But he never set out to be any of these things.
Not long before his golden anniversary of becoming a Capuchin Franciscan, Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley—or Cardinal Seán, as he prefers to be called—sits in the modest dining room of his cathedral rectory, reflecting on his life.
“Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined where my life would lead me,” he says, shaking his head. “I just presumed that, like my classmates, I would go to the missions and live the rest of my days there.” Instead, he is one of the nine cardinals who make up the Council of Cardinal Advisers, a body created by Pope Francis “to serve as advisers to him on the governance of the Church and on planned reforms of the Roman Curia,” according to the Vatican website.
In his position, he interacts regularly with Pope Francis, and marvels at his ability “to communicate with gestures. The sense of mission [the Holy Father] has that drives him to seek out those who are suffering and those who are on the margins and to bring them center stage—[that’s] the way that Jesus made the poor, the sick, and the suffering the protagonists in his Gospel,” he continues. “It is a great privilege to serve him.”
For Cardinal Seán, St. Francis is as important a figure today as ever. “The very fact that the Holy Father has chosen this name and that it’s been met with such enthusiasm, I think indicates just how popular St. Francis is and how his life is a testimony to the message of Christ, which is appealing even in our contemporary world,” asserts Cardinal Seán.
But who is Cardinal Seán? How did he come to be the man he is today? Patrick O’Malley—the name Seán was added when he professed his Capuchin vows—was born on June 29, 1944, in Lakewood, Ohio.
The second of three children born to Theodore and Mary Louise O’Malley, he grew up first in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, and later in Reading, Pennsylvania. Cardinal Seán recalls that, as a child, his family “was always very involved in the life of the parish.”
First, at St. Gabriel Parish in Pittsburgh, and later, at Sacred Heart Parish in Reading, “the Church was very much the center of our lives. “We lived very close to the parish,” he explains. “My brother, Ted, and I, we started serving Mass together—I started serving when I was in the first grade.”
Because he was so young, “I struggled with the Latin,” he admits with a smile. “So my brother told me, ‘You just mumble, and I’ll say it real loud.’” According to Cardinal Seán, one experience in his childhood cemented his vocation.
“When I was a young lad of 8 or 9, my older brother was going on a retreat” at a Capuchin monastery, he recalls. “I went along for the ride with my dad because I was too young to go on the retreat. When we were there, we met this old friar who was working in the fields hoeing, and we talked with him for a long time. Afterward, my dad said, ‘You know, son, that was the happiest man in the world.’ And I instinctively knew that what my father said was true,” the cardinal continues.
“He didn’t have nice clothes, or a beautiful wife, or a big car, but he just exuded peace and joy. And I thought to myself, Gee, I’d like to be happy like him.” With a chuckle he adds, “And so, the rest is history.”
At age 12, he entered the now-closed St. Fidelis Minor Seminary in Herman, Pennsylvania, a boarding school run by the Franciscan Capuchin Order for boys interested in becoming Franciscans. While there, Cardinal Seán began studying a variety of languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, German, and Hebrew.
“I felt this attraction to St. Francis,” he recalls. “And I was interested in the mission. Out of any of the Franciscan groups, the Capuchins are probably the ones with the largest percentage of missions, so I thought that would
be good for me.” And so, on July 14, 1965, at the age of 21, Patrick O’Malley became a Capuchin.
His order sent him to Capuchin College, a seminary near Catholic University in Washington, DC, in order to finish his studies and be ordained a priest.
“When I was a deacon, the Father General wrote and said he wanted me to go to Easter Island to work with a German Capuchin group,” recounts Cardinal Seán. “I learned Rapanui, the local language, so I would be ready to go.”
Just before setting off, however, plans were changed. Instead of Easter Island, after his ordination in 1970, Father Seán remained in Washington, DC, where he worked with many immigrant communities: Hispanics at the Centro
Católico Hispano, Portuguese immigrants fleeing the 1974 revolution in Portugal, and the “Duvalier exiles” of Haiti.
He perfected his Spanish and Portuguese, and learned French to minister to the Haitian community, as well as some African Catholics, who were drawn to his French-language services.
“My years in Washington, DC, were spent working with immigrants,” he states, noting that for the first 10 years of his priesthood, he hardly ever celebrated Mass in English. “The Centro Católico provided a series of services: an employment agency, medical clinic, dental clinic, legal services, English classes, newspaper, radio, education services, even several soccer teams.”
His experiences working among the immigrant communities have left an indelible mark on him. To this day, he is a tireless advocate for immigration reform, often calling on politicians to change public policy. In a 2014 interview with The Washington Post, Cardinal Seán reflected on the impact his days in Washington, DC, had on his stance on immigration reform.
“Most of my parishioners were undocumented refugees. To me, they’re not statistics; they’re people, and I’ve seen the kinds of sacrifices and the suffering they’ve endured,” he said. “These immigrants are not different from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, who left horrific situations because they had the courage, the ambition, the desire to do something for their children.”
In 1984, Father Seán was ordained bishop of St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands. Not even one decade later, he was chosen to head the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts. It was there that he would first have to deal with the clergy sexual-abuse crisis.
In his 10 years in the Diocese of Fall River, Bishop Seán would ultimately settle 101 abuse claims, initiate a zero-tolerance policy against sexual abuse, and institute one of the first comprehensive sexual abuse policies in the Catholic Church. In 2002, he was chosen to head the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida, where the Church was also facing an abuse scandal.
One year later, though, Pope John Paul II called him to Boston, to head an archdiocese that was embroiled with scandal. He succeeded Cardinal Bernard Law, who had been forced to resign as archbishop because of the abuse crisis. Just one day after being appointed to head the Archdiocese of Boston, he spoke to The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper.
“I feel privileged to be called to serve the Church in Boston, and hope that, in some way, I might be an instrument of peace and reconciliation in a Church in need of healing,” he said.
On August 1, 2003, Bishop Seán was installed as archbishop of Boston. He quickly set to work, agreeing to an $85 million settlement, implementing a zero-tolerance policy, training and educating clergy members and volunteers working with children, and meeting with survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
He sold the cardinal’s residence, a large mansion on the outskirts of Boston near Boston College, in order to help pay for the settlement, opting to move into a bedroom in the small rectory beside the cathedral.
By the end of 2003, Cardinal Seán was named “Most Inspiring Person of the Year” by BeliefNet.com, a multifaith website whose stated mission is to “help people find and walk a spiritual path that instills comfort, hope, strength, and happiness for people who are exploring their own faith or are curious about others.” Other finalists that year included
President George W. Bush, Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire V. Gene Robinson, Pope John Paul II, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.
“Archbishop O’Malley is a rare religious leader who has managed to unite and inspire a wide variety of people,” editors at BeliefNet.com said when they conferred the title on him. “Even those who dislike his conservative views on sexual or moral issues appreciate his heartfelt efforts to restore spiritual credibility to the Church.”
In March 2006, Pope Benedict XVI elevated him to cardinal—the 10th Capuchin ever given the title, and the first in the history of the Archdiocese of Boston. As a cardinal, he was named a member of the Congregation for the Clergy, as well as the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
Two years later, he was instrumental in arranging the meeting between survivors of clergy sexual abuse and Pope Benedict XVI during the pope’s trip to Washington, DC. In 2010, Pope Benedict sent Cardinal Seán, together with eight other bishops, to Ireland in order to address the abuse crisis devastating that country.
“I have come to listen, not to offer a quick fix. I come to listen to your pain, your anger, but also your hopes and aspirations,” he said as he began his apostolic visitation to the Archdiocese of Dublin. “We are here to be available to meet with some of those who have been harmed by abuse and wish to meet with us. We will attempt to communicate to them the apologies of a contrite Church and the pastoral solicitude of the Holy Father.”
In 2014, when Pope Francis created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, few were surprised when he asked Cardinal Seán to serve as the head of it. The pope had already named him a member of the Council of Cardinal Advisers—the so-called C9—a group of cardinals tasked with reforming the Curia, a year earlier. Reflecting on his appointment, Cardinal Seán stresses, “We have to make the Church a safe place for all children. Particularly in mission lands, the Church is very underresourced.
“Our God is a loving God who brings good out of evil. And one of the aspects of the terrible and ugly sin . . . of the sexual abuse of children has resulted in the Catholic Church, particularly in the United States and in other European countries, trying to address the problem with transparency and with a desire to use the human material resources at our disposal to work for the safety of children in our own institutions, and to assist other churches and institutions,” he adds.
Most recently, Cardinal Seán has been instrumental in bringing about the change in US policy toward Cuba. It was the Vatican, together with Canadian officials, that mitigated the agreement reached between President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, which resulted in the lifting of the embargo against Cuba.
The agreement came after 18 months of secret talks and meetings between delegations—including one hosted at the Vatican in October 2014.
“I know some people are nervous about this—their distrust of the Cuban government is so great—but I’m confident that the ending of the embargo and the normalization of relations are going to advance the cause of democracy in Cuba,” he says.
Cardinal Seán adds that he would ask those who have reservations about the decision to lift the embargo to “reserve judgment for a year from now to see if the Cuban people are not going to be in a better place.”
Looking globally at the situation of the Church, Cardinal Seán believes the biggest challenge facing Catholics today is the transmission of faith to the next generation of believers. In order to accomplish this, the family needs to be strengthened and supported, he says.
“People talk about a vocations crisis, but the greatest vocation in crisis is the vocation
of marriage,” he says emphatically. “When you look at the statistics, we are now at the point that there are more unmarried households in the United States than married households. That is a very scary statistic,” he says.
“And with the economic situation that we have, people are afraid to have children,” he continues, noting that young people graduate with such large debts that starting a family seems like an impossibility. “They are told that if you have a child, it’ll cost you $70 million,” he says with a laugh. “They come up with these figures that are just, ‘Wow!’”
He notes that Pope Francis also believes that the crisis of the vocation of marriage is a big issue in the Church today. “I think the fact that the Holy Father chose that as the theme for the synod indicates that he’s aware of the fact that family life is in trouble in many places,” says the cardinal. “Strong families are what will make for a stronger Church, a stronger society.
“The glamorization of promiscuity, the economic pressures that young people are under, the fact that people are made to think that it’s beyond their economic capacity to raise a child—all these amount to a lot of pressure that comes to bear on the family,” he says earnestly.
However, Cardinal Seán does see some reason to hope. The increase in young people attending pro-life events and the reactions of thousands of young people at World Youth Day events both point to a “spiritual hunger” that he has seen present in the next generation.
“This is a positive and hopeful sign,” he says.