Meet the Pope’s New BFF

The bishop of Rome has a close relationship with an American cardinal in a simple brown cassock and a Santa beard.

ASSISI, ITALY - OCTOBER 04: Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley attends Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at the Sacro Convento and Saint Francis Basilica on October 4, 2013 in Assisi, Italy. Pope Francis called for an end to armed conflict and clarified the notion of Franciscan peace during the Mass he presided for the feast of St. Francis on Friday in Assisi. 
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Amy Sullivan
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Amy Sullivan
Nov. 10, 2013, 3 a.m.

Steph­en Col­bert may be — as he bragged in char­ac­ter last month at the Al­fred E. Smith Me­mori­al Found­a­tion Din­ner — “Amer­ica’s most fam­ous Cath­ol­ic.” But he has ser­i­ous com­pet­i­tion for the title of most im­port­ant Cath­ol­ic in the United States. Un­til re­cently that dis­tinc­tion ar­gu­ably be­longed to Car­din­al Timothy Dolan, head of the power­ful New York Arch­diocese and the pres­id­ent of the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Cath­ol­ic Bish­ops. When the cha­ris­mat­ic Dolan’s term wraps up next week at the bish­ops’ an­nu­al meet­ing in Bal­timore, however, all eyes will turn to a man in a simple brown cas­sock with a Santa beard and a dir­ect line to the pope: Bo­ston Car­din­al Séan O’Mal­ley.

In the months since Pope Fran­cis’s elec­tion, it’s be­come clear that O’Mal­ley is the closest thing to a pap­al BFF. He is the only North Amer­ic­an mem­ber of the Cab­in­et that Fran­cis formed to ad­vise him. As the world knows by now, Fran­cis does not hes­it­ate to make full use of his cell-phone plan, mak­ing it pos­sible for him to call O’Mal­ley — and O’Mal­ley to call him — without in­volving aides. But the two also email each oth­er dir­ectly, res­ult­ing in an un­pre­ced­en­ted level of com­mu­nic­a­tion and giv­ing Amer­ic­an Cath­ol­ics a voice in this un­usu­ally col­lab­or­at­ive papacy.

“No oth­er popes have had close re­la­tion­ships with an Amer­ic­an at that level,” says Steph­en Sch­neck, dir­ect­or of the In­sti­tute for Policy Re­search & Cath­ol­ic Stud­ies at the Cath­ol­ic Uni­versity of Amer­ica. Sch­neck notes that Pope Paul VI had close ties to some lower-rank­ing Amer­ic­ans, such as now-Car­din­al Justin Rigali, who served for a time as his Eng­lish trans­lat­or. “But to the best of my know­ledge,” he says, “there’s noth­ing that com­pares to the very close re­la­tion­ship that Car­din­al O’Mal­ley has with Pope Fran­cis.”

One reas­on O’Mal­ley and the pope have been in such close con­tact is that they speak the same lan­guage — lit­er­ally. Un­like his pre­de­cessors, Fran­cis isn’t com­fort­able com­mu­nic­at­ing in Eng­lish; his first pub­lic use of Eng­lish as pope didn’t come un­til Oct. 18. This will make it harder for the pope to speak one-on-one with Amer­ic­an prel­ates, as sur­pris­ingly few of them are flu­ent in Span­ish or Itali­an. Even Dolan, who spent more than six years sta­tioned in Rome, lacks real flu­ency in those lan­guages.

O’Mal­ley, however, not only speaks sev­en lan­guages, he also has a Ph.D. in Span­ish and Por­tuguese lit­er­at­ure. In each of his posts, he has worked closely with loc­al His­pan­ic com­munit­ies, and even launched Wash­ing­ton’s first Span­ish-lan­guage news­pa­per, El Pre­gonero, when he headed the His­pan­ic Cath­ol­ic Cen­ter in the cap­it­al. And it’s more than just a mat­ter of vocab­u­lary. One of the least-ap­pre­ci­ated as­pects of the new pope is the ex­tent to which he was formed by Lat­in Amer­ica and not by the theo­lo­gians who have held sway in Amer­ic­an and European Cath­ol­ic circles over the past few dec­ades. O’Mal­ley’s first ap­point­ment as a bish­op was in the Vir­gin Is­lands for nine years, and he has at times been closer to his Lat­in Amer­ic­an col­leagues than to his peers in the U.S.

Writ­ing last spring about O’Mal­ley’s friend­ship with Fran­cis, Cath­ol­ic com­ment­at­or Rocco Palmo noted that when O’Mal­ley was in­stalled as arch­bish­op of Bo­ston in 2003, one of only two car­din­als in at­tend­ance was Oscar Rodrig­uez, the Hon­dur­an lead­er who leads the new pap­al Cab­in­et. O’Mal­ley, Rodrig­uez, and Fran­cis are all strongly shaped as well by com­mu­nio theo­logy — a fo­cus on mercy and caring and reach­ing out to those in need — that has been em­braced with spe­cial fer­vor in the Lat­in world.

If O’Mal­ley and Fran­cis share a theo­lo­gic­al af­fin­ity, it is matched by their pref­er­ence for mod­est liv­ing and pop­u­list faith. O’Mal­ley is a Fran­cis­can whose pref­er­ence for­wear­ing his Capuchin habit in­stead of more ce­re­mo­ni­al robes has come in for rib­bing from some col­leagues. Like the pope, he has chosen simple liv­ing quar­ters, downs­iz­ing from the more pala­tial digs of his pre­de­cessors. And in 2006, O’Mal­ley be­came the first car­din­al to have a per­son­al blog: Car­din­alSeans­B­log.org.

As a mem­ber of the pope’s ad­vis­ory Cab­in­et, O’Mal­ley will weigh in on and help pro­pose church re­forms. But giv­en his pap­al friend­ship, the Bo­ston car­din­al will also serve as an un­of­fi­cial ad­viser on ma­jor ap­point­ments in the U.S., in­clud­ing the im­port­ant choice of a re­place­ment for Car­din­al Fran­cis George in Chica­go. Earli­er this fall, O’Mal­ley was a key play­er in the de­cision to deal swiftly with a dicey situ­ation in Ne­wark, N.J., where Arch­bish­op John My­ers was un­der fire for his hand­ling of a sexu­ally ab­us­ive priest. At O’Mal­ley’s ur­ging and with his guid­ance, the pope chose and ap­poin­ted a well-re­garded suc­cessor for My­ers in just a mat­ter of weeks.

And while O’Mal­ley should not be viewed as the pope’s mouth­piece in the U.S., he has taken on the role of de­fend­ing Fran­cis in an un­char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally pub­lic and com­bat­ive way. In early Au­gust, O’Mal­ley gave the key­note ad­dress for the an­nu­al con­ven­tion of the Knights of Colum­bus, us­ing the oc­ca­sion to push back against cri­ti­cism of the pope’s re­l­at­ive si­lence on abor­tion. “I think [the pope] speaks of love and mercy to give people the con­text for the church’s teach­ing on abor­tion,” O’Mal­ley told the crowd of 2,000 con­ser­vat­ive Cath­ol­ics. “The truth without mercy would be cold, off-put­ting, and ready to wound. The truth isn’t a wet rag that you throw in someone’s face.”

At the mo­ment, all eyes are on Pope Fran­cis, who con­tin­ues to cap­tiv­ate Cath­ol­ics and non-Cath­ol­ics alike. And that’s just how the pub­li­city-averse O’Mal­ley likes it. But as this pope nav­ig­ates the tricky job of try­ing to prod a re­luct­ant Ro­man Curia along the path of re­form and takes on the task of shap­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of Amer­ic­an Cath­ol­ic lead­ers, the car­din­al from Bo­ston will be just a smart­phone away.

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