Cardinal Seán’s first five years in Boston

While the focus of this column is on Cardinal Seán’s five-year anniversary in Boston, my working relationship with the cardinal reaches back to the 1970s. When I was assigned to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1973, Cardinal Seán was ministering in the Archdiocese of Washington working with Catholic Charities with a particular focus on the Hispanic community. He lived and worked in a section of Washington that was struggling with both poverty and violence. While immigration was not the “hot-button” issue it has now become in the United States, the Church and Cardinal Seán were deeply involved in the pastoral and legal efforts to protect and support the growing communities of Central American immigrants and refugees who were arriving weekly in Washington, often fleeing from the conflicts in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Since those days Cardinal Seán’s assignments have taken him to three other dioceses before coming to Boston. Each presented a different challenge, but I think it is fair to say none really prepared him for the challenge he faced arriving in Boston in 2003. The specific facts of the situation -- a national crisis for American Catholicism and a uniquely intensified version of it in Boston -- have been spelled out many times. While a rehearsal of the facts is not necessary, it is useful to emphasize the fundamental problem he faced embedded in all the financial, legal, and human realities of the archdiocese.

The fundamental challenge was a loss of trust in the Church: a twofold crisis of trust within the ecclesial community and within the wider civil society. Specifying trust as the central challenge he faced illustrates the depth of the pastoral reality that confronted the cardinal. Trust is a precondition of the Church’s ministry. While many professional relationships rely upon trust, it is safe to say none are so deeply entwined with it as the spiritual, moral, and religious ministry of the Church. If trust breaks down, there is an enormous barrier established for the work of the Church.

There are many specific ways to describe the cardinal’s ministry over the last five years, but I believe it is best described as an intensive personal, priestly work of reestablishing trust within the Church between the People of God and the leadership of the Archdiocese of Boston. The effort has encompassed a range of distinct elements. The foundation has been the cardinal’s personal life, spirituality and presence in the office of archbishop. Trust is built on relationships and there was no substitution for his presence as a priest and bishop in the midst of the ecclesial community. Beyond presence there have been the decisions taken: to meet the needs of the survivors of sexual abuse spiritually and financially, to clarify in detail the financial reality of the archdiocese in his transparency initiative, to engage the wealth of talent in the Catholic laity of Boston and, uniquely important, to build the bonds of trust and collaboration with the priests of the archdiocese.

During the last five years, there has been an obvious priority to concentrate on the problems of trust within the Church. The significant progress made in that area only points to the road ahead. This is a long-term, complex and painstakingly difficult challenge. But the external challenge cannot be postponed: the way to the Church is seen and judged in civil society. This is the Church’s work as an advocate for social justice and peace, and the home of educational, charitable, and health care institutions at the service of the wider society. Rebuilding trust in this arena involved constituencies beyond the Catholic community. From his first days in Boston Cardinal Seán has vocally and visibly supported Catholic schools, the work of Catholic Charities, and the ministry of Catholic health care. These institutions “bridge” the space between Church, state, and civil society. The priority necessarily given to building trust pastorally in the Church has not left an abundance of time to focus on the wider ministry of the Church in Boston. But this is an arena where both the social teaching of Catholicism and its fabric of social institutions offers us a chance to place the rich resources of the Gospel at the service of others. Cardinal O’Malley’s ministry in Washington decades ago illustrated how deeply he is committed to this role, and uniquely positioned to fulfill it.

Father J. Bryan Hehir is Secretary for Health care and Social Services of the Archdiocese of Boston.