Pope Benedict XVI today announced in Rome that Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley will be made a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in a ceremony at the Vatican late next month.
O'Malley is among 15 new cardinals included in the first set of appointments by Benedict of so- called "princes of the church." The new cardinals -- who will receive the red hats, or birettas, that signal the rank at a consistory in Rome March 24 -- will help oversee the Vatican's bureaucracy through service on oversight committees, and ultimately many of them could have a vote in the selection of Benedict's successor.
Benedict announced the names after his general audience at the Vatican this morning. The new cardinals "have the duty to help and support Peter's successor (the pope) in carrying out the apostolic task entrusted to him in the service of the church," Benedict said.
"The cardinals constitute a sort of senate around the pope upon which he relies in carrying out the duties associated with his ministry as permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion," the pope said.
O'Malley is travelling today on church business, but issued a statement through his office, saying, "I am deeply humbled and honored to be named a cardinal by the Holy Father, for even greater service in the church."
Asking for prayers of support from "the people of Boston,'' O'Malley acknowledged that his new rank will bring new obligations for service to the church, but he pledged to retain his commitment to overseeing the Archdiocese of Boston, which faces numerous ongoing legal, financial, political and pastoral challenges.
"While there are certain additional responsibilities that come with the privilege of serving as a cardinal, I wish to reaffirm a commitment I made during my installation homily to the priests, deacons, religious and laity, who together form this great Archdiocese of Boston,'' he said. "That is, I am your shepherd, your brother, and I am here to serve all the people of the archdiocese."
O'Malley said his priority remains restoring trust in the Archdiocese of Boston, which has been reeling since the sexual abuse crisis exploded here in January 2002.
"Together, we have faced many challenges and I look forward to continuing our work together towards strengthening our church,'' O'Malley said. "I continue to pray that all people of the archdiocese will renew their commitment to our shared mission of faith and rebuilding the church."
Benedict, who was elected pontiff after the death of Pope John Paul II last April, also said he would name as a new cardinal one other American, Archbishop William J. Levada, who is the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican but was until recently the head of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Benedict said he also would elevate the archbishops of Caracas, Venezuela; Seoul, South Korea; and Manila, Philippines, as well as the bishop of Hong Kong. The list of new cardinals also includes the archbishop of Krakow, Poland, Stanislaw Dziwisz, who was the longtime private secretary to the late Pope John Paul II.
The pope said the new cardinals "well reflect the universality of the church. In fact, they come from various parts of the world and undertake different duties in the service of the people of God."
Benedict said he will invite all the cardinals of the church to Rome March 23 for "a meeting of reflection and prayer.'' Then, on March 24, he will oversee the consistory at which O'Malley and the other new cardinals will be elevated. And on March 25, the pope will concelebrate a Mass with the new cardinals at which he will give them new rings.
O'Malley, 61, has served as archbishop of Boston since July 2003. A Capuchin Franciscan friar, he had previously served as bishop of Palm Beach, Fla.; Fall River, Mass.; and the US Virgin Islands. O'Malley travelled with and visited Pope John Paul II on multiple occasions; he has had a less close relationship with Benedict XVI, but had a private meeting with the new pontiff at the Vatican Oct. 27.
In Boston, O'Malley has had a difficult and contentious tenure. He won widespread praise for settling more than 500 legal claims brought by victims of clergy sexual abuse in late 2003. But his decision to close scores of parishes, citing shortages of priests, money, and worshipers, has been controversial, and six closed parishes have been occupied, in some cases for more than a year, by protesters.
The elevation to cardinal is certain to be viewed by many Catholics as a strong vote of confidence by the Vatican in O'Malley's handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and the parish closings. The elevation could also help quiet persistent speculation among local Catholic priests and laypeople that O'Malley intended to leave Boston.
"One could imagine Archbishop O'Malley being given this honor as a way of rewarding him for having to endure some pretty difficult conditions and being willing to do so out of a strong sense of his own duty and love of the church,'' said Stephen J. Pope, an associate professor of theology at Boston College. "It would be a way of encouraging him and saying his efforts are valued."
According to the Vatican Information Service, once the March 24 consistory is held, there will be 193 cardinals, of whom 120 will be under age 80, the age limit for voting in a papal election. Pope Paul VI had limited the number of those cardinal-electors to 120, and although Pope John Paul II had exceeded that number several times, Benedict has made clear he intends to honor that restriction.
To be named a cardinal, O'Malley had to overcome concern among some at the Vatican that Americans are overrepresented among the cardinal-electors. Currently, Americans make up just 6 percent of the global Catholic Church, but 10 percent of the cardinals eligible to vote for the next pope.
''They don't want to have too many American cardinals, because it skews the College of Cardinals, but, on the other hand, Boston has been a place that has had a cardinal for a long time historically," Pope said.
For nearly a century, every archbishop of Boston has been named a cardinal, starting in 1911 with Cardinal William H. O'Connell.
Although American Catholics are most familiar with cardinals as leaders of large archdioceses, there are also cardinals who hold jobs overseeing Vatican agencies or work as theologians. Boston's former archbishop, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, remains an active cardinal, even though he >resigned as archbishop of Boston because of controversy over his failure to remove sexually abusive priests from ministry. Law now serves as archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome and is referred to as ''archbishop emeritus of Boston" by the Vatican.
As a cardinal, O'Malley will be eligible to vote in any papal elections until he turns 80 and would take on new responsibilities in the global church, including invitations to speak at various church events around the world.
''It could be of help at the level of political muscle -- you could make the argument that he would be taken more seriously," said John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. ''The challenge would be that once you become a cardinal, it puts more pressure on you to travel and be out of your diocese, and . . . that could become an issue."
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com.