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The Other Papabile American: Seán Cardinal O’Malley

Seán Cardinal O’Malley

© Patrick HERTZOG / AFP

Seán Cardinal O'Malley is a Franciscan known for his good handling of sex abuse cases

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 03/08/13

The Franciscan has long been an advocate for the poor and sick

As the Cardinal Electors gather in the Sistine Chapel, do they want someone who is not caught up in Vatican intrigues and power plays? Might they be looking for a man who eschews the trappings of ecclesiastical splendor and wealth? Could they be looking for a Prince of the Church who lives like a pauper? Could they take a risk on a North American pontiff? Might they choose a man with a reputation for handling the sex abuse crisis with firmness and compassion for victims? Are they looking for a good communicator with experience in the developing world who is ready and able to use the new media to evangelize a new generation?

If they are looking for all these and more, the man of their dreams could be the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, Seán O’Malley.

Cardinal Seán (as he likes to be called) was born in Ohio and brought up in Pennsylvania. He joined the Capuchin order in 1965 and spent time as a missionary in Chile for a short time. He then continued his education, graduating from Catholic University of America with a Master’s Degree in Religious Education and a Doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese Literature. In 1973, he began to minister to Hispanics in the Washington, DC area, starting a bookstore and a Spanish newspaper while working with the poor.

In 1984, Bl. Pope John Paul II appointed O’Malley Coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese of St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands. He is remembered there for his work with the homeless (something that also marks his ministry in Boston) and for opening a shelter for AIDS patients.  

From there, O’Malley was appointed Bishop of Fall River, Massachussets, where he dealt successfully with a sex abuse scandal.  Ten years later, he became Bishop of Palm Beach when the prior bishop there stepped down because of an abuse scandal. A year later, as the scandals erupted in Boston, the Vatican tapped Bishop Seán to move to the Archdiocese and pick up the pieces left over from Bernard Cardinal Law’s tenure.

His simple Franciscan lifestyle, his capability with the culture and language of Hispanics and his experience in administration are all getting Cardinal O’Malley noticed in the Italian media. National Catholic Reporter Vatican correspondent John Allen quotes some of the comments from the press: “The Italian Journalistic Agency ran a piece on the Church’s ‘champions’ in the fight against clerical abuse, lauding O’Malley for restoring credibility to the Church after the ‘escape’ to Rome of his predecessor, Bernard Law.”

The Italian daily Il Giornale observed, “There are diverse names of non-Europeans. Among them, the name of the Capuchin Archbishop of Boston, Seán O’Malley, is prominent, who resolved a situation rendered fairly dramatic not only by sexual abuses committed by priests but also by the cover-ups by his predecessor.”

Also in O’Malley’s favor are his communication skills. He has acceptable Latin, and not only speaks Spanish and Portuguese, but knows and appreciates Hispanic culture. His simplicity of life is well known; he prefers his simple brown Capuchin habit to a Cardinal’s vestments, and he notably sold the Archbishop’s residence in Boston and moved into a single bedroom in the archdiocesan seminary. 

What would an O’Malley papacy look like? First of all, he would bring the simplicity of his Capuchin virtues to the center of the Vatican. Furthermore, as an American, his life of poverty and his work with the poor would be a direct challenge to the wealth and power of America. Those who say an American Pope would just prop up the American superpower would have the rug pulled out from under them by O’Malley. Contrary to their expectations, instead of supporting the American leviathan of wealth and power, O’Malley would undermine it.

His poverty and work with the developing world would also shift the attention away from the establishment intellectuals and the European elite. His austere lifestyle would set an example for the whole Church and could put the Church into “readiness for battle” mode – a mentality that more and more Catholics feel is vital. 

O’Malley’s orthodoxy on doctrinal and moral matters and his commitment to the pro-life cause would endear him to conservatives, while his work for peace and justice would make him a bright star of those of a more progressive bent.

Would Cardinal O’Malley have the backbone to be Pope? Some think he is too soft and easy going, too likely to bend and give way. He has virtually no experience of the Vatican system and the Curia, and he has told interviewers that he has a round trip ticket to Rome and intends to use the other half, indicating that not only does he not believe himself to be a likely choice, but he also does not covet the white cassock. 

Cardinal O’Malley reminds us about the uniqueness of each Cardinal of the Church. An American who is a Capuchin friar, who has dedicated his life to the Church and the New Evangelization could be exactly the inspired choice – a man who could bring together rich and poor, developed world and developing world and be the focus of unity for all Catholics.

That’s the main job qualification, isn’t it? The more we learn about Cardinal O’Malley, the more we understand the buzz in Rome and the anticipation that he might not only be the inspired choice, but an excellent successor to Peter.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog and browse his books at

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