also said - at a Mass before leaving his previous posting in Palm Beach, Fla. "In such moments we must recall that Jesus never promised us that nothing would go wrong."

His monkishness aside, in picking the unsullied Ohioan for Boston the Vatican chose a proven executive who is fiercely loyal to church teachings and visibly uncomfortable with many manifestations of worldly success.

His installation ceremony Wednesday will reflect both.

Dignitaries - among them Gov. and Ann Romney, the state's two U.S. senators, top legislators and their wives - have been invited to the ticket-only Mass.

So have influential lay Catholics such as the Knights of Columbus.

But in keeping with his desire for limited "hoopla," O'Malley will forgo rites including the Knights' holding of their raised swords as the new archbishop processes by.

His goal, church officials say, is to set a tone of humility and restraint from the very start.

"On the day of the announcement of his appointment he spoke with great humility and compassion," said Sister Zita Fleming C.S.J., former director of Catholic Charities' Office of AIDS Ministry. "His message was sincere and it inspired renewed hope in me. He comes to serve a wounded church. "

Church officials said they do not know how O'Malley will spend the days immediately after his installation, but expectations are as high as the pile of work on his desk.

While some of the sting of the Boston Archdiocese's pain may have dissipated with the Dec. 13 resignation of Bernard Cardinal Law, more than 500 civil claims against the archdiocese and leading bishops remain unsettled.

And just last week, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly went public with a report declaring the scandal worse than many critics had maintained. Some 1,000 victims likely were abused by clergy or church workers, Reilly found.

"We've gone through a very difficult time," said Dr. Mary Jane England, president of Regis College and a member of the archdiocese's panel on sexual abuse. "We are appalled at what happened to our children and grandchildren. I am looking forward to the stability I think he'll bring."

Even after the legal and ethical problems of recent months are dealt with, O'Malley must confront a raft of separate challenges besetting the archdiocese. Among them:

Average weekly Mass attendance had drooped by as much as 50,000 from 2001 to 2003.

Fund raising - a strength of Law's before the scandals of 2002 - has fallen off substantially, leading to layoffs and service cuts.

Priests have became so restive that four dozen took the unprecedented step in December of issuing a public letter expressing their lack of confidence in Law.

Boston priests are graying, reaching retirement age at twice the rate they are being ordained. One result so far is parish closings, and church leaders have warned that more are on the way.

Shifting demographics and financial strains have resulted in the closing of many Catholic schools, especially parochial elementary schools serving the poor.

Lay people, through groups such as Voice of the Faithful, are clamoring for more say in church governance at all levels.

With so much to do, onlookers hope the missionary zeal that led O'Malley to learn Portuguese, Spanish and even Creole will help him in his new mission: salvaging Boston's troubled seat.

"I think if he is himself, that will resonate with all of Boston - Catholic and non-Catholic," said Brother Daniel Skala, headmaster of Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood.

Lisa Gentes contributed to this report.

Starting Monday: The life and times of Sean Patrick O'Malley.

11 fun facts about archbishop-to-be O'Malley

Ten tidbits about Archbishop-designate Sean Patrick O'Malley you're unlikely to find in his official church biography:

1. He collects fountain pens.

2. He tends to give away all gifts he's given.

3. Upon visiting a new city, he's likely to ask the name of a good bookstore and make his way there.

4. He wears his Franciscan habit under formal bishops' vestments. This is neither a requirement of his order nor standard practice.

5. A big opera fan, O'Malley's fond of Puccini.

6. As a child, he was bad about returning library books on time.

6. Unlike St. Francis, he's not especially fond of pets.

8. When fellow Franciscans voted on whether to buy a television for their shared residence in Washington, D.C., he voted "no." He lost.

9. He's not a morning person. "He'd probably see the Evening News before he'd watch "Good Morning America," one former colleague said.

10. His favorite cuisine is Italian. No snob, he can be perfectly happy with pizza.

11. In elementary school, he won lots of academic awards without needing to study much.

Text by Eric Convey


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