Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Boston, said Tuesday that Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States was something akin to “a national [religious] retreat.” Never, the cardinal said, had he witnessed a papal visit generate such widespread interest, particularly from non-Catholics.
He said he hoped the trip provoked all Americans to take stock of their lives.
“A papal visit like this is an opportunity for all of us to reflect upon our own ideals and the transcendence of God and his presence in our lives,” he said.
O’Malley spoke to reporters at a news conference at Logan Airport, having just returned from Philadelphia, the last city Pope Francis visited. The cardinal said it was “exhausting to keep up with” Francis but said the pontiff “always exudes a certain serenity and peace,” even when tired.
During his US visit, Francis met with sexual abuse victims — a meeting that O’Malley arranged and attended. The Boston cardinal described the session as “one of the most important elements” of the visit.
“I think in many ways it embodied that spirit of mercy that the Holy Father wants to bring to the life of the church,” he said.
A continuing target of outrage for some abuse victims and their advocates, however, has been Cardinal Bernard Law, O’Malley’s predecessor, who resigned in 2002 over his role in shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish.
Though he left Boston, Law remained a cardinal, kept his positions on important Vatican panels, and was given the honor of overseeing the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major, an ancient Marian shrine that ranks as one of the most important and beautiful churches in Rome. Now retired, he is living in the Papal Chancellery, a Renaissance palace in Rome that belongs to the Vatican, according to a recent report by WBUR.
Asked whether he thought Law should be held accountable, O’Malley noted that Law was in his 80s and “in ill health.” O’Malley did not elaborate on the status of Law’s health. “Cardinal Law left Boston,” O’Malley added. “He was not kept here. That was a very important decision toward healing.”
Kathy Dwyer, a clergy abuse survivor who lives in Dorchester, wondered in an interview last week whether Law would ever be held responsible.
“What was done to myself and other children was so bad and continues to be — I don’t think all the good in the world can undo it,” Dwyer said. “There’s never going to be justice. All there can be is change.”
O’Malley said Tuesday he understood some Catholics remained dubious about the church’s commitment to hold accountable clergy who sexually abused children and bishops who protected abusive priests.
“I know many people are angry and disappointed and skeptical,” he said. “But I think the Holy Father is taking steps to move us in the right direction.”
He cited the work of the Vatican commission for the protection of minors, created by Francis. The cardinal said the commission is working to make sure bishops’ conferences across the world have the right policies in place to deal with the abuse issue. He added he thought it was important Francis spoke about the issue to an international gathering of bishops in Philadelphia right after his meeting with survivors, promising reform and justice.
O’Malley also said he saw signs of progress in the resignation of three US bishops who failed to protect children in recent months.
The Boston prelate, who chairs the prolife committee of the US Catholic bishops’ conference, said he hoped Francis’ prevailing themes of love and dialogue during his visit offered a counterpoint to the vitriolic tone of the culture wars in the United States.
“His purpose is to demonstrate that in all of the church’s teachings, the context has to be unconditional love,” he said. “It’s not a shouting match.
“For some people that’s very frustrating because they want to come out with a big mallet and hit people on the head and say, ‘This is what I think is wrong,’ ” he said. “But if there’s not love behind what we’re teaching and what we are doing, it becomes that clanging gong that St. Paul writes about.”
He called Francis’ address to Congress, the first ever for a pope, “a stunning moment” that seemed to put the political polarization in America on pause, if just for a few hours.
Asked whether Pope Francis might come to Boston the next time he visits the United States, O’Malley threw back his head and laughed. “I was afraid to ask him,” he said. “The poor man,” after so much travel, “needs a little time to recover.”
But he added, “I haven’t given up hope of getting him to . . . Red Sox country.”