O'Malley's Homily Reveals a Frank, Devout, Humorous Man
By Michael Paulson
July 31, 2003
He was humble. He was serene. He was gracious. And he was funny.
Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, the new head of the Archdiocese of Boston, yesterday made it clear that he will be a remarkably different type of leader from his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who was often formal and remote in his public appearances.
O'Malley won almost universally high marks for both the content and style of his homily, which was notable for its rare combination of blunt talk, humorous asides, and theological reflections in plain English.
"It was exactly the tone that people were hoping for: There was some appropriately and unexpectedly tough language, and there was humor," said James E. Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization. "Style is not just about robes and sandals, but about the core of a man, and I think it was evident that there was a genuine source from which all of this was flowing."
O'Malley benefited from a collective desire among Boston Catholics for him to succeed, for the new archbishop to somehow lead the church out of the legal, financial, and spiritual morass that has resulted from the clergy sexual abuse crisis of the past year and a half. And he had already proved himself to have a winning public personality, impressing many with his plain-spokenness at a news conference on July 1, the day he was named the next archbishop of Boston.
But clearly, many were surprised at how well O'Malley did yesterday at reaching out to multiple constituencies and combining secular and religious themes.
"He was brilliant," said the Rev. Paul O'Brien, pastor of Saint Patrick Church in Lawrence. "I can't imagine somebody topping that homily for addressing so many of the important realities in such a coherent way."
O'Brien said O'Malley appeared nervous during the initial part of the ceremony, but seemed to gain confidence as he began to speak.
"He had that serene voice for which he's well-known, but he was also so alive and confident. It was quite dynamic and engaging, and the humor was excellent," O'Brien said. "He was masterful in a way that I think connected with the many different points of view with which people approach this crisis."
The Rev. Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon and the president of the Boston Priests' Forum, was also wowed.
"It was remarkable. It surpassed all expectations, and was perfect for the moment," Bullock said. "Every constituency and every group in his diocese was touched. And his use of humor, which for most homilists is a very risky thing, was classic. His timing was perfect and his use of it was in thorough agreement with the points he was trying to make."
Bullock, like others interviewed after O'Malley spoke, said the new archbishop's Franciscan spirituality and his work as a Capuchin friar helped make his words seem more personal and less theoretical.
"This archbishop speaks from a spiritual center," Bullock said. "When he talks about suffering and pain and reaching out to the homeless, he's not talking from a textbook, but from his own ministry."
O'Malley demonstrated graciousness in his acknowledgment of Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who has served as administrator of the archdiocese since Law's resignation seven months ago. O'Malley turned to face Lennon and led sustained applause for the bishop, who now resumes his post as an auxiliary bishop of Boston.
Most striking to many, both because it was so different from Law and because it was unexpected, was O'Malley's humor.
The new archbishop provoked the congregation to laughter several times during the homily, sometimes with jokes he has previously tried out with other audiences, and sometimes with jokes that seemed fresh for the occasion.
Introducing several dozen members of his family who came to the installation Mass, he referred to the gathered O'Malleys as "my Great Big Fat Irish Wedding," a pop-culture reference and a joke he used at his installation in Palm Beach last fall. But then he went on, saying "these are only the relatives we're talking to . . . Imagine if all of them came."
And, entering potentially dangerous territory by joking about his short tenure in Palm Beach, where many were upset that he was leaving for Boston, O'Malley said: "Some of them were teasing me. They said I'm like the lace-curtain Irish . . . I wintered in Palm Beach."
O'Malley also joked about the difficulty of his new job, overseeing a scandal-torn archdiocese with many warring factions and huge financial and legal challenges.
"My provincial used to say, `O'Malley, when will you get a real job?' " O'Malley said, referring to assignments as bishop to resort dioceses like the Virgin Islands and Palm Beach.
"Well, Brother Paul," he said, addressing his Capuchin superior, "does this count?"
He twice used humorous anecdotes to illustrate points in his homily. He told a story of a chieftain whose foot was supposedly impaled by Saint Patrick. The story was funny, but also used by O'Malley to illustrate the recognition that suffering is part of Christian faith. And he used a story about a man claiming to be Jesus arriving at the residence of the New York archbishop to illustrate the godliness of the mentally ill.
"Once an archbishop of New York, sitting in his office, received a call on the intercom from the new receptionist at the chancery," O'Malley said. "She said, `Your eminence, there is a man in the lobby who says he is Jesus Christ. What should I do?' The archbishop replied, `Look busy.' "
As the laugher subsided, O'Malley drew the moral: "Although the archbishop's words merited a chuckle, on the other hand they are dead serious. The homeless, schizophrenic man off of his meds who says he is Jesus Christ is Jesus Christ in a distressing disguise."
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Globe researcher Kathleen Hennrikus contributed to this report.
This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 7/31/2003.
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