Cardinal reflects on Pope Francis' first year

Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley speaks in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross March 4. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

SOUTH END -- In an extensive interview with The Pilot March 4, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley reflected on the first year of the pontificate of Pope Francis.

In the interview, the cardinal analyzed the personality of Pope Francis and addressed some of the concerns and expectations that the pope's way of communicating have raised in some Catholics.

Cardinal O'Malley recently returned from Rome where he participated in meetings with the Holy Father as a member of the Council of Cardinals, a group of eight prelates charged with reforming the Roman Curia and to provide counsel to Pope Francis on a variety of issues, including financial reforms.

The cardinal also participated in a two-day long session with the entire College of Cardinals, focusing on marriage in anticipation of the upcoming October Synod of Bishops on that topic. During these meetings, particular attention was devoted to the issue of reception of Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

During the interview, he spoke about his work the council, including the first two major initiatives to come out of the commission's work: the announcement of the creation of a Commission for the Protection of Minors and the newly announced Secretariat for the Economy.

How would you characterize the first year of Pope Francis' pontificate?

For many people it has been a year of surprises. The Holy Father has such a refreshing style and a desire to be close to people and accessible. He is even accessible in the way he expresses himself. He has made quite an impact on the world. I don't remember any other pope whose daily homily was followed so assiduously by so many around the globe. Before, we used to think that the Holy Father's travel and linguistic abilities were the way he communicated, but this man communicates without leaving home and without saying anything except in Italian! It is amazing.

You recently saw Pope Benedict at the Feb. 22 consistory. A year ago, the whole world was wondering what it would be like to have two living popes. What were your thoughts at the time, and what do think now?

It is the same as having a bishop emeritus in the diocese. It is a delicate position; the retired bishop cannot interfere, but he can be supportive and helpful. Obviously, I think that is what we are experiencing with Pope Benedict, who has publicly said that his task is going to be to pray for the Church and he is leading a very contemplative existence. And yet, he is still alive and it is wonderful when he participates in some of these more public events; just as in any diocese when the former bishop is invited back to be present for the chrism Mass or some other diocesan celebration.

Some are describing this papacy as a kind of break with the past, rather than continuity but with a different style. How would you describe this papacy compared to the previous papacies?

In my lifetime every papacy has been very different from the one that went before. As a child, it was Pius XII and he was an aristocrat, very ascetic. He sort of exuded holiness and there was a great reverence and awe about his person. But he ate alone; he was very isolated. Suddenly there comes John XXIII who was entirely different -- he had a great sense of humor, he was always joking, was very close to people, came from peasant stock. Even physically, he looked so different. And then we had Paul VI who was in many ways a more modern pope. He began to travel. And then of course John Paul II whose papacy had such a profound influence on the situation in the world, changed the Iron Curtain. The Holy Father became present personally to millions and millions of Catholics. So each pope has been very, very different.

Obviously this is the first pope from Latin America. His whole pastoral experience has been much different from that of European bishops and he certainly brings a freshness and excitement to the task. But, when you look at the history of the Church, we have had popes who have been so different one from another and even as I say, in modern history. Each one brings his own gifts and we have been so blessed by the presence of popes who have been holy men, very wise men, very pastoral men, and whose leadership has been a very positive thing in the life of the Church. This has not always been the case in our 2000 year history, but certainly in modern history we have been blessed by the popes that we have had.

At last year's consistory before the conclave, then-Cardinal Bergoglio spoke about his views on the current state of the Church. Those themes seem to have characterized his first year as Pope Francis. One of them was how the Church needs to come out of herself and go to the peripheries, both geographical and existential. Why is this emphasis important today?

There is always a danger of the Church retreating to the sacristy and abdicating our responsibility to do precisely what Jesus tells us to do -- make disciples of all nations, to leave behind the 99 and go in search of the one lost sheep. The Lord in the Gospels is always reaching out to people on the periphery; the lame, the blind, the halt, the tax collector, the prostitute, the foreigner and the Lord brings them center stage. So, the Holy Father is simply reminding us that this is what the Gospel is about, that these people on the periphery become the protagonists of Jesus's ministry and they need to be the object of our love and our pastoral care.

Another topic the pope spoke about was the danger of spiritual worldliness in the Church that may require a push for reform. How do you see that playing out now?

Well, the Holy Father is concerned about careerism in the Church and he is constantly reminding people that the Holy Father is not a monarch surrounded by a court, but is a bishop of the community of faith and that is the perspective that he wants to communicate and for people to embrace. His decision to live at the Domus Santa Marta is certainly not because the apartments in the apostolic palace are so luxurious, but because he does not want to be isolated. He wants to be part of the community and be connected to people. For him, the culture of encounter is what the Church needs to be about and he is certainly modeling that for us in so many ways.

Regarding that reform, you were appointed to the Holy Father's "G8" council of cardinals last April and recently returned from Rome, where you attended the third meeting of the council. Why do you think reforming the Roman Curia is such an important issue?

The Roman Curia is not a very large organization, but it is the only organization that the Holy Father has to help him perform his ministry. Obviously, he wants the Curia to be at the service of the universal Church and to do that there needs to be greater efficiency, transparency, collaboration among the different departments -- or dicasteries as they are called -- and a greater focus on collegiality, involvement with bishops around the world and the local Churches.

I think the Holy Father feels a very strong mandate because prior to the conclave it is something the cardinals spoke about so much. Of course, it all took place within the context of Vatileaks and all the other problems that have surfaced about the Vatican bank. These situations should never exist and the Holy Father is striving to make a Curia that will be more pastoral and will be at the service of the entire Church and be able to communicate that vision and enthusiasm for the joy of the Gospel that he is always preaching about. He is also concerned about the spiritual welfare of the people in the Curia. He wants them to feel that they are there not just for a job, but they are part of a mission and that mission comes from Christ. To be able to carry it out we need to attend to our own interior life so that we have a sense of vocation and that we are being led by God's grace to seek God's will and to embrace it joyfully and generously in our lives.

Beyond the ongoing work to reform "Pastor Bonus" (the apostolic constitution promulgated by Pope John Paul II that instituted a number of reforms in the process of running the central government of the Church), so far two main outcomes from the group have been announced: a commission to work on child abuse prevention worldwide and the creation of a new economy secretariat to oversee Vatican finances. Can you comment on their importance?

The focus of the commission will be child protection. In other words, to make sure that all of the practices of the Church are geared towards creating safe environments and having in place practices that will help; not just how to respond in cases of abuse, but how to avoid it. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, particularly when it is something as tragic as child abuse. The Holy Father is very committed to a policy of no tolerance and is anxious to have this commission formed to be able to work with the bishops' conferences who have been asked to develop clear guidelines and policies around this whole area of child protection. We are very edified by how many people have already volunteered to be a part of this.

The other development was the creation of this new Economy Secretariat headed by Cardinal Pell...

I think it is very, very important. There were two commissions working very hard. The former commission of Benedict XVI that was looking at the bank and now the commission the Holy Father has had looking at the overall financial picture of the Vatican. It is a question of stewardship, of trying to make sure the Church's resources, which are limited, are used for the mission of the Church, for the works of mercy, the care of the poor, for works of evangelization. We want to avoid any waste and to make sure that there is great transparency so that people have trust that when they make a donation to the Church it will be used for the purposes for which it has been entrusted to the Church.

Cardinal Pell is an extraordinary individual; he is a man of great, great energy, vision and determination. He has been involved in many of these issues in the Holy See for a long time so he has an understanding of the challenges. It was very generous of him to be willing to sacrifice his own ministry in the Archdiocese of Sydney to come to Rome and dedicate himself to this very important work. I told the Holy Father that the job was very difficult; it requires a rugby player!

One of the perceptions about this papacy is that the pope is going to change Church teaching. What is your reaction to that?

I like the phrase that someone said, that he is not changing the lyrics but only the melody. Sometimes the Church's message was perhaps too harshly presented to people and out of context. He is trying to show us the whole context of the demands of discipleship. The whole context is in the context of God's love and mercy and desire to accompany us and to forgive us when we fall and to help us overcome our weaknesses and to have a sense of connectedness to the Lord and to one another.

But there is a widespread feeling that changes are going to take place not only in style but in substance, for instance, on the current norms for divorced and remarried Catholics. Would you comment on that perception?

Obviously, when it comes to the Church's teaching on the permanence of marriage, there is no way to change that. Now, the Holy Father and many people would obviously like to see a possibility for people to reconnect with the sacraments. Many of the cardinals were insistent that we must look for better ways to do annulments in a way that can be done with greater expediency. But this is certainly something that will be talked about and discussed at the upcoming synods. Regardless of whatever happens, the Church's teaching on the permanence of marriage is not something that can ever be changed.

The pope has made some high profile statements on homosexuality and pro-life issues that people are seeing as a change in direction. What is your perspective on what the pope has said and on how it is being interpreted across the Church and society at large?

The Church's teachings, particularly when they are demanding on people's lives, often are rejected out of hand. I think, as I said before, the Holy Father is trying to give us the context in which we live those teachings. That context is one of living God's love and his mercy and to be instruments of mercy in the world, helping people find the strength to live a life of discipleship that cannot be lived alone but in community. The Holy Father talks about the art of accompaniment and the culture of encounter and in our culture, which is so individualistic, the demands of the Gospel of course become impossible. When a person becomes truly part of a community of faith and begins to experience the joy of the Gospel the Holy Father is always speaking about, they experience God's love in their life; then what before seemed impossible and unreasonable suddenly becomes feasible and begins to make sense.

The Holy Father's first trip outside the Vatican was to the Italian island of Lampedusa where he spoke about the plight of immigrants. Do you think that his emphasis on immigration will have an impact on the U.S. immigration debate?

I hope so. The Holy Father talked about the globalization of indifference and we cannot be indifferent to human suffering. We cannot pretend that people are not trying to get into Europe and into the United States; they are trying to escape some horrific economic or political situations to be able to have a better life for their children. I remember when I was bishop in Florida, there were boats arriving, rafts really, and small boats arriving from Cuba and Haiti to Florida and after the Red Mass we were having breakfast with the governor, who was Jeb Bush at the time, and I said to him "You know Mr. Bush, if the O'Malley's and the Bushes were in Haiti now, they'd be building a boat."

The other thing is that, as I always say, Europe would love to have our problems. The immigrants who come here, their children will be Americans. Despite the xenophobia and some of the problems we have, we are a nation of immigrants and people do assimilate into this country and they have brought such energy and such a work ethic and family values and other wonderful things that have redounded to the strength and glory of this country. To pretend that somehow immigration is bad for us is nonsense.

The pope has spoken of the Church as a field hospital. What do you think is the role of the Church as society becomes more secularized?

I see it, particularly in the United States, as moving away from being a cultural Catholicism, a tribal Catholicism where if you were Italian, Polish or Irish, you automatically received all the sacraments and went to Church and so forth. And now it is becoming much more intentional, depending much more on the individual. This will mean a new kind of evangelization that will be much more focused on meeting each individual and personally inviting them and mentoring them in the life of faith. We can no longer depend on cultural background to be enough. Where that is as a starting point, that's wonderful, but the personal conversion to the Lord and the experience of his love and grace in our lives and a sense of community is all very important. Obviously a priest cannot do this on his own. The new evangelization is going to depend very much on an army of lay people feeling responsible for their Church and for them to be messengers of the good news to their families, their neighbors and the community at large.

The past year has been full of very important moments. What do you anticipate moving forward?

It is hard to forecast but obviously the enthusiasm that the Holy Father's simplicity, joy and accessibility has created, not just in our own Catholic community, but in the larger society, is something that I think has been helpful to the world. Even the situation in Syria where the Holy Father called for prayer and a solution was found -- it was a very moving thing; we are reminded that when we all come together in faith and hope and put our trust in the Lord and when we invoke his guidance and blessing on our endeavors that wonderful things can happen.

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