Boston Cardinal O'Malley Surfacing as Possible Pope’s Successor

Wednesday, 20 Feb 2013 07:24 PM

By Todd Beamon

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As Roman Catholic cardinals prepare to gather in Rome to elect a new pope, an obscure name is popping up regularly in the Italian press as a possible candidate: Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley.

“While the U.S. media has focused on Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York as the most plausible, if still remote, American prospect, another name has generated a surprising degree of buzz in the Italian press: Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston,” John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, said in a blog post on Tuesday.

Allen cited six Italian journalists or news organizations that said that the head of the archdiocese of Boston was a possible contender to succeed Pope Benedict XVI when the College of Cardinals convenes.

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Generally, O’Malley is viewed as a favorite “partly on the strength of his profile as a reformer on the church's sexual-abuse scandals, and partly because of his Capuchin simplicity as a perceived antidote to the Vatican's reputation for intrigue and power games,” Allen said in his blog.

“It may well be this is a boomlet that lasts 24 hours and then fades from view,” Allen told The Boston Globe on Tuesday. “The novelty I think is that the Italian Vatican writers who tend to be the ones who set the tone for public discussion have seized on O’Malley in a way I don’t think any one of us saw coming.”

For his part, O’Malley, 68, is not fielding questions on the issue.

“As the Cardinal said last week at his press conference, he has a round-trip ticket to return home and will rely on the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit as the College of Cardinals enter the conclave in March,” a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, Kellyanne Dignan, told NBC News on Wednesday.

O'Malley was named archbishop of Boston in 2003, after Cardinal Bernard Law quit amid allegations that he covered up sex abuse by priests, NBC reports. He was elevated to cardinal three years later.

Thomas Groome, a theology professor at Boston College, told NBC that of all the American bishops who dealt with the abuse crisis, O'Malley had “come closest to satisfying the victims.”

He sold the archdiocese’s headquarters and used the proceeds to pay settlements to victims.

Since he is considered a low-key personality and a Vatican outsider who prizes simplicity — and “isn't a hardened ideologue,” Groome said — O’Malley would stand in stark contrast to several recent popes.

“We'd go from Prada booties to sandals and no socks," Groome told NBC. “He wouldn't be a blustering public personality like John Paul.

“You'd have to go back to John XXIII to find someone analogous,” Groome added, referring to the pope who served from 1958 until his death at age 81 in 1963.

Groome told NBC that he initially dismissed O'Malley but now thought he could emerge as the next pope because of a brokered deal that could come from a standoff among cardinals from the northern and southern hemispheres.

“There are 117 cardinals — and probably 116 of them would love to be pope," he said. "The one who wouldn't is O'Malley and that could be why he gets it."

In the meantime, the Italian press chatter is intense.

For instance, Allen quoted a respected Vatican writer, Paolo Rodari: “There are many who ask themselves if the next pope will be a Capuchin. On paper, the Capuchins have the numbers for giving the papacy a turning point. They're close to the people, they don't have a 'clerical' mentality, they emphasize collaboration with the laity, and they have an attractively simple model of life.

“Those are three characteristics cut out for a church that's paid a high price for its scandals.

“O'Malley is a humble prelate, which is no bad thing in a Roman Curia that's suffering not just a few financial difficulties,” Rodari added. “It's no accident that he's a Prince of the Church who prefers his simple brown Capuchin habit to the sartorial splendor to which his office entitles him.

“He's a cardinal who loves to dialogue with his faithful through Twitter, and uses his personal blog as an important instrument not only of communication but for meeting everybody, the faithful and even non-believers.”

According to NBC, some are expected to question whether O’Malley has the managerial skills to overhaul the Catholic Church’s huge bureaucracy. No pope has come from the Capuchin order of friars, who are noted for their service to the poor, NBC reports.

O’Malley holds a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature – his laptop’s keyboard is in Spanish — and he has worked in the Hispanic community in the US and with church leaders in Latin America, where more than 40 percent of Catholics live.

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Still, O’Malley has his critics, Vatican observers say.

The cardinal, for instance, posted online a list of Boston clergy ¬accused of sexual abuse — but some attacked it as an incomplete roster that came too late.

But that O’Malley is an American poses a bigger problem, the observers say.

“People see the US even now as the super¬power dominating the world, politically, militarily, economically, culturally,” the Rev. Thomas Worcester, a historian at the College of the Holy Cross, told The Globe. “They don’t want to see religious dominance on top of that.”

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