Cardinal reflects on his role as bishop

Pilot photo illustration/Gregory L. Tracy

SOUTH END -- Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley spoke with The Pilot July 22 on his views about the role of bishops in society and in the Church, using the questions he was asked at his ordination as bishop August 2, 1984 as a general theme for the interview.

Q: On the day of your ordination as a bishop you were asked to bind yourself to as many as nine different promises for your future ministry. What are your reflections about those questions?

Cardinal O’Malley: To me, these questions define what the ministry of a bishop is about.

We have the expression, “lex orandi, lex credendi” -- the law of praying is the law of belief. The liturgy teaches us about faith. I think the ordination ceremony of a bishop teaches us about what the role of the bishop is supposed to be, and of course, we are very weak and imperfect human beings. We strive to live this ideal, some things we do better than others, and sometimes we fail, but this is the goal.

The role of the bishop is very important because it is the ministry that Christ established so that his priesthood could extend through space and time. Without the bishop we could not have priests, without priests we could not have the sacraments. Then, there’s the whole teaching authority, the Spirit speaks through the College of Bishops in union with the Holy Father. We are a Church that is apostolic -- apostolic in the sense that we are built on the apostles and apostolic in the sense that the hierarchical structure is essential for our mission. It is one of the things that was established by Christ himself and we accept it in faith and in gratitude.

Q: How difficult is it to exercise the teaching aspect of the office of bishop as announcer of the Gospel and defender of the Deposit of Faith in this secularized 21st century world?

Cardinal O’Malley: It’s very challenging because very often, there’s so much religious illiteracy as we call it. Many people don’t even know the vocabulary, and then the media and the popular culture often makes so much noise that there’s no space for people to hear the word of God. Preaching of the Gospel requires that we have a certain amount of silence in our hearts to be able to hear the word and to embrace it. Many different messages are coming to people and it’s hard for them to focus. It is a great challenge to preach the Gospel in today’s world, but that only underscores the importance of the task as it becomes more and more challenging.

Q: How do you see the role of the bishop as announcer of the Christian message to a society that often ignores or rejects it?

Cardinal O’Malley: It’s in the Gospel itself, in the parable of the sower and the good seed. The seed has the power, the potentiality, but it needs hearts that are fertile and cultivated. Even in the original preaching of the Gospel, there were those who accepted with enthusiasm, those who rejected it out of hand and those who were completely indifferent and just lived their lives as if it didn’t even happen. So we shouldn’t be surprised that in our own time -- which is much more complex because of what has transpired in history and because of the technological society in which we live and the deification of science -- we still have people who generously and enthusiastically embrace the message, others who reject it vehemently and violently and others who are just oblivious and indifferent.

Q: Pope John Paul II spoke about a new springtime in the Church in the new millennium. How confident are you of that happening?

Cardinal O’Malley: One question at the ceremony of ordination asks us is if we will be like the Good Shepherd, to go out and look for the lost sheep. That to me underscores the missionary nature of the Church. It’s not something that the bishop does alone, but we must try and inspire in our people a sense of being evangelizers and to outreach.

Certainly, one of the greatest blessings of the new evangelization is the new apostolic movements that have given a new energy to evangelization, to outreach and the missionary spirit. In today’s world this is part and parcel of what we need to be about. We can’t fall back into old categories of Christendom. The new evangelization means re-evangelizing people who have a veneer of a Christian culture, but who have not experienced that deep conversion to Christ and commitment to a way of life that He has come to teach us.

The Holy Spirit will guide us and the history of the Church is a history of calamities. Yet, like the phoenix, we rise out of the ashes and amaze everyone, even ourselves. It is not a human project but it is God’s; we know that the eventual triumph and success is guaranteed.

Q: How crucial is the unity with other bishops and particularly with the Holy Father in your ministry as bishop?

Cardinal O’Malley: Unity with other bishops and with the Holy Father is very, very important. It underscores the Catholicity of the Church. Sometimes people talk about the American Church, the church of Boston or this is the way we do things at St. Philomena Parish. That’s wonderful, but we are part of something that is larger than ourselves. We are part of the Body of Christ.

The Catholicity of the Church and our responsibility to build up that unity and be a sign of unity in the world under the authority of the Holy Father who has been entrusted with the ministry of Peter, upon whom Christ has founded the Church, is very important. In a world where there is so much nationalism and sometimes racism and ethnocentricity, the Church has a universal mission, and that unity is very difficult to safeguard. It is a unity of faith, it’s a unity of discipline, but that’s part of the function of the bishops.

Q: The ritual emphasizes the bishop’s role in the social ministry of the Church...

Cardinal O’Malley: In the very first days of the Church, Christ cared for the sick, fed the hungry. We see the collection taken up by St. Paul, the establishment of the deacons -- in all of these things we see that the social ministry of the Church was always part of the way we announced the good news. We serve Christ in the poor, in the hungry, in the sick and the imprisoned. It’s just part of who we are as Christ’s disciples.

In Jesus’ first sermon at Nazareth, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah who describes the messianic mission as being anointed to bring the good news to the poor, sight to the blind and liberty to captives. That mission in revealing the mercy and the face of the Father is part of what the Church’s mission has been and always will be. The social dimension and the services of the Church to the poor and the sick are not add-ons, but they are part of the essence of who we are as a people leading the way of life that is according to God’s plan.

Q: How would you respond to those who would like to reduce the Church to a social service agency?

Cardinal O’Malley: The Church’s service to the world and the poor will be authentic when it is poured out of our faith and commitment to Christ and obedience to God’s will. If it becomes philanthropy -- where the roots of this activity are being cut off -- there’s a danger of either becoming complacent about this mission or of making this mission something that is so centered on this world that the whole aspect of salvation is reduced to material well-being, which truncates the meaning of the human person who has a call to transcendence.

Q: That is precisely another of the aspects highlighted in the Rite of Ordination: “to sustain the people of God and to guide them on the way of salvation.” How do bishops do that?

Cardinal O’Malley: In a great part it is the teaching office of the Church. The Holy Father has just given us a new encyclical -- these are theological reflections that help us to understand our mission and our identity. This filters down to the teaching office of the bishops’ conference and individual bishops as we teach in our dioceses and try to transmit the faith.

Also through the gestures of Christ that touch our people in their individual lives. The Eucharist is at the very center of the life of the Church. The bishop is the chief liturgist, and the Eucharist is what calls us into the unity that we are supposed to be building up. It’s around the table of the Lord that we gather and are strengthened by God’s word, by the sacraments, to be able to carry on in this mission.

Q: What do you think about the widely acknowledged crisis in the sacrament of reconciliation?

Cardinal O’Malley: Part of the challenge of the Church in announcing the good news is calling people to conversion, and conversion takes place when we examine our lives in light of the Gospel and repent for our sins. The sacrament of confession gives us that opportunity plus the assurance of God’s mercy and grace that we can experience in the sacrament.

In modern society where a sense of sin has been greatly diminished, the Church must help people to understand that God’s law is written on our hearts and that in order to lead a human life, we must follow the road map of the commandments. Because of our human weakness and pride, we fail, but God in His mercy forgives us. But there must be a process of repentance, reconciliation and firm purpose of amendment.

During this year for priests, we hope to take advantage of the themes of this year celebrating the anniversary of the great confessor, the Cure of Ars, to be able to promote the Sacrament of Reconciliation in our parishes during Lent and Advent. We know that this has been successful in the past in other parts of the country and we are looking forward to doing it here.

We are very grateful to the churches and shrines that provide confession on a daily basis for people. I am always much edified when I visit those places and see how many people are taking advantage of the sacrament of confession. We certainly want parishes to teach about the importance of reconciliation and make opportunities available for confession in the parish as well.

Q: We have discussed the teaching and sanctifying aspect of the bishop. The other aspect is the governing role of the bishop. How would you describe your governing style?

Cardinal O’Malley: It’s often said that the Church is not a democracy, but there is apostolic authority that comes from Christ through the bishops; in many ways, I think God’s plan is to safeguard the Deposit of Faith but also hopefully to free us from some of the political influences that can undermine the Church’s ministry.

Certainly, the bishop’s authority to govern, which comes from Christ, does not absolve us from the important role of trying to build consensus and seek out the advice of our priests and people. The Church structures -- through parish councils, diocesan pastoral councils and presbyteral councils -- try to provide forums so that the bishop is able to consult and to use the gifts and the lights and the talent of the clergy, religious and laity in his local church.

Q: How do you see your role in promoting vocations?

Cardinal O’Malley: I think the bishop’s role is very important in promoting all Christian vocations, certainly the vocation to marriage, which is the vocation of most of our people; but certainly also the vocation to the priesthood, to have that relationship with the presbyterate that allows us to work in unity to serve God’s people so that the ministerial priesthood will build up the priesthood of the faithful.

This is a very important role of the bishop. In today’s world in particular we see that when bishops become more involved in vocation promotion, we do get a better response.

Q: How do you foster your relation with the presbyterate?

Cardinal O’Malley: The relationship with the priests is very important. What we have tried to do in the archdiocese is to structure the presbyteral council with the vicariates so that priests can have input at the vicariate level that then is brought to the presbyteral council and try to make the priests feel very free to speak what is in their hearts. I think that has enhanced the presbyteral council.

Also, in a diocese this size, the role of the auxiliary bishops to be liaisons with the priests in the regions is a very crucial one. We are very grateful for the good and holy auxiliary bishops we have, who usually are drawn from our own presbyterate, so they have a relationship and history with the priests that is invaluable in helping to solidify the unity in the presybterate.

Certainly, I try to have a close relationship, particularly with young priests. Statistics have always shown that the first five years is when the greatest attrition takes place. During those years, we have the Jesu Caritas meetings with the priests, and I think they have been valuable for us. During this year for the priest, one of the things I have asked for is that the priest support groups be promoted. About one-third of our priests belong to some kind of support group, but we would like to have everyone in some sort of support group where they are coming together with other priests for fraternity, for prayer, for sharing ideals and just the kind of emotional support that we need in the challenging ministry of serving God’s people in today’s world.

Q: You also are asked to pray for your flock...

Cardinal O’Malley: In Canon Law, we have to celebrate a Mass every Sunday for the people who are entrusted to us. This is only put in there as a reminder that our whole life we must be constantly praying for our dioceses. I think all bishops are acutely aware of that aspect of our ministry, that we are intercessors for the people who have been entrusted to us.

Q: Unless the norm changes you will present your resignation to the Holy Father in ten years, upon reaching 75 years of age. What aspects of your ministry would you like to focus on in your remaining time?

Cardinal O’Malley: One of them that I am very concerned about is just transmitting the faith and to be able to have a strong, united presbyterate to do that.

We see that with the breakdown of the family how many challenges we have. Certainly promoting marriage, promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life and helping the people to prepare to be evangelizers, to teach the faith to new generations. I think this is a great challenge in these times. I hope that in the next 10 years, if I live that long, I will be able to do something along these lines.

Q: How would you like to be remembered?

Cardinal O’Malley: I really haven’t thought too much about that! I hope people will say a prayer for me.

That’s not something I’m particularly worried about. It’s not about me, it’s about the Church, and if I can serve as bishop without doing too much damage and helping people find the Lord, then that is what it’s about. It’s not the cult to the personality, it’s discovering God’s love in our lives and the power of the Spirit guiding the Church; as the saints always say, when we do good, that’s God working in us, and the evil we do, that’s us.

So, I hope that I will be able to be an instrument of God’s mercy and love and presence to His people. I am painfully aware of my own humanity and limitations and hope that people will be patient and pray for me.

The article above is part of an 80 page special edition of The Pilot marking the 25th anniversary of the Episcopal Ordination of Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley. To request copies of the special edition please send a check ($5 per copy which includes shipping and handling) to The Pilot, 66 Brooks Drive, Braintree, MA 02184 or for more information email us at

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