Near the end of an ecumenical service at Sudbury United Methodist Church Sunday, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, dipped his thumb into a glass bowl of consecrated water and made the sign of the cross on the forehead of the Rev. Anne Robertson, a United Methodist minister who was about to offer the same gesture to the overflow crowd in the church hall.
And then O’Malley asked Robertson to do the same for him.
She stood before this prince of the Roman Catholic Church, a prelate who is considered the closest American adviser to the pope, who has declared that the church can never allow women to be priests.
She traced a cross on his forehead and said the ritual words, a reaffirmation of baptism from the United Methodist hymnal: “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”
Robertson said she was so moved that she could hardly speak for hours afterward.
“I’ve been in so many places where I’ve been excluded in so many ways because I’m a woman in ministry,” she said in a phone interview this week. “It wasn’t a sacrament, and I’m sure Cardinal O’Malley would express the same beliefs as Pope Francis, that they don’t believe the ordination of women is appropriate. He wasn’t saying any of that.
“He was saying what the whole service was about, that if you go back to our baptism, we are all Christians. And in that moment with him, we were one.”
The moment was captured by archdiocesan photographer George Martell . As Robertson left for the parish hall, choking back sobs, Martell said to the minister with a grin: “That was your 15 minutes.”
Indeed: Martell’s photo is bouncing around the Internet, eliciting condemnation from conservative Catholic bloggers, including from many who are critical of Pope Francis, who saw O’Malley’s gesture as a publicity stunt and an affront to Catholic teaching and tradition. The Boston Catholic Insider, a blog written by anonymous Catholics, pronounced itself “stunned.”
“What a disgrace to our Holy Mother Church,” wrote one commenter. “Is there no limit to this man’s heresies?”
An orthodox Catholic blog called O’Malley’s gesture a “blatant, manifestly public repudiation of the sanctity of Holy Orders of the Catholic Church.”
But Michael Potemra, writing for National Review Online, disagreed, congratulating the cardinal for “doing ecumenism right.”
“O’Malley was showing that he believes that the prohibition of women’s ordination does not entail any disrespect for women,” he wrote.
Some liberal Christians are praising O’Malley, suggesting his gesture might be another indication that under Pope Francis the church may be opening up.
Others, including some friends of Robertson, who posted about the moment on a blog and on Facebook, feared that O’Malley might be getting too much credit.
“I respect Anne immensely as a person, and if it was really powerful and meaningful to her, I don’t want to take that away from her or from anybody else,” said the Rev. Tom Getchell-Lacey, pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Gilford, N.H., and a friend of Robertson’s.
But, in an interview, he compared the positive reception to O’Malley’s gesture to the great press Francis has been getting: “People are congratulating him for being just a decent human being.”
The archdiocese, which declined to make O’Malley available for an interview, downplayed the significance of the moment and said this United Methodist ritual did not violate Catholic teaching.
“It is not a blessing or a sacrament,” archdiocesan spokesman Terrence C. Donilon said in an e-mail. “It is a recalling of the grace of Baptism. Catholics do it every time they enter a church, by dipping their finger into the holy water font and making the sign of the cross.”
The ritual was chosen for the service because it fell on the Sunday that many Christians, including Roman Catholics and United Methodists, celebrate the baptism of Jesus. O’Malley’s visit commemorated the 50th anniversary of Cardinal Richard J. Cushing’s visit to the same church to promote Christian unity.
Each of the hundreds of people who attended the service was invited to come to the front of the sanctuary and receive the baptismal blessing from O’Malley or Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Thomas Kopp, rector of St. Anselm Roman Catholic Church in Sudbury, accompanied Robertson out of the sanctuary to offer the blessing to those in the parish hall. He said he was not at all surprised by O’Malley’s action.
“He has great respect for all the different religions and different ministers,” Kopp said. “He would never hesitate to ask them for their blessing, or whatever else they would be offering. But . . . this was simply an act of sharing a remembrance of our baptism and that we should live in the joy of that.”
Still, it stunned Robertson, the executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, an ecumenical organization that promotes Bible literacy and dialogue about the Bible.
She had been thinking, as she walked across the sanctuary, about the Catholics in the hall she was about to enter: Would they accept this “reaffirmation of baptism” ritual from a Protestant clergywoman? Would anyone want her blessing? “If you are a woman in ministry, you know what it’s like,” she said.
Robertson did not mean only outside of her own denomination. She recalled her first visit to her first church assignment, in Florida, in the mid-1990s, when the head of the church council confided that he did not believe women should be ordained and that his wife did not either.
He led her into the sanctuary and introduced her to a parishioner who was switching out the candles. When Robertson offered her hand in greeting, the parishioner walked out and never returned.
And so O’Malley’s request felt validating. “A simple basic act of inclusion from a cardinal to say, ‘Yes, we are in Christ together,’ ” she said, “it was just a powerful, powerful moment.”