Cardinal O’Malley speaks on significance of elevation, challenges of the Church

Cardinal-designate O’Malley speaks at the Domus Santa Marta in the Vatican where he stayed during the time of the consistory. Pilot photo by Gregory L. Tracy

VATICAN CITY — In his most extensive interview granted while in Rome for the consistory, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley spoke with The Pilot about the significance of his elevation to cardinal and his views of the challenges facing the Universal Church today. Those challenges include an increase in secularism, the rise of Islam, the crisis of vocations and the need to promote a new evangelization among Catholics.

The interview was conducted March 24, the day in which the then-cardinal-designate joined the Holy Father and many of the world’s cardinals for a day of prayer and reflection in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall.

Q: Cardinal Seán, when you were ordained a Capuchin friar nearly 36 years ago, did you ever dream of becoming a bishop or, for that matter, a cardinal of the Church?

Cardinal O’Malley: That was the farthest thing from our minds. In those days there were very few American bishops who were religious. It was almost unheard of. It was really Pope John Paul II who began to ordain more religious, bishops. In my community, most of the bishops have been in the missions. All American Capuchins had been made bishops in Papua New Guinea, in Nicaragua, in Guam. It was not even something that was on the radar screen.

Q: When you were a young seminarian, did you “look up” to any particular cardinal?

Cardinal O’Malley: The first cardinal that I knew personally was Cardinal Wright because he had been our bishop when I was a seminarian in Pittsburgh. At the time, he was not a cardinal but he was an extraordinary preacher, but, of course, we had not been exposed to his Boston accent. When he arrived in Pittsburgh he came to the seminary and gave a Mass, and all the seminarians were imitating him! He was a very eloquent man, very cultured and everyone was fascinated with him.

Of course, when I was growing up, Cardinal Spellman was almost like a legend in the United States. In those days, he was in many ways the spokesperson for the Catholic Church in the United States. We were all very aware of him.

Q: You have said to prefer a simple lifestyle, one that seems to contradict your new status as a cardinal. How do you reconcile both things in your person?

Cardinal O’Malley: The day when a cardinal needed to have a princely lifestyle is over, and I am happy that it’s over.

I know that at one time that was something that was very important and those symbols were important to the Catholic people — particularly when we were an immigrant Church in the United States. There was a time when that was a great source of pride for the Catholic people and a consolation that the leaders in the Church were important in civil society, and therefore, have a worthy residence and lifestyle.

But I think, particularly in the Church after the Vatican Council, we have rediscovered the importance of simplicity. So, I am confident that people will not be disappointed that my style is more like a simple priest. I cannot live with the same austerity as in a monastery but, to live like a simple parish priest, I think it is a good practice for bishops.

Q: To be elevated to cardinal is a personal prerogative of the Holy Father. Why do you think the pope has chosen you?

Cardinal O’Malley: I don’t have any great insights. I am sure it’s a sign of his love and regard for the Church of Boston and perhaps in appreciation of our recent history, what we’ve been through, as a sign of encouragement.

Q: For those who don’t know, can you explain the difference between being the archbishop of Boston and being Cardinal Seán O’Malley?

Cardinal O’Malley: The bishop of a diocese is the chief pastor of that local Church. When the local Church is an archdiocese, and has a series of suffragan sees around it, the bishop becomes an archbishop.

The cardinals are the ones who are chosen by the Holy Father to be part of the College of Cardinals, which is a large group of advisors to the pope himself and when the See of Peter becomes vacant — the pope dies — then it is their responsibility to choose a new pope.

Q: Why are all cardinals assigned a church in Rome?

Cardinal O’Malley: The cardinals have been choosing the pope for over 1,000 years. Before that it was the priests of Rome who had that responsibility. So, the cardinals are given churches in Rome to make them part of that local clergy and at the same time allowing for a more universal and Catholic voice in the selection of the pope. Tomorrow I will be given a church in Rome that I will have a sentimental or spiritual relation with. I won’t actually be the pastor or interfere in the life of the parish, but every cardinal has a connection to Rome and my connection will be the one the Holy Father will give me.

Q: The pope also appoints cardinals to different Vatican dicasteries. Do you already know in which Vatican offices you are going to serve?

Cardinal O’Malley: No, and I’m wondering if he will make those appointments now. I know there is going to be some restructuring of the Curia, so maybe he will wait until after some of those councils may be drawn together. I am not sure.

Q: Any particular interest?

Cardinal O’Malley: Of course (Laughter), but I am not going to tell you. And it would make no difference because the Holy Father chooses them.

Q: You are taking part today in a day of reflection and prayer with the Holy Father and all the cardinals. What was it like being in the College of Cardinals for the first time?

Cardinal O’Malley: That was quite an experience. It began with prayer and then the Holy Father said, “I’d like to share a spiritual reflection” which he gave spontaneously, talking about St. Toribio — it’s the feast of St. Toribio. He was a missionary bishop in South America, he learned Ketchua, and was able to translate the catechism, he walked thousands of miles to evangelize. The Holy Father’s speech was such a wonderful feature. And it was all from his heart.

That was very moving and then having a chance to greet a number of cardinals who I have not seen, in particular some from Latin America, Spain and Portugal whom I had not seen for a long time.

Q: As a cardinal, you now have an important say in global Church affairs. From your perspective, which are the most important challenges facing the Church today?

Cardinal O’Malley: Certainly, on the world scene, the forces of secularism are something that the Church has got to deal with. To be able to evangelize and teach the faith in a society which is no longer a Christian society, that has the same way of looking at reality — I think that is a big challenge.

The challenge of Islam in the world — which is not only a phenomenon in Africa and the Middle East but now even New York — and how Christianity is going to interact with the Muslim world. And it is curious, because there are historical reasons for tensions and rivalry and yet there are also points of convergence: the way they look at life and issues like abortion, and marriage and things like this. There would be greater understanding among believers and people who practice the Muslim faith.

And certainly, in the First World the vocation issue is very important. I suppose the challenge in the developing countries, in places where the Church is growing very quickly, is to make sure that the leadership receives the kind of formation that they need.

Q: Why do you think the Church is facing a crisis in vocations?

Cardinal O’Malley: The crisis is present in Europe and the United States. In Africa and Latin America they are beginning to have very large numbers of vocations. So the crisis is not worldwide. The crisis is in the developed countries, in countries where secularism is on the rise, in countries where materialism has become so firmly rooted in culture, in countries where family life is deteriorating, where the appreciation for chastity and for celibacy has been diminished so the priesthood is no longer seen in the same way it was a generation ago.

Beyond that, the whole sense of personal vocation, in many instances, is not there. A lot of Catholics think in terms of a career or a profession and not what is a call to holiness that comes through our baptism and concern to discover what God’s will is in our lives so we can live that. And beyond the personal vocation, the sense of being part of a communal mission that Christ has entrusted to the entire Church.

There has been what I call privatization of religion, that has become very sentimental, very personal. So you have people saying, “I am spiritual but I don’t belong to any church.” Well, as I tell the confirmation kids, Jesus did not come so we can have the “warm fuzzies.” He came to establish a Church, a people, and to give us a mission so to recapture that sense of who we are, that we do have a personal vocation.

In today’s world, without that sense of vocation, it is not only the priesthood and religious life that suffer, but marriage too.

People are postponing marriage or substituting it for cohabitation or they think that marriage is only about adults. So they get married without the idea of having children, or they justify, then, same-sex marriage because it is an arrangement of friendship between adults rather than a family that is to generate life, to bring children into the world, to nurture them to prepare them to be good citizens of this world, and citizens of heaven.

Q: Is there a connection between the ability of youths to listen to the call from God and family life?

Cardinal O’Malley: Of course. I grew up in a family where my parents had such reverence for priests, for the Eucharist. I started serving Mass ... before I made my First Communion. I learned the Latin prayers with my older brother to be a Mass server. In those days, there was never a Mass without altar boys even during the week. My parents would make sure that, even at six o’clock in the morning, we would be there.

Q: Some contend that the crisis of vocations would be solved if married men were allowed to become priests or if women were ordained. Are those real solutions?

Cardinal O’Malley: Well, the Church has said over and over again that we can only ordain men because, in the incarnation, Christ is male and the priesthood is an extension of Christ.

Married clergy? It’s not an impossibility because we have Eastern rite clergy and we also have married deacons. However, in the mainline churches that have married clergy, they are having the same shortage of clergy in the same secularized countries.

It is really not a solution and, for the Latin rite to change, it would bring a whole set of other problems. Not just theological problems, but also practical problems. We have many parishes that can barely support a celibate clergy, let alone if they had to support a family.

But in the Church, celibacy is not just seen for its practical value — and it does have a practical value, it makes people much more available to go wherever, to be able to serve God’s people — but it’s done more for the spiritual reasons behind it. In imitation of Jesus’s celibate life, an invitation to renunciation, to follow Him. It’s the new martyrdom by which the Church professes our faith in the resurrection. That we are all going to live forever, therefore we don’t have to have children in order to survive in immortality in our children. So some Christians are consecrated to a life of celibacy as a sign of the Church’s faith in the resurrection. So there are many theological reasons, not just practical reasons and it would take very great and urgent circumstances for the Church to ever change our teaching on celibacy.

Q: Another issue you mentioned was the need to evangelize. Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict have stressed the importance of the New Evangelization. How important do you think that is for the future of the Church?

Cardinal O’Malley: It is very, very important because the new evangelization is directed not just to the mission “ad gentes,” the foreign mission, but to our own supposedly Christian societies where many people have received the sacraments and yet are not truly on fire with their faith. They don’t understand their faith or live their faith so we need to once again reach out to those who at least are nominally Catholics and invite them to be a part of the community and help them to understand the Church’s teachings.

Q: What is your opinion of the new movements and ecclesial communities, mainly new lay renewal groups born around the time of the Second Vatican Council?

Cardinal O’Malley: The new movements and ecclesial communities have already had a big impact in the life of the Church, because at one level they allow people to experience the Church as a community, not to be so anonymous in the big Mass, of parishioners where they perhaps do not know each other. It helps people to develop a spirituality. The movements impart catechesis, help people to understand the faith, and then motivate them to evangelize. So we find in the movements the spirituality, catechesis and evangelization that we so desperately need in the Church today.

In the United States probably the movement that has had the most impact up to this point has been the Cursillo. I dare say in many parts of the country it was the salvation particularly of Hispanic Catholics, because there were so few priests and it formed so many leaders. Even in the English speaking Catholic community, so many of the leaders, almost all the deacons — their first real involvement in the Church came through the Cursillo.

All the new movements that are beginning now in the United States, all come as a gift of the Holy Spirit for the Church. In the United States we are used to stressing so much the parish as the center of pastoral life, so finding ways of introducing the ecclesial communities into the parish life, to energize that life, is a challenge. In Europe where the parishes have grown very weak the movements have grown very strong.

Two years ago I was at “il meeting” in Rimini [a gathering organized by Communion and Liberation]. It was a one week convention of young people — 700,000—mostly from Italy but also from all over the world who were going to lectures about the faith, liturgies and just a very uplifting experience.

In the States, we see that the movements are beginning to take root. We know they will help us in the task of the new evangelization.

Q: One of the challenges you mentioned was the increase of secularism. Secularism carries with it a very self-centered understanding of reality. There is a loss of the sense of the truth. Many Catholics tend to abide by Church teaching as long as they personally agree with it. Otherwise, on issues such as contraception, abortion and sexuality, they speak about the primacy of their conscience to explain their dissent. Is that a plausible reason for Catholics not to believe what the Church believes?

Cardinal O’Malley: A lot of people interpret primacy of conscience along those lines but for a conscience to be correct it needs to be based upon the truth. As Catholics, we believe that our reason helps us to discover the truth, but another source of truth is revelation, that God reveals His truth to us. There is no contradiction between the one and the other. In a highly individualized and secular society, some people see truth as an intrusion. Because if I accepted this truth, then somehow I need to alter my behavior. But I don’t want to alter my behavior and so I would see truth as something that is disagreeable and inconvenient.

The danger is that, if we do not have standards on which we base our lives and our ethical practices, then all of human life is put at risk. If we do not have a standard for the truth, we can’t be free. Our faith helps us to discover the truth, as does reason. In the Catholic Church, we do not see reason as being in contradiction with the faith.

One of the reasons that the Church has insisted that philosophy be a part of the formation of the priests is to help them to have a critical mind, but a mind that can ask the ultimate questions and discover the truth; to understand that truth is knowable. Because if you think faith is unknowable then it is reduced to some subjective feeling.

Q: How can the Church evangelize this secularized man who has lost the sense of the sacred. How can the beauty of the message of Christ be announced to this generation?

Cardinal O’Malley: The best way of evangelization is the witness of holiness in the Church where Catholics live a life of discipleship and take the Gospel in all of its radical nature seriously and do that joyfully and lovingly. Because if we are trying to convince people by arguing sort of the peripheral, ethical issues out there, we’ll never convince them. When people discover Christ and love Him, then they will want to do what He wants. Then what seemed difficult and impossible becomes not only doable but an imperative.

As Jesus says, “My yoke is sweet and my burden is light.” But if you do not know Jesus then the burden is very heavy and the yoke is very bitter. So evangelization must begin by bringing people to know Christ and we do that by the witness of Holiness in the Church.


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