Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston is one of the 115 Cardinal Electors who will choose the next Pope. The winner must receive a two-thirds majority … 77 votes. It's almost a certainty, but not a necessity, that the Cardinal Electors will choose one of their own.
I'm a Catholic. Probably not the best one in the world … maybe not even top 10.
The Catholic Church is my home. It's where I receive spiritual sustenance. The Church is my team. I'm happy and proud of my team when it plays well, and disappointed when it doesn't measure up.
As an institution composed of human beings, there is no doubt, that in recent years, people acting in the name of the Church have failed miserably in their duty to care for the young people under their supervision. It's also probably safe to say that the last of the ugly news on this sordid topic has yet to be heard.
Less well known about the church is the fact that there are very few populated areas on the face of the earth were representatives of the Catholic Church are not feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and educating the unschooled. This is heroic work that the Church has performed for centuries. The presence of the Church in areas unserved by others is almost taken for granted and generally ignored by both liberal and conservative media outlets.
Against this backdrop of a Church suffering from self-inflicted wounds and a media unwilling to catch it doing something good, it finds itself in the position of having to pick a leader. The Pope is gone; it's time to pick a Pope.
Let's look at how this might unfold.
The Process. On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was resigning the Papacy, effective February 28, 2013. Whoa! The resignation of a Pope … hadn't happened in 600 years … and on top of that, Benedict gives all of 17 days' notice.
The resignation, which took the Cardinal Electors by surprise, required them to clear their calendars and come to Rome as soon as possible. As of March 6, 2013, all but 8 of the 115 Cardinals had arrived in Rome to begin deliberations. When all are present, the Conclave … the actual election … may begin.
Anybody who has been involved in an election or any kind of group decision knows that process can dictate outcome. The timing of Benedict's resignation and its effective date greatly speeds up the process of electing a successor. It favors Cardinal Electors who are permanently employed at the Vatican, or are relatively close and who are in and out of the Vatican as a matter of course. It also favors those who received a heads-up that a resignation was imminent.
In other words, insiders. Those who have become insiders because they didn't rock the boat. These Cardinal Electors will have had since February 11 to consult with each other and make alliances while their fellow Cardinals in Boston, Quebec, and Manila are doing hands-on work and hurrying to get to Rome. The process is further truncated by the implied understanding that a Pope should be in place before Holy Week, which starts Palm Sunday, March 24.
Is this abbreviated process the result of a purposeful effort on the part of Benedict to point the process in a particular direction and favor a particular candidate? I am unable to achieve the level of cynicism necessary to suggest such motivation … but I know some who can.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley. Sean O'Malley is the real deal. A heal the sick, feed the hungry Catholic. The Church still has many of these … often they labor in obscurity. More often than not, they are nuns and not priests. O'Malley has reached a level of prominence because the Church kept giving him impossible assignments, and he kept succeeding beyond anyone's expectations while being an all-around good guy in the process.
I've never met Cardinal O'Malley. I was aware that he took over the Boston Archdiocese which, before his arrival, had been the epicenter of the Church's sexual abuse scandal in the United States. His job was to give justice to the victims, and to begin the healing process while putting in place practices and procedures to ensure a safe environment for youth entrusted to Church organizations. By nearly universal opinion, he has been successful on all counts.
Before tackling the Boston problem and before he was made a Cardinal, O'Malley was the Bishop of Fall River, Massachusetts. With regard to his tenure there, I have some almost firsthand information.
I know a number of people involved in Catholic religious life who were in Fall River while he was Bishop. He had a similar situation to deal with there, as he ultimately was called upon to face in Boston. According to those who have seen him up close and personal, his instinct to do the right thing in a kind and compassionate way while leaving things better than he found them was the hallmark of his tenure.
Path Forward. Much of what I've written above about Cardinal O'Malley I knew before Pope Benedict resigned. When I decided I wanted to comment on the papal election, I did a little bit more homework.
Cardinal O'Malley has a Ph.D. in Spanish and Portuguese Literature. He is fluent in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French, with capability in German and Italian.
Unlike nearly all of the other Cardinal Electors, Cardinal O'Malley entered religious life through one of the Church's Orders, and not as a parish priest. O'Malley came into the Church through the Capuchins, who trace themselves back to St. Francis of Assisi. According to their website, a Capuchin is called to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ "through the example of their lives" and when they speak, let it be "simply, and in few words." Tough duty for an Irishman.
To get a little better fix on him, I reviewed his blog, which he's had up since he became a Cardinal in 2006. I spent far more time with it than I ever expected, because it was a moving, almost joyful, experience.
What comes through at first is a somewhat unexciting man who seems to spend a lot of time taking an interest in and being helpful to others. With more review, you see an extraordinary man doing extraordinary things, like treating the well-known (Barack Obama) and the not-so-well-known (prisoners in isolation cells) with a relaxed respect that leaves those with whom he deals feeling better about themselves.
He has done great work in Boston, serving underserved communities like the substantial Brazilian population, with whom he has an easy relationship because of his fluency in Portuguese. And the Haitian community, where he has been a frequent presence, celebrating Masses in French and Creole, and joining in the singing of the Haitian National Anthem on Haitian independence day, January 1.
Conclusion. When Pope Benedict visited the United States in 2008, he made two stops: New York and Washington DC. Cardinal O'Malley tried but was unable to convince Benedict to come to Boston and spend time personally with the victims of abuse that had occurred under Cardinal O'Malley's predecessor. At O'Malley's near-insistence, the Pope did agree to meet for 25 minutes with five victims from Boston at the Vatican Embassy in Washington DC. Cardinal O'Malley was present for that meeting.
In my opinion, if O'Malley had been in Benedict's shoes, there would have been no way you could have kept him from coming to Boston and talking to as many of the victims that wanted to see him for as long as they wanted.
The online betting firms have O'Malley ranked about 12th of the 115 papal possibilities. Not bad, given the predilection on the part of most of the rest of the Cardinals against picking an American.
If the process is given just a little more time to play out, Cardinal Electors may recognize they have a truly extraordinary man in their midst, and that they've been called to act on that fact.
Possibly with a vote on March 17, St. Patrick's Day. Wouldn't that be special.
I will post again on Wednesday, April 10, 2013 (or before, if the news flow dictates) and, for the time being, I will post on the first Wednesday of each month.
Comments are welcome at tomc[at]wednesdayswars[dot]com. Name and town if you wish to opine. Comments will be addressed in subsequent posts.