Talking with Cardinal O'Malley

On Wednesday I was part of a panel discussion on the occasion of Pope Francis's one-year anniversary, featuring Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, moderated by Ken Woodward, and hosted by the American Bible Society. It was really more of a group interview than a discussion -- after Cardinal O'Malley spoke about the spiritual side of Francis's papacy, the other panelists, Matt Malone of America and Rusty Reno of First Things, and I took turns asking him questions but didn't talk much to each other (not onstage, anyway).

If you were there, thank you! I spoke to a lot of audience members afterward and truly enjoyed meeting you all. For those who couldn't make it, if I find out about a recording or a transcript of the event, I will certainly let you know. In the meantime I am grateful to Beth Griffin's report for Catholic News Service for capturing the highlights.

The Cardinal, as one of the eight men named by Pope Francis to his personal advisory council, is very well positioned to give an insider's view of Francis's plans. You probably won't be surprised to learn that he was, for the most part, too discreet to do so. I put to him some of the questions that were on my mind and yours: I noted that many people, including myself, were disappointed with the pope's recent remarks on the sex-abuse crisis in that he did not make any reference to the question of accountability for bishops and administrators who mishandled cases of abuse, despite the role that lack of accountability has played in the scandal and in damaging the church's credibility. So, I asked Cardinal O'Malley, do you have any sense of whether that issue is on the pope's radar (I think that's how I put it), and what he might plan to do about it? His answer, as Griffin transcribes it:

The pope is anxious to launch a committee for child protection, which is coming soon, and has recently spent a lot of time on the abuse issue, Cardinal O'Malley said. "His love for people and his sense of God's mercy is something that energizes everything he does and he brings that also to the way he looks at the sex abuse crisis."

The cardinal acknowledged he is "trying to be of service to the Holy Father in this area" because he has more experience than the other cardinal advisers.

That last bit was in response to a follow-up question from me about whether the pope would be asking O'Malley for advice about who should serve on that committee. Anyway, Griffin did not leave out any significant detail that I can recall. The question of accountability was left largely unaddressed, although it's possible to read the cardinal's reference to love and mercy as a hint that we shouldn't be holding our breath waiting for Francis to start firing people.

I also asked whether the cardinal had any sense of what concrete plans the pope might have to act on his intention, which he has expressed in interviews several times, to give women a broader role in decision-making and leadership in the church.

Griffin again:

The cardinal also said upcoming changes in the structures of Vatican departments and pontifical councils would likely open new posts for women. "Once the decisions are made about what the structure is going to look like, I think the Holy Father will be looking to place women in the structure that's being contemplated. The Holy Father is very anxious to do that," Cardinal O'Malley said.

And, finally, I asked what one thing he felt the pope should prioritize to ensure that his program of reform doesn't get rolled back as soon as his papacy is over. He didn't name a specific thing, but...

Cardinal O'Malley said it would be difficult for successive popes to move backward from the changes Pope Francis is making in the Curia, including greater transparency and professionalism in the way the financial resources of the church are used for mission.

I think (and hope) he's right about that; what Francis has done so far will be difficult to undo. His intention to make church leadership truly collegial will take time to put into practice, but he's moving very clearly and deliberately toward that goal, and I assume one reason he's not moving any faster is because he wants the changes to last.

I'm not so alarmed about the "celebrity" that surrounds this pope, or worried about the end of the "honeymoon" (other matters that came up during the panel), because I think the things the pope has done that so fascinate the media are also slowly dismantling the preexisting cult of celebrity -- or clericalism, or monarchy -- that surrounds the papacy. It's fascinating to see the pope riding in a not-so-fancy car, or calling people directly, or living somewhere other than the "papal apartments" -- but only the first time. His successor, many years from now I hope, will not stun the world or provide easy copy by doing those things. It would be a pope who set about replacing all those barriers and removing himself from the midst of the people who would be news. In short, I still think Francis knows what he's doing. On the matter of restoring credibility in the wake of the sex-abuse crisis, however, we'll just have to wait and see.

I am not too discreet to repeat a conversation I had with O'Malley after the panel. (Clearly, I will never be a bishop.) When Ken introduced the cardinal, he mentioned that, when he was called in to succeed Bernard Law in the Archdiocese of Boston, O'Malley sold the archbishop's mansion and found less luxurious digs for himself -- a positively Franciscan choice in all senses of the word. After the event was over, O'Malley noted that he had done so because the archdiocese was in such dire straits financially (it had reached a $90 million settlement with victims of sex abuse), and that property was a providential way to pay those bills. So I asked him whether he's concerned that Pope Francis might decide to go ahead and sell the Vatican if he finds out how much the Archdiocese of Boston made on the sale of that mansion.

O'Malley smiled and said, "Well...I sold it to the Jesuits!"

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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