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When Archbishop Seán Patrick O’Malley sat in the cathedra in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, he took his place as the ninth bishop and the sixth archbishop of Boston.
A friar who, since his childhood, desired to be a missionary, Archbishop O’Malley has ahead of him a challenge greater than any missionary would likely expect: to lead and to heal the 2.1 million Catholics who make up the Church in Boston.
As bishops and priests processed around the outside of the cathedral, a group of energetic young Catholics from an East Boston parish greeted the archbishop singing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Further on, at the other corner of the cathedral, angry protestors were shouting, “Shame on you!”
That brief snapshot in time speaks volumes of the reality Archbishop O’Malley faces as the new Archbishop of Boston.
Much is being said of the challenges ahead. Many are setting up road maps — that could easily become roadblocks — for the archbishop to follow.
Beyond the most pressing issues that demand the immediate attention of the archbishop — settlements, declining Church attendance, falling donations, dissent — in the long run, the decaying spirit of the Church in Boston needs be revitalized.
The sexual abuse of minors by priests and the protective culture that allowed it to occur has shaken the foundations of the Church, exposing the depth of a pre-existing crisis that has been weakening those foundations for many years.
As it was, before the clergy abuse scandal, many Catholics already found it difficult to understand and follow the teachings of the Church. In the face of suffering, why not allow euthanasia? Why deny the paralyzed the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research? Why shouldn’t any union of people be allowed to be called marriage, as long as they love each other?
It was already difficult for Boston Catholics to swim upstream against the cultural current. The scandal came and opened the floodgates, sadly, washing away many in the torrent.
In his homily at the Installation Mass, Archbishop O’Malley specifically called those distressed Catholics back. “To those who have stepped away, I invite you to return to help rebuild our Church and carry on the mission Christ entrusted to us.”
Furthermore, the faithful are lamenting the reality of a Church in crisis whose good works and influence on public policy issues are being jeopardized by the crisis. Many expect Archbishop O’Malley will be able turn the situation around.
That will not happen unless a spiritual renewal plays an integral part of the process of healing and reconciliation.
Archbishop O’Malley refers in his homily to the Cross and the need of sincere prayer that should make us reflect on the need to return to the essentials of our faith.
The Church is not primarily a charitable institution. The Church is not primarily the keeper of a certain moral code. The Church is primarily the carrier of the Good News of Jesus Christ, Who died on the Cross and rose from death to free us from slavery to sin and give us new life. That message has the power to transform those who hear it.
For years the Holy Father has been calling for a New Evangelization, new in its ardor, methods, and expressions. The world is eagerly awaiting a message of hope. The beauty of Christianity, the treasure that the Deposit of Faith is, needs to be announced.
The Church’s charitable works and its moral leadership in the social sphere are a natural consequence of a faith-filled community. First comes the spirit. Then come the works. In the aftermath of the greatest crisis in the history of the Church in Boston, a new missionary spirit must arise. Only then will a flourishing Catholic culture spring up once again.
Archbishop O’Malley, as the apostolic nuncio so appropriately noted in his opening remarks of the installation, your flock in Boston feels, in some sense, “troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.”
The great expectation that your appointment has sparked is proof of the need for spiritual leadership among the faithful of the archdiocese and in society at large.
What Boston needs at this time is a good and true shepherd. One who, when he speaks, can be believed, not just because of his elegant words but because he shows the love of Christ with his actions. One who sincerely preaches the love of Christ because he sees Christ in the other, whether an immigrant, a victim of sexual abuse or an unborn child.
Archbishop O’Malley, you are the answer to our prayers.