ORLANDO, Florida – Any pastor, of any faith, spends a disproportionate share of his or her time dealing with suffering souls. People are especially likely to reach out to a pastor at the lowest moments of their lives – a divorce, a death in the family, a serious illness, or some existential or spiritual crisis.
Even by that unusual standard, however, few pastors in the Catholic Church in America likely have spent more time with people who have suffered greater pain than Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.
Now 73, O’Malley began his career ministering to Latinos in the Washington, D.C. area, including refugees from Central America who had fled the horrors of civil war. Upon becoming a bishop, O’Malley took over dioceses in turmoil due to sexual abuse scandals three times in a row: Falls River, Mass.; Palm Beach, Florida; and, of course, eventually Boston. Over the years, he’s probably put in more personal face time with abuse victims, hearing their stories and trying to offer them both apologies and support, than any other bishop in America.
In a talk at the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders,” an essentially unprecedented gathering of almost 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious and laity hosted by the U.S. bishops July 1-4 in Orlando, Florida, O’Malley chose to address yet another form of suffering: Post-abortion healing.
The gist was that women who have had abortions and carry a burden of guilt need to hear a message of God’s forgiveness and mercy, and he said he was amazed by the response.
“People came up to me afterwards, they stopped me, and told me that they’d be waiting for years to hear this message,” he said, adding with a characteristic splash of humility: “I’m sure the message has been out there, but maybe this was the first time they had an opportunity to really reflect on it.”
Asked how he can take in so much suffering, from so many people, and not become an emotional wreck himself, O’Malley said it comes from his convictions about what the Church is supposed to be all about.
“As difficult as many of these ministries are, my firm conviction is that it’s the most important thing the Church can be doing, and I’m privileged to be a part of that,” he said.
O’Malley also said the experience has had spiritual benefits for him.
“I think being in touch with other people’s pain has helped me to become more empathetic, and to have understanding of what they’ve been through,” he said, “and hopefully be able to share with them a vision of Christ’s forgiveness.”
O’Malley spoke to Crux on July 3, during the third day of the Orlando convocation.
On other fronts, O’Malley, who sits on Pope Francis’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers from around the world, said:
- The convocation amounts to a chance to “to imbue our [bishops’] conference and our country with the spirit of Pope Francis,” especially the vision of the pope’s 2013 document Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel.”)
- As core principles of “The Joy of the Gospel” with special relevance for the United States, O’Malley mentioned not being a self-referential church, making people on the peripheries a priority, the call to mercy, and the centrality of the poor.
- Of all the holy years he’s experienced during his life, O’Malley said, “there was none as successful as the Year of Mercy” called by Pope Francis, because “everyone was aware and on board. People realized the need for mercy in our own lives and the lives of our loved ones and those around us.”
- Although the original idea for the convocation was to bring together pro-life and social justice activists out of a perception they were divided, O’Malley said closer examination revealed that was a problem among Church leadership but not at the grassroots, where people “didn’t see any dichotomy at all.”
The following are excerpts from Crux’s conversation with O’Malley.
Crux: How big a delegation did you bring to Orlando from Boston?
I think we have about 15.
What vibe are you picking up from them?
Everyone is very enthused, and I’m very pleased by that, because this meant asking people to give up their 4th of July holiday to come to the heat of Orlando! But I think the spirit among the people here is great, I think it’s a great success, and I’m very happy about that and pleased that the bishops’ conference has done this.
What’s your test of success?
I think people are enthused about their ministries, and are focusing on the message of ‘The Joy of the Gospel,’ which is such an important document. I think many people really haven’t had the opportunity to absorb the Holy Father’s message, and having a convocation like this where we’re reflecting on and unpacking the messages of ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ is a great opportunity to imbue our conference and our country with the spirit of Pope Francis.
What would be two or three points you would pull out of ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ that you think are especially important or useful for the church in the United States right now?
There are so many different points, but certainly the Holy Father’s whole notion of not being a self-referential church, opening the doors and going out. Also, putting the people on the periphery as our priority, as they are in the Gospel. Then, living the call to mercy, to be the merciful face of the Father to one another and, particularly, to those who are suffering.
There’s also the importance of the poor in God’s plan. We’ve spoken so often in the past about the Church’s preferential option for the poor, but that’s something that needs to be cultivated and promoted in every generation of the Church. This gives us an opportunity to focus on that, to ask, ‘How can we do this better?’
Do you find, among this group of more than 3,000 people, there’s basic buy-in to those principles?
Yes, I do.
At the beginning, and Cardinal Dolan spoke about it, when the idea for this convocation first came about there was a concern that perhaps there was a certain dichotomy among leadership in the church. Some people were very engaged with the pro-life movement, and others with the social justice agenda.
The perception was they didn’t always work and play well together?
Exactly. But a closer examination showed that really isn’t the case, that our Catholic people didn’t see any dichotomy there at all.
So the problem was with the leadership, not with the rank-and-file?
Exactly right. That was also true among the clergy. It was really just the elites.
We in the media often do stories about the tension and disagreement around Pope Francis and his agenda, but are you saying that to the extent such a tension exists, it’s not reflected here?
That’s right, and it’s very consoling to see the face of the Church here. For instance, so many of the new immigrant groups and the Hispanic groups are very well represented here. You get a sense of what the Catholic Church really looks like in the United States in the 21st century.
A gathering like this can also create opportunities to talk about some fairly tough subjects, and you did that by speaking about post-abortion healing. Why did you choose to bring that up here, and what kind of response have you received?
Actually, my topic was on Christ as a healer and Christ’s mercy. It was given to me, but I was very pleased because it is such an important topic.
When I look back over my life and all the holy years I’ve participated in, there was none as successful as the Year of Mercy. I would say that in my holy years, only a small number of Catholics even realized that a holy year was happening. Yet, for this holy year, everyone was aware and on board. People realized the need for mercy in our own lives and the lives of our loved ones and those around us.
Certainly, there are many groups of people in the church who feel they have been outside God’s mercy. To be able to lift that up and underscore it, in the way that Pope Francis has done and continuously does, is something that touches people and draws them closer to the Lord and to his people.
When you talked about mercy and healing for those who have experienced abortions, what kind of response did you get?
I was amazed. People came up to me afterwards, they stopped me, and told me that they’d been waiting for years to hear this message. I’m sure the message has been out there, but maybe this was the first time they had an opportunity to really reflect on it.
Outreach to the suffering, wherever that suffering comes from, has been the touchstone of your career. You began by working with Hispanics, especially people whose lives had been destroyed by the horrors of a vicious round of civil wars in Central America. Three times, you’ve stepped into dioceses that had been upended by sexual abuse victims, which put you in a position to meet countless victims and try to help them heal. You’ve sat with women who have had abortions, and tried to express forgiveness to them too.
Where does the strength come from to take in all that suffering and heartache, and not be eaten up by it?
As difficult as many of these ministries are, my firm conviction is that it’s the most important thing the Church can be doing, and I’m privileged to be a part of that. I think being in touch with other people’s pain has helped me to become more empathetic, and to have understanding of what they’re been through, and hopefully be able to share with them a vision of Christ’s forgiveness. That’s the reason for our ministry [with women who have had abortions.]
One of the things I talked about were the priorities that Cardinal [Carlo Maria] Martini [a Jesuit Biblical scholar and the former Archbishop of Milan, who died in 2012] took from the gospels. He said his first priority was caring for the sick and the suffering, and his second priority was preaching the Gospel. We can’t preach the Gospel unless we’ve taken care of people’s suffering. If people understand that we love them and care about them, then they’ll be willing to listen to the Gospel that we preach. I think this is at the very heart of what the Church is about, and it’s at the heart of what I need to be about, and I think it’s a privilege to be called to this vocation.
But how do you recharge your batteries at the end of the day?
Well, we have our rule of life, we have the prayer life of a priest, the time before the Blessed Sacrament. There’s the community of the fraternity of priests, my own Capuchin community, friends and family, so many places where I experience God’s mercy being mediated through the wonderful people who are close to me and support me.
Ever take in a ball game or movie or something like that, just to be able to remind yourself it’s not all brokenness and anguish?