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It was one of those moments that you will remember always exactly where you were and what you were doing.
At 5:59 a.m. on the morning of July 1, 2003, I had just turned on the bathroom radio to begin my morning shaving ritual when I heard WBZ1030 cut in: “Breaking News from the Vatican: Bishop Seán O’Malley from Palm Beach, Florida, to be named the new Archbishop of Boston.”
“The Holy Spirit really DOES guide the Church” was my immediate thought. When I considered the type of archbishop I wished for in 2003, I thought of Bishop Seán O’Malley, who I had come to admire while he was in the diocese of Fall River for the way he nurtured my twin brother’s vocation to the priesthood and for his kindness to my family and many others. However, I thought that the option of appointing Bishop O’Malley here to Boston was a non-starter because only 10 months earlier Pope John Paul II had sent him to Palm Beach, Fla., to help that diocese rebuild after two bishops had resigned.
The news that he was coming to Boston gave me great hope for our local Church. Many friends who knew him from his time in Fall River made remarks such as:
“If anyone could re-earn trust in Church leadership, it’s Seán O’Malley.”
“He will work to do the right thing, to restore simplicity, transparency and unity to the way the Church operates.”
“He leads as a holy, humble and honest pastor who has the heart of a missionary; that is exactly what the Church needs.”
Leading the Archdiocese of Boston in mid-2003 was perhaps one of the most difficult leadership challenges in the history of this country. He was called by the Holy Father, like St. Francis, to help rebuild the Church. Yet this simple and shy Capuchin friar would need to begin the process of rebuilding under heavy media attention and focus.
One of the most inspirational aspects of knowing Cardinal Seán personally is that he always says “yes” to the Lord. Prior to coming to Boston, he said “yes” to many difficult assignments. In fact, he has taken “yes” as his episcopal motto: ‘‘Quodcumque Dixerit Facite’’ (“Do Whatever He [Jesus] Asks of You” from Mary’s words at the wedding feast of Cana). So, it was no surprise that he would say “yes” to the Holy Father once again, despite the many challenges here, and become our archbishop.
His initial remarks made during his installation Mass and first few press conferences struck the tone of the beginning of his era of leadership. “People are more important than money” he remarked, signaling how he would reach out to all those hurt by Church personnel and would seek a settlement appropriate to the pain caused. He called all Catholics to get involved in the rebuilding of our archdiocese, to assist in the work of providing help to all those that had been hurt, and to support the many priests who had been faithful to their vocations who had suffered tremendously as a result of the sexual abuse scandal.
The call to work with Cardinal Seán to rebuild the Church in Boston resonated profoundly with so many. Catholics across the archdiocese stepped forward to lend their time and talent to committees established to recommend solutions to the largest challenges facing our Church. Others became more involved at the parish level. In recent gatherings I have heard many of these lay leaders reflect on Cardinal Seán’s first five years:
“He’s great to work with because he confronts major issues directly and honestly without sweeping anything under the rug.”
“A great leader is one that people WANT to follow into difficult and uncertain times; we all are here because we were inspired by Cardinal Seán to step up to the plate and get involved.”
“Because of Cardinal Seán, we can love our Church again.”
Cardinal Seán’s approach to leadership stands at odds with the expected version of a rebuilder, who often possesses a take-charge personality (like many of our military generals). His approach as a humble and holy Franciscan missionary inspires others to join more deeply into carrying on the mission of the Church.
Under his approach, our local Church has made great strides in the past five years. Let us thank God for that progress from those very difficult days. Yet, there is so much more work to do. Let’s encourage so many more of our fellow Catholics to become involved so that together we can help the Church reach its full potential to hand on our faith, grow in holiness and make a profound difference in the world. We are all invited to become part of Cardinal Seán’s construction crew to rebuild and renew Christ’s Church.
Scot Landry is Secretary for Institutional Advancement of the Archdiocese of Boston.