Archbishop Seán as bishop: Against all odds

Music has been described as the soundtrack of our lives. As I reflected on Cardinal Seán’s 25th anniversary as a bishop, I looked to the Billboard Top 100 Chart for the summer of 1984 to see if the top songs in the country at the time of Cardinal Seán’s elevation to the episcopacy would give any hint of what was in store for the new bishop. The song title that leapt off the chart as apropos for Cardinal Seán is “Against All Odds.”

Cardinal Seán has faced a slew of challenges in his quarter century as a bishop, many of which were unimaginable on the hot August day in 1984 when, at the age of 39, he humbly and courageously embraced the call of Christ and the Church to serve us as a bishop. Cardinal Seán has faced every challenge head on, with faithfulness and grace. Compassionately and passionately, he has shepherded God’s people against all odds.

Some would say even his selection to become a bishop was against all odds. Cardinal Seán tells the story of one of his Capuchin brother’s reactions to the news that Padre Seán would become a bishop. The bewildered friar exclaimed: “How did you ever become a Bishop? You were never provincial. You were never guardian. You never studied in Rome. You are not a canon lawyer. You don’t even own a pair of shoes, let alone a pair of cufflinks. You drive around Washington, D.C. in that ridiculous telephone repair truck. You never worked in a chancery. You were never a monsignor. How come?”

Cardinal Seán, himself, reports he was “thunderstruck” when chosen as a bishop. As if to affirm the surprise he and many others felt in his selection, he notes there was an eclipse of the sun the day he found out he was chosen to be a bishop.

Others instantly saw the selection of Padre Seán as bishop to be inspired. They knew him to be a humble friar, who was fluent in seven languages, who founded Centro Catolico Hispano which provided critical services for immigrants, who walked and ministered among the poorest of the poor, and who had consistently and willingly accepted the call of service to the Church no matter where it would lead him.

In his first episcopal assignment, Bishop Seán learned there would be some bumps along the way when his beloved diocese of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands suffered a brutal hurricane. As Cardinal Seán recalls, the hurricane flattened most of the churches, schools and rectories. He and his flock survived on coconut milk and peanut butter. They were without water, phones and electricity for six months. But the Church, under his leadership, was instrumental in helping the islands to recover and to rebuild.

Shepherding a Church through a brutal hurricane seems small in comparison to the challenges of leading his flock in his next three assignments. Bishop Seán was called by the Holy Father to bring healing to three dioceses devastated by the sexual abuse crisis: Fall River, Palm Beach and Boston.

Cardinal Seán became bishop of Boston during the darkest chapter in our history. Once again he faced all odds. In addition to the sexual abuse crisis, the archdiocese was in economic free-fall. Our Catholic schools were spread too thin in aging buildings desperately in need of rejuvenation. Enrollment in our seminaries was plummeting. Parishioners were exiting our parishes in astronomical numbers. There were over five hundred lawsuits against the archdiocese. Cardinal Seán set about on a path of healing and renewal for the Church. He has reached out to those who were abused by priests with love and compassion. He has enhanced a child protection program that has become a model for the Church and society. He has kept our need to be vigilant in caring for survivors of sexual abuse, and for our children, at the forefront of our mission. He has called forth the clergy, religious and laity of the archdiocese to join him in partnership to rebuild the Church of Boston. In our darkest hour, and in every hour since then, he has showed us the light and love of Jesus Christ.

And so, with the hindsight of 25 years, we can answer with confidence the bewildered question of the perplexed friar, “how come?” How come this humble and compassionate friar was named a bishop, archbishop and cardinal? Because, as He has done throughout salvation history, God calls forth powerful leaders and compassionate disciples to lead and guide His people -- even when, and in the case of Cardinal Seán, especially when, it was once thought to be against all odds.

Father Richard M. Erikson is Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Boston.