Looking back: Archbishop O’Malley reflects on first year as Archbishop of Boston

Archbishop O’Malley granted this interview to The Pilot July 24 at the cathedral rectory.

After a year in Boston, do you see signs of hope for the Church here?

In the overall balance, there has been a lot of healing. People are coming back to the Church; people are supporting us. The priests are beginning to come together as a presbyterate, perhaps in a way that had not taken place before. So I think there are many signs of hope in the midst of this turmoil that we have experienced in the last year.

Bostonians were enthusiastic about your arrival. Do you still sense you have the wide support of Boston Catholics?

Despite all of my shortcomings, I feel still that, in general, people are very supportive. I feel that when I visit the parishes or when I visit other organizations. I am very grateful to them.

So you have not experienced the “perfect joy,” as St. Francis called the experience of being rejected by his own community.

I am happy to report I have not felt rejected by my own and had the door slammed to my face. Quite the contrary, I’ve also been very heartened by the fact that people are praying for the bishop, are praying for the diocese. I think those prayers are bearing fruit, are making us stronger and are helping us to be able to move on from the crisis mode and move into a mode of growth and evangelization. Darkness comes before the dawn.

Has your faith been tested during this year?

There are many times when all you have is your faith to fall back on, because certainly it’s been a year filled with many difficult decisions. I quickly learned when I came to Boston that here, all decisions are dilemmas. Very often, it is a matter of choosing the lesser evil. Although some of the decisions were very clear, that didn’t make them easier because of the consequences that every decision brought with it. Because of that, it’s been very necessary to depend on God. I feel that our Catholic leadership in general — and certainly the priests to a great extent — have been very supportive. I am very gratified for that because it would have been impossible if I had not felt the priests were there for me.

You took swift and decisive action settling the cases at the expense of selling most of the Brighton campus, rather than following the advice of lawyers and insurance companies. Was that too high a price to pay?

The vast majority of priests and people that have spoken to me about the abuse settlement were extremely supportive of that decision. Some lamented the decision, but I think even among those there was an understanding of why it was made. I was convinced the diocese needed to step up to the plate without jeopardizing any of the material resources of our Catholic schools, of the parishes or of our social service programs.

The sale of that property was in God’s providence — that we would have property so valuable at this time; that we were able to find a buyer who had the resources to buy it swiftly and in an unconditional way. Of course, I had taken out a loan for close to a $100 million to be able to market the property in a way that would allow us to do it with calm. I didn’t want to have a fire sale. I didn’t want to use that last bit of patrimony in a way that would not yield the largest amount of money.

I realized that settling the cases by selling that property would allow us to settle the cases quickly and to do it in a global way. That has its downside, but the alternative would be a protracted legal process with litigation with the victims — as well as with insurance companies — that could drag on for many years and with a result that might not be satisfying to anybody.

Were you comforted when Boston College, a Catholic institution, bought the property?

Particularly the house [the former archbishop’s residence], although I was never anxious to live in the house myself. But the Holy Father had stayed there and in the history of the diocese, it has been an important focal point. I was very pleased that it is being retained by a Catholic institution.

After the settlement, some are inclined to think that the clergy abuse scandal is over …

I don’t think that it is over. I hope that it will never be as much of a maelstrom as it was at the time that I came. But there are still issues that need to be resolved. And, of course, the whole area of prevention, moving forward, continuing to try and deal with priests who have been accused and with victims who have come forward and their families. That’s something that is going to continue for my entire ministry here as archbishop, I’m sure.

You recently expressed your frustration at the slow pace the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has taken in reviewing the cases of priests accused of abuse. Can you comment further on this issue?

When I came to Boston it was my hope and my thought that using the Review Board would be sufficient to deal with the cases and resolve them. But with the need to have canonical processes in place, that has certainly slowed the process down. Then the difficulty in getting witnesses to participate in a canonical process is another problem. The diocese is sending Msgr. [Robert P.] Deely over to Rome. This is the way we are trying to contribute as an archdiocese to get more resources in the Vatican, so at least at that end the process will move.

Many of those affected by the reconfiguration process have expressed anger at you. They say they feel re-victimized, after the sexual abuse scandal. Was this new “pain” necessary and necessary so soon?

Given the grave financial situation of the archdiocese where so many parishes are operating in the red, and even our pension plans are in danger — and particularly with the aging clergy — there wasn’t a lot of room to be able to deal with the needs of the archdiocese.

Anytime that this would be done, it would be extremely painful. To postpone it could have caused us to lose more parishes and more schools. And rather than just allow parishes to implode, this brought some planning to the process, trying to make sure that the Church would be present in every venue where we need it to be present. Rather than to allow the process to drive itself, this tried to bring some rationality and planning to the process. Thousands of people actually were a part of it. When I asked the presbyteral council if we needed to do the process slower, most of the priests said it would only prolong the pain and the agony, and prevent us from dealing with the pastoral issues such as the youth, the evangelization. We have to try to do this in the most expeditious way we can so that we can really begin to move forward.

Some have criticized you for sparing some poor inner city churches from closure while some financially secure suburban churches have been shuttered. What’s your rationale having done so?

If in one area one parish is sufficient to cover the pastoral needs of two communities, then we try to join these two communities. In another area, even though it may be a very poor parish but the presence of the Church there is very important as we move forward, that church needs to be there — even if it means we are going to need to subsidize it in the future. In rural areas where the numbers are very small, the same logic would dictate that as well. We may want to keep a worship space and a church there but not have a full-time priest for such a tiny community. But on the other hand, what we are trying to do is see to it that our resources are available in all the areas where they are going to be needed in the future.

Some people thought that “Oh! They are closing parishes because the pastor was too liberal, too conservative.” We can change a priest without closing the parish. That was not a consideration — despite what some people say. The finances of the parishes were not a consideration. Some parishes we know we are going to have to subsidize; other parishes we would never have to subsidize. But that was not the point. The point is: Where do we need to be? We are going to be there whether we need to subsidize the parish or not.

This has been a busy year in terms of public policy issues, particularly with the same-sex marriage issue. Some have said that the Church’s advocacy was inappropriate. Why was it important for the Church to be active on these issues?

As I said at the time, timing is everything. This was worst time for us to have to deal with this issue. But, I foresaw the possibilities of what could happen, what has happened. I didn’t want to have to say, “Isn’t it too bad that the Catholic Church did not do anything in the face of one of the most serious crises that our country has faced in modern times — that is the redefinition of marriage?”

Unfortunately because of influence of the media and their support of [same-sex marriage], they have been able to frame the question as a question of individual rights. The Church is in favor of people’s individual rights. We are against discrimination. We are against violence or hatred toward homosexuals — but we are in favor of marriage. We see that marriage is one of the most crucial institutions for our society as we move forward. Not just sacramental marriage but the institution of marriage that has enjoyed a privileged position in our country and in countries throughout the world because of the unique contribution that marriage makes as the venue for the begetting and the raising of children. There are many other ways that children can be born — out of wedlock, in petri dishes — and they can be raised by all kinds of combinations of people. The best way to raise human beings is when their parents are in a marriage, when they are committed to each other in a lifetime commitment. Where it’s a man and a woman — with that polarity of sexuality — who have the responsibility of the socialization of the children that they have this very special strong connection to. That is one of the strengths of any society.

When we look at the social traumas of our country or of Western Europe, the problems are very much tied to the disintegration of marriage. A redefinition of marriage will further trivialize what marriage is by disconnecting it from the begetting, raising and socialization of children.

For the Church to not respond by pulling out all the stops would have been a tragic decision.

Were there some excesses among supporters of traditional marriage?

Maybe there were, and that’s unfortunate. Certainly in all our official pronouncements we tried to be very clear that the issue was not to undermine anyone’s individual rights or promote, in any way, prejudice or discrimination.

Some people say, “My homosexual union or marriage isn’t hurting anybody else’s marriage.” It is hurting the institution of marriage in the long run. An institution of marriage which has already being damaged by no-fault divorce and a widespread acceptance of cohabitation. By accepting this redefinition of marriage, we have put the future of marriage in great peril.

A Boston Catholic with a staunch pro-abortion voting record is running for president. The latest document approved by the U.S. bishops in Denver states that bishops have a certain amount of latitude in dealing with pro-abortion politicians. Could you comment on where you stand on the issue?

I always prefer to talk about politicians in general without having to single out any individual. The practice in the past has been that [those] politicians have not been excommunicated. However, when we receive Communion we need to be in communion with the Church, so I have questioned the appropriateness of people who are actively promoting anti-life policies coming forward [for Communion]. I am sorry that the universal Church has not come out with a clear policy that could be applied across the board. However, the debate itself— as unsettling as it might be amidst the other controversies we have — is an important one because it does remind Catholics that we do need to be spiritually prepared, and we do need to be in communion with the Church to receive Holy Communion.

I think a sort of sense of entitlement has grown up where anyone who comes to Mass should go to Communion regardless what state their soul is in that moment. Whereas in the past, Catholics were much more aware of the need for spiritual preparation, and a time for confession, as a value to receive the Eucharist.

I hope that a Eucharistic Year would be an opportunity for us to reflect on the sacredness of Holy Communion and how we need to prepare ourselves to receive Holy Communion.

There are other precedents. Divorced and re-married Catholics are not to present themselves for Communion...

There are many good people of integrity, who, because of circumstances, find themselves in invalid marriages. Out of their faith in the Eucharist and their respect for the Eucharist, they refrain from going to Communion, and I am sure that that hunger for the Eucharist is something that keeps them focused on how to remedy their situation. It is a call to conversion in their lives. But when we reduce the Holy Communion to something that is almost a tropism — if you are at Mass you walk up to receive Communion — we are selling short what the Eucharist is. St. Paul is very clear: we must distinguish His presence in the body if we are going to Communion. If we don’t, we are eating and drinking judgement on ourselves.

Are you planning an Eucharistic year?

We have begun to assemble a committee to plan our bicentennial celebrations. I have asked them to see an Eucharistic year as part of our spiritual preparation for the bicentennial and to come up with some ideas that we’ll be able to announce in the fall. We will have a celebration around Corpus Christi, but I would also like to see us focused on the importance of the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist and to promote Eucharistic adoration, and also as a time to promote eucharistic vocations particularly to the priesthood.

At your installation Mass you recalled the words of your provincial, Brother Paul, who used to ask when you would “get a real job.” A year later, do you think your brothers think that this “counts” as a real job?

I think so. I attended our provincial meeting of the friars and I was very gratified by the fraternal support that they gave me. It’s kind of an anomaly to be a brother and a bishop. I’ve always been aware of that tension. Even accepting to be bishop has been a difficult thing for me personally, because I see this in some way as a contradiction. To be a lesser brother, as St. Francis wanted us to be, and what I thought I was buying into when I took my vows 40 years ago. But becoming a bishop puts you in a different position. I think they know I have a real job. They are praying hard that I’ll be able to do it and that I won’t be too much of an embarrassment to the order.

Do you see the light at the end of the tunnel?

I see already a lot of light and hope. The priests have come together around in many issues, many people have told me they have come back to the Church in this past year, and that is very encouraging and gratifying. And I am hoping that wonderful ministries that are taking place within the Church will continue to thrive and the people will rally around them. The reconfiguration of parishes is very painful, and yet I hope that out of this process will come stronger parishes for the future. And that this will allow us to keep more poor parishes open and more poor schools open and to be able to assure that we are going to have priests and communities in every geographic area in the archdiocese as we move into the future.