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VATICAN CITY — Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley granted an interview to The Pilot at the Pontifical North American College in Rome April 9, the day after the body of Pope John Paul II was laid to rest.
Q: Since you arrived in Rome on April 7, what has impressed you most?
Archbishop O’Malley: First of all, the crowds. To see so many young people here was extraordinary. Even before we got here, the people who we saw at the airports — in Germany and here in Rome — people who just decided at the last minute to come to Rome, with no place to stay, with no guarantee they would be able to get into the long lines and pass by the Holy Father’s body. They just wanted to be part of the funeral.
And then, as soon as we got here we were invited to the American Embassy, and there we met President Bush, Mrs. Bush, former presidents Clinton and Bush and the Secretary of State. I am old enough to remember [President] Kennedy’s election. The great outcry was “if you elect this man president you will bring the pope to the White House.” Now, the White House came to the pope; and none of those individuals are Catholic.
Then, in the evening, we went to pray before the body of the Holy Father, to see that calm humanity passing by the whole time we were there. While I was there, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a number of Orthodox bishops came to pray. It shows the dimension of the Holy Father’s ecumenical outreach to other faiths, that even the top leadership would be present for his funeral.
Q: What has touched you most of the life and the legacy of John Paul II?
Archbishop O’Malley: One of the things is how he was able to instill in us the sense of mission that he had. He was able to instill in us a sense of being one universal Church. That aspect of the Church is here to stay. Before, Catholics never expected in their lifetime to ever see the pope or to know anything about him. The Holy Father had always been this kind of far away figure. Here is a man who was very modern, a skier, a hiker, who loved to be with young people, families. I think that aspect of his ministry has made a profound effect on the Church.
And his drive to evangelize. He always talked about the new evangelization, because the Holy Father saw how, in many parts of the world, Christianity has become cultural Christianity, and needs to be reconnected to Christ, to the grace of the sacraments and to the power of the Gospel.
He had this sense of urgency that he presented to the community, that inspired. As I mentioned last Sunday [at the Mass for the pope in Boston], having been visitator of so many seminaries in Latin American and the Caribbean, I have heard how so many young men talked of their vocation as being a product of the pope’s visit or contact at a World Youth Day. Those are part of his legacy, as well as his writings that I find are just incredible. He has an intellectual capacity and a wonderful way in which he expresses the great truths of our faith but from a very personal perspective. I think that has been a great contribution.
It will take a long time for all of his writings to be digested. I read in L’Osservatore Romano part of his testament which was very beautiful. On the plane I was reading [the pope’s book] “Memorias e Identidad” (“Memory and Identity”). I have it in Spanish. There, it’s fascinating he is talking about the cultural crisis of the world, democracy, and what happened to the 20th century — Nazism, communism. He really had such an impact. Even when we look at the fall of communism, no serious commentator denies the crucial role that he played in what happened.
Q: Many in the crowd at the pope’s funeral Mass proclaimed “Santo Subito” (“Sainthood immediately”). Do you think he is a saint?
Archbishop O’Malley: The impact of his ministry is an indication of the profound holiness of his life. And having been with him in so many parts of the world, and to watch him pray, enter into this contemplative zone with pandemonium, noise, heat, all around. This was a man with a profound capacity to pray. I think he was a mystic.
As others have mentioned, it was almost like a canonization by acclamation, and I sort of also felt that way about Mother Teresa. There was talk that the Holy Father was going to canonize her directly without beatifying her. I understand there were objections in the curia, that some were saying “Well that would set a bad precedent.” To me, her canonization is going to be redundant. Everybody already considers her a saint. I think there is a lot of that in this situation. Such an extraordinary individual living such a grace-filled life; an instrument of God in so many ways. I was kind of surprised about how far Cardinal Ratzinger went in his homily talking about Pope John Paul being at the “finestra” (window) of heaven at the Father’s house. I am sure that Cardinal Ratzinger ordinarily is very careful not to canonize the individual — as we often do in sermons today at funerals. We are supposed to be asking for prayers for that individual. I am going to explain that very clearly when I die! They are not to say how good I was but to say “This guy really needs prayers. Let’s get him out of purgatory.”
Q: So you would not be surprised if his canonization process is a speedy one.
Archbishop O’Malley: Oh no!
Q: Or even if the next pope waives the five years required to begin the process of beatification?
Archbishop O’Malley: I would not be surprised. Even though the Church has abandoned the canonization by acclamation, the canonization process always begins with the people. The “sensus fidelium” (sense of the faithful) and the way people react to an individual showing devotion. If that is not present, there can never be a canonization. It always has to start there. Obviously, here it is very present, where so many people are aware of his ministry and had contact with him and whose lives have been touched by him. I think that the process has been jumpstarted, whether we want it or not.
Q: Many people respected John Paul II as a world figure but rejected most of his message. Do you find that to be a contradiction?
Archbishop O’Malley: They are trying to create a dichotomy that is not there. It is one and the same man who accomplished all this good: who spoke out against abuses of human rights and who also tried very hard to give the philosophical and theological explanations for our difficult doctrines. I think it will take a while for all that to trickle down. He was very concerned about demonstrating how reasonable our faith is. He never went out and just said “Catholics cannot have an abortion because it is a sin, or euthanasia is a no-no. There was always a very in detailed, well considered, reasonable explanation for all of the Church’s doctrine, even the unpopular ones — the prohibition against women priests, or contraception or any other. For people to really understand his entire message, it is necessary to look not only at his conclusions, to look at the doctrine, but also to have an appreciation of the way that he saw that doctrine as a part of a larger truth.
Q: Now that the pope has been laid to rest, all eyes are looking toward the conclave. Do you think that the next pope will be a “John Paul III,” or a very different person?
Archbishop O’Malley: In my life, every pope has been so different. Every one has brought very special gifts to the Church. I’ll never forget when John XXIII was elected. Everyone’s reaction was “he is so fat!” But in the short time everyone realized his goodness, his holiness, how he was an instrument of God. Every Holy Father in my lifetime has been so different and yet each of them has brought gifts to the Church that were needed at that moment. So I have no reason to think that the next pope won’t be very different too, and also will bring us gifts that the Church needs for this moment of history.
Q: All these people came, mourning Pope John Paul II. Do you think that deep affection will influence the way they see the next pope?
Archbishop O’Malley: We will all make comparisons, that’s to be expected, but we have to give the new pope a chance to be able to develop his own ministry, and that will take some time.
This Holy Father, it is amazing the vision he had. It was only when I read his letter for the millennium that I understood how organized his vision was, what his ministry was to be and how he used the millennium as a sort of a goal. I suppose one of the reasons he was so effective was that he did have a very unified vision right from the beginning, but the new Holy Father will have to have a chance to do that.
Q: This Holy Father has concentrated on the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. Should the next pope continue in that direction or concentrate on other challenges?
Archbishop O’Malley: I think the Second Vatican Council still needs to be more fully understood and implemented. It stresses the catholicity of the Church, the universal call to holiness — all the canonizations the Holy Father did was his way of demonstrating that. The global aspect of the life of the Church, I don’t think that is something we can ever turn back.
There is great concern that the next Holy Father needs to concentrate on the curia in Rome and so forth. That may be true. But I don’t think he can ever not be attentive to the communities all over the world, and be present somehow. He may not have the capacity or the ability to be as mobile as this Holy Father, but certainly the people are going to expect that as part of the ministry of the pope and as part of the direction of the Church: that the pope can have this direct contact with the people that is not just always a distant communion.
Q: What are the main challenges ahead as the Church elects a new pope for the 21st century?
Archbishop O’Malley: Passing on the faith and evangelizing where the culture has become so secularized, those are special challenges. The break up of family life too, as it makes it more difficult to mentor young people to faith. I think that is what we need to do. It’s not just a matter of giving people information but to help them to receive a message that means friendship with God and being part of a community of faith, having an individual vocation and having a communal mission to share with other people. Today, particularly in the United States, there is a very highly individualistic kind of spirituality which is not what Christianity is about, what the Catholic Church is about.
Q: Even if the Catholic message confronts the secular culture, becoming countercultural?
Archbishop O’Malley: Oh! I think the Church is countercultural, there is no other choice.
Q: Some would say that the Church needs to adapt to the culture...
Archbishop O’Malley: I suppose. It depends on what you mean by “adapt.” If it means to capitulate to the culture then I think that would be being unfaithful to what our mission is. Confrontation is not always the way to teach the Gospel, but neither is assimilation into a culture that rejects the values of the Gospel.
Q: You saw the youth at the funeral. Do you sense a hunger for faith among the youth in Boston?
Archbishop O’Malley: Oh yes! Recently I have been meeting with the presidents of Catholic universities in the archdiocese, and all of them say that the young people today have an openness to religion they haven’t seen in a long time. At the same time, they say there is a fascination with our traditions. There is a lot of ignorance about the teachings of the Church, but there is a desire to somehow be connected to the Church, and even a new piety they haven’t seen for a long time. My experience would be the same as those people in the Catholic universities.
Q: What is your favorite personal memory of the pope?
Archbishop O’Malley: Well, there are many but I suppose that the most recent “big” one, receiving the pallium was a very moving experience. To realize that the pallium meant that the supreme shepherd was putting the sheep on my shoulder. That was a very moving experience.
Contributing to this report was Donis Tracy