After a whirlwind trip to Rome and speculation about a possible ascension to the Catholic papacy, a relaxed and relieved Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley returned to his church in Boston on Sunday to begin Holy Week and trumpet broad themes facing the new pope.
Wearing a festive red robe and traditional sandals, O’Malley appeared in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to deliver his homily marking Palm Sunday, which ushers in Easter and commemorates Jesus’ triumphant return to Jerusalem.
Afterward, the rector of the cathedral welcomed O’Malley home, as parishioners cheered.
“It’s nice to have the cardinal back,’’ said Father Kevin O’Leary.
“Believe me,’’ O’Malley interrupted, “I am happy to be back.”
O’Malley fielded questions from reporters about his next steps after Rome, but he quickly turned the focus to the Argentine Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who is now Pope Francis.
O’Malley, who had described the papacy as being “a prisoner in a museum,” lavished praises on Pope Francis, calling him “very engaging and very warm.’’ He said the pope’s behavior so far is a preview of the kind of leader he will become to the billion-plus Catholic community.
“We are all delighted with our new Holy Father Pope Francis,’’ said O’Malley, a Capuchin friar of the Franciscan order. “He gives us a preview of coming attractions as far as the themes that are going to be important” to his pontificate.
The cardinal did not offer an opinion on the upcoming Supreme Court consideration of the federal Defense of Marriage Act next week.
“For us marriage is a very important part of God’s plan for society,’’ he said. “The church does not discriminate against any individuals. But we are in favor of marriage and families. . . . And we feel that is what is best for the children and society. It’s not meant to be mean spirited or hurt anyone.”
With Rome behind him, the cardinal seemed to have genuinely missed Boston during his absence. “It was the longest I’ve been away from the diocese since I came here 10 years ago,’’ he told reporters. “I feel very relieved. It’s a huge responsibility. I’m very honored to be the archbishop of Boston.”
He said the first thing he did when he got back was to say Mass and prepare for Holy Week. During the service on Sunday, parishioners held strips of palm leaves as a choir sang humbly. In his homily, O’Malley evoked the legacies of St. Peter, Pope Francis, and a San Salvador archbishop, Oscar Romero, who was murdered after saying Mass in 1980.
He said St. Peter, the former disciple who had denied he knew Jesus as crowds chanted to crucify him, grew from crippling fear and cowardice to become the first pope. O’Malley said Pope Francis will face the same vulnerabilities and shortcomings as the first pope.
“That was what the whole world was watching when white smoke issued forth from the Sistine Chapel,’’ said O’Malley. “The keys of spiritual authority that Christ gave to Peter have been passed down to a new bishop — an Argentine Jesuit who has taken the name Pope Francis and has captured the imagination of the entire world.”
He said the pope chose the name of St. Francis, the heralded priest who was called to rebuild the church in a period of crisis. He was a peacemaker when other Christians were warring.
The cardinal spoke haltingly as he mourned San Salvador’s Archbishop Romero, who was killed March 24, 1980, one day after giving a sermon that called on Salvadoran soldiers to obey God’s laws and stop carrying out the government’s brutal repression. At his funeral on Palm Sunday, the army fired on thousands of mourners, killing 40, O’Malley said.
“When the plaza was emptied out and the smoke lifted, all you could see on the ground were thousands of shoes and sandals and palm branches,’’ said O’Malley, choking up. “Let us carry these palm branches with the courage and the joy of those who have gone before us.”
Parishioners moved by the homily said they were glad to see their cardinal back in Boston, back in action, and back on the pulpit.
“Boston is proud of our spiritual leader,” said former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, who attended Sunday’s service. “I have heard a lot of inspiring speeches in my many years in politics, but none as good as Cardinal Sean’s today.”
“The cardinal is very important to this archdiocese,’’ said Bea Thompson of Needham. “He’s been wonderful. We would have missed him if he had stayed in Rome.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly labeled Cardinal O’Malley’s order. He is a Capuchin friar of the Franciscan order.