ROME — Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley will be back in his nondescript brick office building in Braintree by the end of the week, the splendors of Rome and the drama of the papal conclave behind him.
But he will not be quite the same archbishop he was when he left. O’Malley’s unexpected emergence in the last month as a serious papabile, or contender for the papacy, has elevated his image in Rome and in Boston, where he has led the Roman Catholic archdiocese since 2003.
Observers say that O’Malley’s moment in the spotlight could propel him into a more prominent role in the worldwide church. It might also offer a boost at home, where a decade into his tenure, he continues to face daunting challenges: Pews are emptying, finances remain strained, and he is in the midst of an ambitious effort to reorganize the archdiocese in hopes of changing those dynamics.
The Rev. Chip Hines, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Medford, said he was glad to see photos of O’Malley in Rome looking “relaxed and content” while spending time with the other cardinals.
“Sometimes, I think the stress of being here in Boston, making all these decisions — the buck stops with you — I think that puts a lot of pressure on Cardinal Sean,” he said.
After the conclave last week — when Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen to succeed Pope Benedict XVI — O’Malley deflected a question about how his brush with the papacy would affect him going forward.
“I hope it means I get free dinners in the North End,” he said with a laugh.
But John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, said O’Malley emerges from the conclave with a new status.
“I don’t know before this anyone looked at Sean O’Malley as any kind of superstar, but on the back of the Roman love affair of the last three weeks, people will probably see him through a new lens,” he said.
Allen said O’Malley has long been regarded as a specialist in addressing sexual abuse, but his papabile moment has broadened his profile. In the coming months and years, Allen said, the Boston prelate may be offered more invitations to advise Rome on church councils and commissions.
Allen said O’Malley may also be asked to speak at major events, perhaps at World Youth Day, which often attracts more than a million young people, and he will be in Brazil this summer. (O’Malley usually attends World Youth Day and had already planned to attend.)
O’Malley could also be considered for jobs in the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy. There’s no way of knowing the likelihood of O’Malley being chosen for a post in Rome — which would require him to leave Boston — but one possibility for the Capuchin friar would be running the department that oversees religious orders.
Many observers, however, doubt O’Malley would want such a job. And Allen said the Vatican may see the cardinal as more valuable in helping advance the church’s agenda in the United States.
When the Vatican says, “ ‘We need a cardinal who can step in and hit a home run for us on something,’ they will tend to think of O’Malley,” Allen said.
Thomas Groome, a Boston College theology professor, said O’Malley might also be someone Pope Francis leans upon for advice, particularly because the leader of the Boston church appears to have much in common with the new pope.
O’Malley is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and is a member of the Capuchin Franciscans, a religious order named for St. Francis of Assisi, in whose honor Bergoglio chose his papal name.
Like Bergoglio did as archbishop of Buenos Aires, O’Malley lives in a modest rectory rather than a fancy chancery.
O’Malley visited Bergoglio at his home in Buenos Aires in 2010 while on business for the US bishops. He described it as a social visit, and said they talked about mutual friends and that Bergoglio gave him a CD of an Argentine Mass.
“He is, I’d say, a friend of this new pope,” Groome said. “I could definitely see the pope calling on Cardinal Sean for advice.”
If so, sexual abuse watchdog groups say they hope O’Malley will push Francis to hold bishops accountable for enforcing policies to protect children and remove abusive priests from ministry, something O’Malley identified as an important issue in an interview before the conclave.
“Even though we have all kinds of bones to pick with him,” said Terence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, “I think he has much to contribute.”
Groome said he would like to see O’Malley advocate for something bold, such as the end of mandatory priestly celibacy.
Some say this rule may change eventually because there is no theological obstacle, and married Anglican priests are now being allowed to convert to Catholicism as clergy. Eastern Orthodox churches allow priests to marry.Continued...