Cardinal reflects on apostolic visit, meeting with victims

BRIGHTON -- In an April 23 interview with The Pilot, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, shared his thoughts on the Holy Father’s six-day trip to the United States.

Q: How would you summarize the Holy Father’s trip?

A: The Holy Father chose as the theme for his apostolic visit, “Christ our Hope.” I think he brought us closer to Christ by his presence and filled our hearts with hope in Christ’s promises and in our future as his people.

Q: The consensus in the media is that the Holy Father’s visit has been a great success for the Church in the U.S. Are you surprised by that assessment? Were you expecting instead a more critical attitude in the secular media?

A: Well, I know some people in the media like to be very critical of the Church. However, I was confident that as people saw the Holy Father up close that they could not help but be impressed by his personality, by his intelligence, by his obvious holiness. In that sense I am not surprised that the people were so disarmed by being able to see him as he really is and to listen to his words.

Q; It was a busy trip...

A: I was just pleased that the Holy Father seemed to hold up so well during the trip. It was an exhausting trip. Many people are commenting how quickly he went up the steps and his obvious enthusiasm. For an 81-year-old who has not had the greatest health it was truly a “tour de force.”

Q: Which was your personal interaction with the Holy Father?

A: I was able to be at a couple of meals -- obviously in small groups -- at the nunciatures in Washington and New York. I had the opportunity to speak briefly with the Holy Father on those occasions. He was very pleased with the visit and I know he was very moved with the meeting with the victims. I ate with him in New York the following day after our meeting in Washington and there he commented how moving that experience had been for him.

Q: Can you explain your involvement in that unannounced meeting in Washington that brought together the Holy Father with five local victims of sexual abuse by clergy?

A: After it was announced that the Holy Father was going to Washington and New York and that Boston was not included, the bishops of the region joined me in writing a letter to the Holy Father asking him to reconsider and talking about the pastoral needs that we have in New England. Then the response came back that, given the very taxing nature of the trip, that they (Vatican officials) really hesitated to add anything else. So I wrote back again asking if the Holy Father would meet with victims and after that the Holy Father responded and asked me to make the necessary arrangements.

Q: Why was this meeting not part of the official schedule?

A: We did our best to keep it a very discreet meeting because we did not want to turn it a media circus and we were afraid that if people found ahead of time that that was just what would happen. Also, some of the survivors who accompanied us wished to remain anonymous and it would have made it impossible for them to participate under the public scrutiny. So, I am just thankful that we were able to carry it off without becoming public before hand.

I was very grateful to the Holy Father. The many times he addressed the sexual abuse crisis indicate how deeply he understands the situation of our Church and what happens here. He obviously feels a great sorrow over what has happened and that he is ashamed but, at the same time, wants to encourage us on the path to healing and reconciliation.

At the Thursday morning Mass at the Nationals’ stadium he talked about the need of giving pastoral care to the victims, and then in the afternoon he gave us a very concrete example of that in his own encounter with them.

Q: Why do you think this was a crucial meeting?

A: I think it was important for the victims to feel as though they had access to the Holy Father. Obviously, not all victims but someone representing them and in a small enough group, in a context that it would allow for a very personal interchange between the Holy Father and the victims. It was not a formal address; the Holy Father made his initial comments and then he spoke with each of the victims individually, he clasped their hands, he blessed them, he prayed with them.

I think for the Holy Father, pastorally, it was very important to experience this. Certainly he has heard through the bishops and through others the devastation of sexual abuse but it is another thing to encounter personally the survivors and to learn first hand of their suffering and pain.

Q: There was a very moving moment when you handed a book to the Holy Father with over 1,000 names of victims...

A: Yes, over 1,000 names, first names, done in calligraphy and very beautifully and artistically prepared, with prayers and other reflections interspersed among the names. It was a way to try to underline the fact that the meeting was to be representative of all the victims, not just the ones who were there, or even the ones whose names appeared in the book, and also to underscore the dimension of the problem. The names in the book represent names that have come to us, of cases that have come to us in the last 50 years.

It was obvious from the Holy Father’s demeanor that it was a very poignant moment in the visit.

Q: The pope has spoken on a variety of issues during this trip. Beyond the pope’s remarks on sexual abuse, what other themes would you highlight?

A: The call to greater fidelity, and our discipleship and to interior life. The stress on prayer, the very deep grasp the Holy Father has of what’s happening in our world with the conflicts in values and the dangers of secularization and the dictatorships of relativism and the need to present the beauty of the Gospel in its entirety in a convincing and enthusiastic way. The connection he always makes between our life of faith and the joy of the Gospel, something that refers to often. That struck a note particularly with young people and educators.

Q: As you accompanied the Holy Father at many events, which was your perception of the American people’s affection for him?

A: So many people told me that they were watching him on television and following everything very closely.

I was impressed in New York by the fact that, at one point, we were caught in the traffic -- they had closed these roads and we just sat there for 20 minutes -- and the people were getting out of their cars and talking to each other. But I was very surprised that people were not angry. I was very uneasy that this was happening because of the Holy Father and yet, on the other hand, I was pleased to see how the people of New York just accepted this.

Even things like that were an indication to me of the positive attitude that people had towards the visit, even those who were not, perhaps, Catholic. I had people approach me in the street and tell me that they weren’t Catholic but they were so pleased with the Holy Father’s visit.

Q: What impact do you think this visit will have on Boston Catholics?

A: The fact that the visit comes in the midst of our bicentennial year I think it is a great blessing. Even though the Holy Father did not come to Boston, his presence in our country in the context of our bicentennial year should be a great source of encouragement for us as we struggle with the challenges that we face and in our attempts to deepen spiritual renewal particularly in calling people to greater fidelity and to a life of prayer and to the Sunday observance which is the centerpiece of our life as Catholic Christians.