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'A journey full of surprises'

  • Cardinal O'Malley smiles as he reflects on his priesthood during an interview at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Oct. 9. Pilot photo/Gregory L.Tracy
  • Cardinal O’Malley holds his rosary cross as he reflects on his priesthood during an interview at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Oct. 9. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • Cardinal O’Malley poses for a photo with his long-time friend Nellie Gray backstage at the Boston Catholic Women’s Conference in April 2009. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • Cardinal O’Malley greets members of the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide across from his polling place at Cathedral High School in Boston on election day in Nov. 2012. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • Cardinal O’Malley addresses participants at the March for Life in Washington D.C. in Jan. 2015. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • Cardinal O’Malley speaks during a seminar on safeguarding children at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in March 2017. CNS photo/Paul Haring

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SOUTH END -- In an interview with The Pilot, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley reflected on his life as a priest and bishop as he recently marked 50 years since his ordination to the priesthood. The conversation took place at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross Oct. 9.

Q. At discernment retreats and similar events, it's common for priests to share their vocation story. Can you share yours with us?

A. I was blessed to be raised in a very devout Catholic family, where the practice of our faith and the centrality of the Eucharist and friendship with priests was a very important feature of our family life. My uncle is a diocesan priest. He is the one who baptized us and performed all the marriages -- many of the duties that later devolved on me for the next generations of our family. But I often talk about the time that my older brother was going on retreat, and I went in the car to accompany my dad. We got to the Capuchin monastery, where my brother was making this retreat, and I had a long conversation with an old German friar who was there working in the fields, hoeing the ground and planting things. On the way back in the car, my father just made the observation, "You know, that old friar is the happiest man in the world." And I thought about it -- he didn't have a beautiful wife or a nice car, fancy clothes and hoeing that field didn't look that interesting, but I was quite aware that what my father said was true -- that man just exuded a joy, a peace, and a goodness that impressed me very much as a child. And I said, "I'd like to be happy like that, too!"

Eventually, I went back and joined that same monastery, and that German priest was my confessor for many, many years.

Q. So, looking back, would you become a priest again?

A. Yes, I certainly would! I don't regret the choice of responding to the call. I think that, in many ways, when I went into the seminary, it was much easier to make that choice. It was a time when there were many, many vocations to religious life. I think 1965 was the year when there were the most ordinations and religious professions in the history of the United States. That was the year that I was professed.

But, as I was emerging from the seminary, there was so much turmoil in the world. Things began to change. We were experiencing the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, which brought a lot of enthusiasm and energy to the life of the Church, but it also created some confusion and tensions and there were many priests and religious who abandoned their vocation at that point. It was a very painful experience for the Church. Of course, I grew up in a Church where no one ever left the priesthood, no one ever left religious life. Then, all of a sudden, people were leaving in droves, it seemed to us. It was very, very painful.

In society at large, we were experiencing the civil rights movement, which was, in my youth, such an important part of our history. Huge changes came about because of that. It was also the time of the Vietnam War and the American people were very divided about that. Many Americans felt that we shouldn't have entered that war. So, you had these three events that marked the beginning of my ministry very, very deeply.

When I was in the seminary, John XXIII was the pope. He was very beloved and asked that something like one-fourth of the clergy from Canada and the United States go to help the Church in Latin America. I took that to heart as a special call and I was prepared to go to the missions. In fact, Father General asked me to go to Easter Island, which is an island a couple thousand miles off the coast of Chile, to work with the Rapanui people there.

But that was changed when the Archbishop of Washington called the provincial and said, "I understand you have a brother who is going to the missions. Leave him here. I have only one priest who speaks Spanish, and thousands of people are arriving every month from Central America." So that was kind of the beginning of my ministry with immigrants here in the United States. I joined the order thinking I was going to work in one of our missions and, as I always say, the missions came to me, I didn't have to go to the missions.

Q. If you had to highlight a couple of pivotal moments in your years of formation or as a young priest that shaped your priesthood, what would they be?

A. I think the things I have mentioned -- the three great upheavals of the time but also the fact that the wars in Central America caused this huge immigration into the Washington area. Think about the fact that when I was in the seminary there was one priest who spoke Spanish in the Archdiocese of Washington. At that time, there was hardly any Hispanic presence. Today, 50 years later, the Hispanic population is probably the majority of Catholics in the Washington Archdiocese. So, this is a historical change and it certainly changed my life. I was going to go to the missions but then because of that need I was assigned to Washington.

Q. Most of your priesthood has been spent as a bishop. Is it difficult to see yourself as a priest?

A. I don't see being a priest or bishop as being different. I suppose one of the most significant things in my ministry in Washington was that my superiors allowed me to go to live among the poor and share their existence. That, to me, was a very important thing.

Usually, even if a priest is living in a poor neighborhood, he's in a rectory in a kind of cocoon. But I felt drawn to a desire to be close to the people, to share in their existence. My superiors allowed me to do that and, in some ways, it was challenging, but it was a great joy. I lived in an apartment in the building where the Centro Catolico was. It was nearby the parish, but the building was all full of immigrants. It was a time when that building seldom had heat or hot water. The only furniture I had was a picnic table, an altar, and a couple of benches. That was it, but it was enough.

A big part of the people I served were domestic workers -- servants, cooks, cleaning women. On Thursdays, many of them had their day off so they would come and cook and we would invite the homeless people in to eat with us. We had wonderful religious sisters working with us, too, from Spain, the Carmelites from Vedruna and, from Columbia, the Dominicans of the Presentation.

Because our resources were so meager, the archdiocese gave me $1,000 a month, and with that I had to pay the rent and the phones and run the Centro Catolico. So, we built up quite a cadre of volunteers. We had 300 or 400 people working on a weekly basis -- doctors, dentists, and nurses working in our clinic, many people teaching English, other people doing other kinds of social services. Very soon, we were serving many thousands of people.

Besides the direct services that we were giving, of course, we also had the responsibility for the pastoral life of these people -- the Masses, the catechesis, the sacramental preparations. We started the Hispanic newspaper and had a Hispanic radio program every week. We had a lot of youth ministry, and soccer teams.

We did a lot of work with married couples, as well. When I began, I noticed that very few people were married in the Church. So, one of the things we did was to build a very solid marriage preparation program and use that as a way of evangelizing and bringing people actively into the life of the Church. If you were married in our community, every month you would get a phone call from someone inviting you to a Bible circle that we would have in the parish. We had several of them and it was a way of building a sense of community and drawing people together.

So, it was a wonderful time. On the other hand, I had no one to mentor me. It was all sink or swim, trial and error -- and there were many errors, I assure you! Of course, as I mentioned, a very important part of the people we served were domestic workers. Many of them were terribly exploited, particularly those who were working for people who had diplomatic visas. So, we started an association of domestic workers, which was also a wonderful experience.

It was so touching to see the sacrifices the immigrants would make. People were here because there were wars in their countries. Their families would have starved to death had they not come up and they worked so hard and sent back as much money as they could to the villages they came from. It was also an opportunity to see the great piety and popular religiosity of the people of Latin America.

Eventually, in addition to our work with the Hispanics, we expanded to the Portuguese speaking and the Haitian communities. As I tell people, I didn't start saying the Mass in English until I became a bishop in the West Indies because my time in Washington was just working with these wonderful immigrant communities. It was a great privilege. It was a time of many, many challenges but it was a time of great joy to be able to work closely with so many people -- to live with the poor and share their lot and to come to appreciate their strength, their faith and their virtues.

Q. Would you rather have remained a priest than become a bishop?

A. I would've been very happy to stay as a priest. I was very, very happy in what I was doing. It was very challenging but very fulfilling. I had a great sense of community and support from my religious community.

I was kind of shocked when I got a call from Cardinal Hickey to come to his house at 10:30 at night and he told me, "The Holy Father has named you bishop of St. Thomas in the West Indies. You are to go tomorrow to talk to the nuncio about this appointment."

The next day, there was a total eclipse of the sun. I told the nuncio, "This is a sign, but I don't know what it means!"

But one of our commitments as capuchins and as priests is to obey our superiors and so I accepted this in faith and in trust that if this is what the Church is asking of me, I have to try to do it. But to me it was a shock -- I was 39 years old, I had not studied in Rome, I was not a diocesan priest, I had never worked in the Chancery, I had never been superintendent of schools -- any of the things that a typical bishop in the United States might have as part of his curriculum vitae.

Q. What is the importance of the Eucharist in your life as a priest?

A. The Eucharist is the center of the Church. The community has always gathered around the Eucharist. We read in the Acts of the Apostles: They were united in the teachings of the apostles, fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of the bread. Even with the Scriptures, when the Church had to discern which scriptures were part of the canon, they went and looked at which used to be read at Mass. So, there was always this connection.

To me, the Eucharist allows us to discover God's love, his patience and his silent but loving presence among us. It is a reminder that all creation is made because God loves us and has given us the gift of himself in the Eucharist as a manifestation of that love in a way that we can be nourished by his love.

So, the priesthood for the Church is very important, despite whatever problems we can have of clericalism, abuse, despotism, or any of the other problems that may exist. As St. Francis says in his last testament, it is the priesthood that brings us the Eucharist. That is what gives the importance and the meaning to the Eucharist in the life of the Church.

In those early years working in the Centro Catolico, I would often have at least eight Masses on a weekend. As a young priest, I felt such a joy to be able to do that because I saw the need of the people and there were so few of us who spoke Spanish or Portuguese. I understand the challenges of our priests now who have multiple communities because I had a taste of that as a young priest. At least, at that point in my life, it was such a great joy to be able to celebrate the Eucharist with these communities even though sometimes I would put the vestments on early in the morning and wouldn't take them off into the afternoon. Then, it would be off to another church in another language.

But the Eucharist was the reason we gathered and was the source of all the strength of the community that was so long-suffering. Every week would be praying for relatives of people who died in those wars in Central America. We felt very close to those people in Central America and the violence. I had the privilege of meeting and having many opportunities to speak with Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was truly a martyr in that terrible period in history.

Q. Looking at your life, it seems to be some recurring themes that have been pivotal. I would like to ask you about some of them. Let's start with your Capuchin identity which is clearly very important to you. Can you elaborate on that?

A. It's a matter of vocation. I think the ideals of St. Francis have been so much an attraction to me. The experience of the community of friars, and of the wonderful formators -- very holy religious and very gifted people -- marked my formation very, very deeply. I'm very grateful to the good example and witness of the friars, particularly of my province, who have made such an impact on me.

It is the community that gives me the strength to be able to continue in my own vocation. I don't see my vocation as bifurcated -- it's one vocation, but there are new layers being added by the Church at different times. But the basis of it all is the call to religious life and the call to be a brother in this fraternity.

Q. Still today, it strikes many people that, even as a cardinal, you have preferred to wear the Capuchin habit and the sandals. Why is that important to you?

A. This is my uniform. I am a Capuchin. The Church allows us to make this choice and many of our Capuchin bishops do this. I'm not the only one, but I think it's an important way for me to identify with my brothers and community.

When there is some special occasion, and I need to disguise myself as a cardinal, I do that!

Q. You have been a part of the pro-life movement since its inception. How have you seen it evolve and what have we learnt?

A. The pro-life movement came about very suddenly. There were warnings, but I think the Supreme Court decision was a real wake-up call to Catholics. It was a great shock. I remember the meetings we had in Washington with Nellie Gray, who was then a young lawyer at the time working in the Labor Department. She announced that she was giving up her job and was going to give her life to working in the pro-life movement, and particularly the annual March for Life.

It was interesting. At the beginning, the March was basically all Catholic -- Catholic school children, the Knights of Columbus, the religious, people from Catholic University. As I always say, at the time, the people who were pro-abortion would say, "This group will die out." But the group has gotten larger; it's gotten younger and become much more diverse. We now have other churches that have joined us, which is an extraordinary thing because although there was a robust ecumenical movement after the Council the ecumenical movement was basically with the historic mainline churches. The evangelicals always kept us at arm's length. But the pro-life efforts of the Catholic Church caused the evangelicals to look at us differently and they became very much a part of the pro-life movement. That was an extraordinary ecumenical event in the life of the Church.

There's also the fact that so many young people have become involved. Although some of us have grown old in these 50 years, it is such a joy to go to Washington and see how many young people are part of the March for Life. Every year, we take many hundreds of young people from Boston and in every diocese I have been in I have done that. I was very touched when I was having my young-adult Masses in the North End and some of the young adults would come and say "Cardinal, we used to go on the pro-life March with you to Washington."

I know that experience deepened the faith of those young people. Being together with thousands and thousands of fellow believers, embracing the cause of life and celebrating proudly the Catholic faith has made such an impact on so many young people. I hope that before I die, we will have more movement to protect human life.

Q. But abortion is not the only pro-life issue you have faced. In 2012, you also had to respond head on to a ballot question that tried to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts . . .

A. Yes, this was a great challenge for our local Church. I was very pleased we were able to galvanize our Catholic community and form an effective coalition with people from other churches and other organizations, such as nurses and doctors as well as the disability community in order to stop this terrible threat to the sacredness of human life.

Q. Immigrant communities, particularly Latino communities, are very close to your heart. There are many in our country that reject them and consider their presence detrimental. What has in your experience shown they contribute to the country and the Church?

A. We are a country of immigrants. The immigrants who came to this country from Europe, or wherever, came with great energy. They came to work, to make a better life for the children, to have the freedom to practice their religion, and all this has contributed mightily to who we are as a country.

To me, we are one of the countries that have the greatest capacity to assimilate people. In many countries, to be really of that nationality means you belong to the same ethnic group, speak the same language, practice the same religion, share the same history, culture, and language, but in the United States that has never been the case. We've always been, "Here comes everybody," with many languages and many religions. Although we have times when there is anti-immigrant sentiment, by and large, this is the country that has the greatest capacity to absorb immigrants.

As I always like to say, Europe would love to have our problem. The children of the immigrants coming to the United States will be Americans. They will identify with this country, and they will contribute mightily to this country. So, they are a great blessing to us.

Q. Was there a particular experience that made you realize this?

A. Becoming a Capuchin and joining a province that was still very strongly German helped to stretch me a lot. Someone once asked me in the seminary if the apostrophe in my name was umlaut [a mark used over a vowel in German].

It was a different culture. I had to learn German. I had to learn their customs. I had to understand the German-Americans, whom I had never encountered before. I was raised in such an Irish enclave that, as I say, it stretched me. I think that was a good preparation to be stretched again when I was brought into contact with the Hispanics in Washington.

Q. Already in the year 2000 you issued a Pastoral Letter on Racism and this is still a divisive issue today. In the 50 years of your priesthood, what progress or setbacks have you seen in the fight for racial justice, both in society and in the Church?

A. I think that there has been an awful lot of progress but, in some ways, I think it has been stalled. When I was in the seminary, the civil rights movement was flourishing and I became involved with the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was doing voter registration, participating in different demonstrations supporting Martin Luther King and I was part of the Resurrection City and the Poor People's March in Washington. An awful lot was accomplished and I'm proud to say that one of the great actors in all this was the man who was the archbishop when I was a seminarian, Patrick O'Boyle, who integrated the Catholic schools of Washington before any of the other schools were integrated. In fact, the Supreme Court justices went to interview him to see how he had done it.

One of the things he did was that he tried to bring black Catholics and white Catholics together so that they would know each other. He just wanted to break down the wall of separation, so that we could see each other as brothers and sisters in the Church.

Of course, there were still lynchings and terrible things like that when I was young and segregation was allowed in so much of the country and we've made a lot of progress moving away from that, but there's still a lot of prejudice. I think that the Church has a special role in dealing with that.

There was a time it was very difficult for a black person to be able to join a religious community or a diocesan seminary. In fact, most of the black priests ended up being religious priests because the orders were a little more open. But even in the Church, we see these terrible prejudices and barriers that were there. But thanks to Martin Luther King, who embraced a nonviolent campaign for civil rights, the country has moved far beyond that and I think our younger people are much more comfortable with people of other races and are much more open.

As we have seen in recent events, so many of the results of racism are still there. When you look at the percentage of black people who are in prison or on welfare, we see how much this discrimination is still taking place. So this is an opportunity for us as the Church to refocus and to help to eradicate this sin of racism once and for all, particularly in our midst as a Church.

Q. You found yourself at the epicenter of the sexual abuse crisis and are widely regarded as a promoter of healing and reconciliation, first in Fall River, Palm Beach, Boston and, most recently, worldwide with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. What helped you understand the perspective of the victims at a time when the prevailing culture in the Church was not addressing the issue appropriately?

A. I think that the most important thing for me was when I went to Fall River and decided immediately that I would meet with the victims and their families. I met with many, many people. That helped me to understand the pain that had been inflicted and the damage that had been done -- not just to the individuals but to their families and their parishes. That had a very profound effect on me and I think a lot of the inaction of the past was because Church leaders and others were unaware of the pain, the suffering and the destruction that was visited upon the victims of sexual abuse. They seemed to focus on the perpetrators as being sick or thought it was like alcoholism or things like that. But when you talk to victims, you see the horrors of this and, therefore, the need to protect people, educate our communities and to remove perpetrators so that we can have a culture of safe environments in the Church.

Q. Even today do you perhaps feel misunderstood on this matter by those who may see things in a different way than you do?

A. I think there are still a lot of people who do not see the urgency or the importance of the sexual abuse crisis, or some people think that it has passed. But it is a present reality and vigilance is crucial if we are going to keep our young people safe.

I think a lot of people balk at the transparency, they feel it's shameful and difficult, but it has to be taken into the light if it's going to be cured. I think that, more and more, people are coming to this awareness.

Part of the work of the Pontifical Commission is training new bishops and religious superiors and leadership in the Church so that there will be a greater awareness. As I tell the new bishops when they gather in Rome, when I was named a bishop, this training didn't exist. I wish that when I was a bishop someone had talked to us about our responsibility for safe environments and how to deal with cases, and so forth. If we would've had this kind of formation 30 or 40 years ago, the history of the Church would be much different.

I always ask a victim-survivor of clerical abuse to address the bishops. They always tell me that this is the most important and best conference they received through the whole program.

So, there is a great need and I feel some satisfaction that we are, hopefully, moving the needle.

Q. Another aspect of your ministry has been an ecumenical and interreligious outreach. Why is that important in this world in which we live?

A. First of all, as a Capuchin Franciscan, our ideal is to become a universal brother and to help cure some of the divisions that are caused by differences of religion, race, ideologies, what have you. Of course, beyond that, being someone who has been formed at the time of the Second Vatican Council, and particularly of John XXIII, who called on the Church to try to heal these divisions with other religions.

It has always been a wonderful ministry in the Church, I think. When I was in Washington, I was involved in a number of ecumenical and interreligious dialogues with the Jewish community, the Muslim community and Protestant congregations and I always found it very, very enriching. When I was in Fall River, and even when I was in the Virgin Islands, we organized a celebration of Kristallnacht. Of course, for the people of the Virgin Islands, this was the first time they had ever experienced anything like that. There is a small Jewish community there, but it was a wonderful opportunity to bring people together. In fact, when I left Fall River, the Jewish community had a special service at the synagogue to say farewell to me and they gave me a mezuzah, which I have in my room to this day.

Of course, here in Boston we have had such a wonderful friendship with Metropolitan Methodios and the Greek Orthodox community. Participating in the Catholic-Orthodox pilgrimage to Rome, Constantinople and St. Petersburg was just an extraordinary experience. We also have our annual visits to each other's communities for the feasts of St. Peter and St. Andrew, in a way mirroring what the Holy Father and Ecumenical Patriarch do by sending delegates to participate in these feast days together. It has been a great joy and I think our communities are always growing closer to one another. That is what Christ prayed for and wants. Our witness to the world has to be our love for each other.

Q. Finally, your care for vocations to the priesthood and religious life has been a constant in your own priesthood. Why should young people consider a vocation in this turbulent and post-Christian society that often dismisses faith as irrelevant at best, and as superstition at worst?

A. It's hard to imagine another way of life that is a greater adventure than following Christ. Whether that be in consecrated life or ministry, it's an opportunity to deepen our relationship with the Lord and to be part of his mission, which is to build a civilization of love and to make his kingdom more present.

In the 2,000-year history of the Church we see that there are moments where the Church suffered great persecution and setbacks, but then God will send us a saint or a movement that will completely revitalize the Church.

Christ never said it would be easy, but he said he would always be with us. That is what gives me the confidence to say to young people, if God is calling you, embrace it. It is a path to meaning, salvation, and to happiness in your life.

Q. Did you ever imagine, as a young priest in Washington ministering in the tenements, that you would one day be a cardinal-archbishop and a close advisor to the Holy Father? What do you think of this journey that the Lord has placed you on?

A. I'm still trying to figure out what the eclipse of the sun meant!

It certainly has been a journey that has been full of surprises. God is always surprising us, but I'm very humbled to have been invited to do the things I've been invited to do. There are many other people who are smarter than I am, holier than I am, more accomplished than I am, yet God, in his mystery, sometimes chooses the less obvious ones to participate in his plans. I am humbled by that and grateful for my vocation and grateful for all the joy that it has brought me to be a Catholic priest.

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