To repeat a line once said of Seán O'Malley among his Capuchin confreres, "The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone."
So the more recent story goes, in the days after Pope Francis' election, the cardinal-archbishop of Boston dispatched his priest secretary to the Domus with a note for the new pontiff, ordering the aide "to give this letter to someone who will put it into the Pope’s hands."
As it turned out, Fr Jonathan Gaspar didn't just end up delivering the letter – he met with the Pope.
While we don't know the contents, they were clearly appreciated – this morning, O'Malley was the lone North American named to Papa Bergoglio's eight-cardinal "task force" chartered both to advise Francis in his universal role and study the reform of the Roman Curia.
Given the significance of the call, perhaps it's to be expected that some have wondered why the nod fell to the 68 year-old Capuchin as opposed to others. In that light, the choice can be explained on three fronts:
Language – Put simply, Francis' English is cursory at best; before his election, Cardinal Bergoglio conceded that it was the "toughest" tongue for him to grasp. Ergo, with a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature and having spent the bulk of his priesthood happily engaged in Hispanic ministry, O'Malley – who still says his private prayers in Spanish – is the most fluent North American cardinal in the Pope's home-idiom, at least until Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles receives the red hat.
Speaking of Gomez, writing from Rome following his first meeting with the new pontiff (above), the Mexican-born LA prelate gushed in his weekly column that "It is so great to be able to speak to the Pope in Spanish, which we share as our native language!" (On a side-note, it made for yet another breach of Vatican protocolthat Francis clearly had no qualms over receiving the head of the 5 million-member SoCal juggernaut – by far, the largest diocese in the history of American Catholicism – while Gomez wore a suit; per custom, prelates attend the Pope clad in cassock.)
While Francis has exclusively employed Italian at public events, on either account, a divide that English-speakers in Vatican circles haven't experienced for quite some time now returns – those who know enough else to speak to the Pope directly... and those who don't.
Relationship – Asked the day after the election whether it'd be "fair to say you know [Bergoglio] very well," O'Malley answered with one word: "Yes."
Again, it's not a claim every Stateside elector could make – in reality, LA's retired Cardinal Roger Mahony is perhaps the only other porporato statiunitense who could claim something of a friendship with the now-Pope.
The key, of course, is that both Mahony and O'Malley have maintained an intense focus on and involvement in the Latin American church over the course of their decades-long ministries as bishops, giving them an intimate knowledge of the scene and all its many players.
In O'Malley's case, that wasn't just a matter of personal disposition – the now cardinal's first assignment as a bishop, in the Virgin Islands (1984-93) placed the founder of Washington's Centro Catolico Hispano in a Latin-dominant ecclesial sphere. Along the way, there was something that would be a keen tie-in to today's news: among the few prelates from outside New England who O'Malley invited to his scaled-back installation in Boston in 2003 – only one of two cardinals in attendance on the day – was Oscar Rodríguez, one of his closest friends on the wider scene, now the "coordinator" of Francis' super-group.
Given his savvy and wide swath of connections, Rodríguez is thought to have been the "driver" behind the significant first-ballot showing for Bergoglio – largely the product of a Latin American bloc – which put the Argentinian on the map and culminated in his election.
In his first comment since this morning's nod, during a cameo appearancs on the Italian news-channel TG24, the Honduran said that the group's remit would include advising Francis on the fate of the ever-controversial Institute for the Works of Religion – the "Vatican Bank," which several allies of the new Pope have intimated that Papa Bergoglio will likely aim to close.
Beyond the geographic ties, the Bostonian and Bergoglio have a natural simpatico on the personality side, reflected most prominently in their shared preference for simplicity and concern for the poor. In Buenos Aires for a working trip, O'Malley had a "very personal, very informal" visit with the then-cardinal in 2010, spending time with Francis in the Chancery apartment he had taken in lieu of the archiepiscopal residence.
The day after the election, the Capuchin recalled the gift Bergoglio gave him: a copy of the Misa Criolla – the Argentine Mass-setting composed in the 1960s – calling it "a great CD that I enjoy very much."
Given Ariel Ramirez's emphasis on piano, guitars and tambourines in his vernacular liturgy, perhaps it's stating the obvious that not every American red-hat would share a similar affinity for the piece.
Reform – This July marks a decade since O'Malley was thrust into the most thankless US assignment of recent times... at least, until his Capuchin classmate was sent to a certain point south in 2011.
It was an epic situation – Boston, the cultural "flagship" of 160 years of Irish-dominant Catholicism in America, roiled by a tidal wave of sex-abuse and cover-up that served to engulf the landscape from coast to coast. And as the brown-robed friar arrived to take the chair whose prior occupants were household names – O'Connell, Cushing and Law – it's not a stretch to say that the world was watching.
More than any other Stateside prelate, O'Malley was experienced with earlier eruptions of the sort. After all, he returned to the mainland in 1993 after the case of Fr James Porter rocked Cape Cod's Fall River diocese, then was sent to Palm Beach in the fallout of Bishop Anthony O'Connell's resignation after admitting that he had abused seminarians in the 1970s and 80s. Even if Boston was of another magnitude, the new archbishop knew to move quickly, both symbolically (vacating the palatial Cardinal's Residence in Brighton for an apartment in the gritty South End's cathedral rectory) and substantively, reaching an $85 million settlement of over 500 cases within a six weeks of taking the reins.
The hardest parts, however, were structural: the announcement of 67 parish closings in 2005 whose shockwaves and protests continued for years... and, indeed, the reform of his own Curia, which had been perhaps the most entrenched diocesan bureaucracy in the States.
The latter would be the greatest battle – it took the better part of three years for O'Malley to start turning the tide in the office, and so bruising was the struggle that, in a 2004 letter, he wrote that "At times I ask God to call me home and let someone else finish this job, but I keep waking up in the morning to face another day."
Almost eight years later, the hard-won result doesn't just act different, but looks different – a land of fiefdoms once arrayed in buildings spread across the Brighton campus, the vaunted plot was sold to neighboring Boston College for $172 million and bolstered by several top-flight hires from the private sector (who took pay cuts to join the project), the Chancery relocated to a consolidated hub in a suburban office-park.
O'Malley's reform record doesn't end at home – in 2010, B16 tapped the Capuchin as perhaps the kingpin player in theApostolic Visitation of the abuse-shattered Irish church, assigning him with the review of the capital church of Dublin, where the release a state inquiry months earlier led to the resignation of several bishops found to have been involved in the transfer of priests despite known, and even serial, abuse allegations.
Most memorably during that process, the cardinal joined Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in prostrating before the altar of St Mary's Pro-Cathedral at the opening of an emotional Liturgy of Repentance largely written by survivors, which included the washing of the feet of victims, men and women alike.
In his reflection at the event, O'Malley said in part that....
On behalf of the Holy Father, I ask forgiveness for the sexual abuse of children perpetrated by priests and the past failures of the Church’s hierarchy, here and in Rome; the failure to respond appropriately to the problem of sexual abuse. Publicly atoning for the Church’s failures is an important element of asking the forgiveness of those who have been harmed by priests and bishops, whose actions -- and inactions -- gravely harmed the lives of children entrusted to their care....And in the end, it all comes down to that – to "rebuild the church": the call of the Cross to the Seraphic Father and "universal brother," his name chosen for the first time by the 265th Pope.
Jesus is always on the side of the victim, bringing compassion and mercy. Jesus is not just the healer in the Gospel. He identifies with the sick, suffering, homeless, all innocent victims of violence and abuse and all survivors of sexual abuse. The Parable ends with injunction; ‘Go and do likewise!’; just as Jesus turns His love and compassion to those who have been violently attacked or sexually abused. We want to be part of a Church that puts survivors, the victims of abuse first, ahead of self-interest, reputation and institutional needs.
We have no doubt of Jesus’ compassion and love for the survivors even when they feel unloved, rejected, or disgraced. Our desire is that our Church reflect that love and concern for the survivors of sexual abuse and their families and be tireless in assuring the protection of children in our Church and in society.
From my own experience in several dioceses with the tragic evil of sexual abuse of minors I see that your wounds are a source of profound distress. Many survivors have struggled with addictions. Others have experienced greatly damaged relationships with parents, spouses and children. The suffering of families has been a terrible and very serious effect of the abuse. Some of you have even suffered the tragedy of a loved one having taken their own life because of the abuse perpetrated on them. The deaths of these beloved children of God weigh heavily on our hearts....
Based on the experience I have had with this Visitation, I believe there is a window of opportunity for the Church here to respond to the crisis in a way that will build a holier Church that strives to be more humble even as it grows stronger. While we have understandably heard much anger and learned of much suffering, we have also witnessed a sincere desire to strengthen and rebuild the Church here. We have seen that there is a vast resource, a reservoir of faith and a genuine desire to work for reconciliation and renewal.
Along those lines, maybe the Big Question is the Franciscan one: having groused in the Conclave's wake over being made to wear the robes of office more during the transition than he had "in the last seven years," will O'Malley get to wear his beloved habit – as opposed to the normally requisite house-cassock – during October's "super-commission" meeting?
Currently on retreat in the Holy Land with a group of his priests (above), the cardinal has yet to make any public comment on his appointment to Francis' "star chamber."
PHOTOS: Archbishop José Gomez/Facebook(2); George Martell/Archdiocese of Boston (4)