Pope Francis has appointed Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley to a panel of nine prelates from around the world who will advise him on reforming governance of the church.
The Vatican’s announcement on Saturday, exactly one month after Francis’s election, sends a strong signal that the new pope hopes to confront the problems within the curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, that distracted and embarrassed his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
It also suggests he may intend to address bishops’ longstanding complaints that power in the Catholic church has become too centralized in Rome, analysts said.
“The election of Francis was in part a vote to shake things up, and this would be first concrete indication that might actually happen,” said John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
He called the appointment of O’Malley “an early indication that O’Malley may be this pope’s go-to guy in the US.”
O’Malley, who will remain archbishop of Boston, is the only prelate from North America in the group. His appointment underscores his seemingly close relationship with the new pope and broadens his profile as a reformer, which until now has rested on his leadership of Boston and other dioceses rocked by sexual abuse crises.
“The cardinal’s pastoral and administrative skills on a national and international level have revealed a church leader who has handled some of the most complex situations in the American church,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, head of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Television Network and a Vatican spokesperson during the papal transition.
Rosica said O’Malley “is highly respected, admired and loved throughout the world, and this was clearly evidenced during the recent events in Rome,” where O’Malley was widely seen as a contender for the papacy.
O’Malley was traveling Saturday with Boston priests on an Easter pilgrimage to holy sites in the Middle East and was not available for comment, a spokesman said.
In the first month of his pontificate, Francis made headlines almost daily by breaking with tradition, though primarily in symbolic gestures. He chose to live in a relatively modest Vatican residence rather than the grand papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, for example, and on Maundy Thursday, he washed the feet of youth in a juvenile detention center — including two women, one a Muslim — instead of performing the traditional foot-washing ritual on priests.
The advisory group is the first step Francis has taken so far toward substantive change, though Allen said it remains to be seen what the group will recommend and whether Francis will agree.
But the relationship between Rome and the church at the grassroots “could be a very different relationship, one where resident bishops are consulted more often, not just on matters that affect their dioceses, but on general matters of concern to the universal church,” said Nicholas P. Cafardi, a canon lawyer and professor of law at Duquesne University’s School of Law.
He noted that Francis often refers to himself as “bishop of Rome,” which is one of his titles, rather than as pope.
The Vatican said that Francis established the advisory group at the suggestion of his fellow cardinals during the General Congregation meetings that preceded last month’s conclave. Governance issues were a major topic of discussion in those meetings, several cardinals said.
The church was deeply embarrassed last year by the so-called “Vatileaks” scandal, in which Bendict’s butler stole and released private papal papers that revealed fierce power struggles among Vatican officials and contained accusations of financial corruption within the Vatican. An internal Vatican report on the scandal awaited the new pope when he took office.
On a broader level, many prelates believe that the Vatican has the final say on many matters that could be better handled by dioceses or regional bishops’ conferences.
Bishops “complain about the curia being very dismissive of them, that they do too much at headquarters that could be done in the field, or that headquarters overrules what is done in the field,” said Cafardi.
For example, he said, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department that handles clergy sexual abuse cases, has at times overturned local verdicts finding priests responsible for abuse.
The Congregation for Clergy has reversed some bishops’ orders to close churches, and the Congregation for Bishops, which picks bishops, often fails to consider suggestions from the provincial level, Cafardi said.
The Vatican said the cardinals would advise Francis “in the government of the universal Church and . . . study a plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, ‘Pastor Bonus.’ ”
The Pastor Bonus is the document that spells out the responsibilities of Vatican departments and explains how they relate to one another, and to the worldwide church.
Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College, said the Second Vatican Council’s reforms in the 1960s were intended to give groups of local bishops more authority and responsibility in running their local churches, but during the last 35 years, the curia has recentralized authority.
“Returning the rightful authority to local bishops and bishops’ conferences is basically what the reform should be about,” he said.
Groome said the fact that all but one member of the pope’s new advisory group are from outside the curia suggests that there is an “open horizon” for change.
The group will hold its first meeting in Rome in early October, but Francis has already been in contact with each member, the Vatican said.
Back in Boston, interviews outside Holy Cross Cathedral found considerable pride at O’Malley’s appointment among local Catholics, but no surprise. Francis’ choice seemed to them shrewd.
Kevin Mihal, 49, of the South End, said he believes O’Malley will bring a strong voice to the council.
“I just think he’s very thoughtful, he cares about people, and he’s a leader,” he said. “I think he could bring a lot to something like that.”
Maria Matos, 51, of the South End, said she cried when she heard the news about O’Malley.
She said O’Malley has worked well to bring together people of various backgrounds, rich and poor, into single parishes — a system of diversity and unification she would like to see the Catholic Church promote across the world.
She said she considers O’Malley to be like a member of her family, and that she felt a kind of personal delight at his appointment by the Pope.
“You feel very happy,” she said. “It’s like your son, your father, your sister.”