Although the late Pope John Paul II was a revered figure around the world, his elevation as a saint by Pope Francis has drawn fire from critics who charge that the Polish pontiff turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who’s long been on the front lines of dealing with the fallout from the abuse crisis, believes that a younger John Paul II would have been more vigorous in tackling the problem.
“There were mistakes during his pontificate on this issue, but I don’t think they were made out of malice,” O’Malley told the Globe.
“I like to think that if he had been younger when [the abuse crisis] exploded, he would have come to Boston and dealt with it,” O’Malley said. By the time the scandals erupted, he argued, John Paul II’s “health was deteriorating, and he obviously did not have a full grasp of what was happening in the church.”
O’Malley spoke not only about John Paul II but also Pope John XXIII, the other pope being named a saint on Sunday by Francis.
O’Malley was a seminarian in the early 1960s when John XXIII asked priests to volunteer to serve in Latin America. That prompted O’Malley, then a young Capuchin Franciscan, to learn Spanish and to begin a lifelong outreach to Hispanics. O’Malley’s visceral commitment to overhauling immigration laws, among other things, is attributable to the impact of the man widely known as “Good Pope John.”
The Boston prelate sat down for an interview before the canonization ceremony to discuss what it means for the Catholic Church. The following are excerpts.
Q: Declaring two popes as saints together has never happened before. What’s the importance of it?
O’Malley: Both popes had an enormous impact on the history of the Catholic Church. I was in the seminary when John XXIII was pope. He called the Second Vatican Council that completely changed so many things, well beyond the liturgy. For example, it launched a movement for Christian unity that may have been on the books but was basically nonexistent. Growing up as an Irish Catholic, I never set foot in a Protestant church because I thought if I did, I would be struck by lightning!
Pope John’s genius, his sense of graciousness and love, made an enormous impact on people’s lives inside and outside the church. Calling the council and having people from other religions there was a stunning thing for him to do.
Pope John Paul II had such an incredible energy and was a presence for so many people around the world. He’s probably the single human being seen by the most people in the history of the world.
His ministry to young people was a constant in his life as a priest, a bishop, and as pope, and he touched millions of lives. Of course, there’s also the impact he had on the political situation in Eastern Europe, through the Solidarity movement and bringing down the Iron Curtain.
Both of these popes were bigger than life individuals. The fact that their canonizations are together makes them all the more powerful. I was surprised, because given the popularity these two figures have, I thought they would have separate canonizations. I think Francis is trying to demonstrate that these popes, who were very different personalities, were both very modern figures committed to engaging the world.
Q: You were too young to know John XXIII personally, but you knew John Paul II. What’s your view of his legacy?
O’Malley: I think he brought the papacy to the people in a way they had never experienced before. I saw that with my own eyes in Mexico, when I was a young priest and was sent to help out at the Puebla conference [a 1979 meeting of the bishops of Latin America in Puebla, Mexico]. What we saw was extraordinary.
It was the pope’s first trip after his election, and at the time Mexico had a whole series of anti-clerical laws. Technically it was illegal to wear religious clothing, so when I arrived I had to wear my brother-in-law’s clothes because all I had was a habit. But when the pope got there the president of the country said, “I will pay the fines for anybody who gets in trouble!”
When John Paul landed, they played bells in every church. I was in Puebla, were they have a church on every corner. Then he took an open car from Mexico City to Puebla, which is a distance of 60 or 70 miles. The crowd extended out on both sides of the street all along his route. People were camping out along the way. When he got to Puebla, the Indians had come in from the villages and had filled up the sidewalks so much that you had to walk in the middle of the streets.
I think bringing the papacy closer to the people is his biggest legacy, especially in his own country and in Eastern Europe. He also had a particular commitment to young people, and that made an enormous impact. We had never seen that kind of connection before between the pope and the young.
Q: Some have criticized John Paul II’s record on the child sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Did he do all he could to fight it?
O’Malley: First of all, canonization is not an endorsement of everything a person does and every decision that they make. It’s about their relationship with God, their holiness, their virtue, and their fidelity to their vocation.
Of course there were mistakes during John Paul’s pontificate on this issue, but I don’t think they were made out of malice. At the end of his pontificate, his health was so poor that he was pretty much dependent upon aides in the Vatican to make decisions about many of these issues. In addition, there was also speculation about false accusations that had been made against many good priests in Poland during the Communist era to undermine their credibility. I don’t have any insider knowledge, but perhaps that influenced the way he looked at these cases.
It’s unfortunate, because John Paul II was not the kind of man to avoid problems. For instance, I used to say that he went around the world giving last rites to dictators. He went to the Philippines under Marcos, Haiti under Duvalier, Chile under Pinochet, and they all fell. Castro [in Cuba] was the only one who survived a papal visit.
He wasn’t the kind of person who was afraid of difficult or big issues. I like to think that if he had been younger when [the abuse crisis] exploded, he would have come to Boston and dealt with it. . . . I think he would have reacted more vigorously, in the way that he reacted to so many other problems. He wasn’t the kind of person to avoid a confrontation.
At the beginning all of us were surprised, and that’s the tragic part of it.
Q: You’re a close adviser to Pope Francis as part of his “G8” council of cardinal advisers. Does he surprise even you?
O’Malley: He certainly is a pope of surprises. He always says that “I’m the same person I was in Argentina,” and I think that’s true. People don’t expect the pope to stay the same, but he is.
I admire his generosity, because he’s not only Argentinian but Porteño [someone from Buenos Aires]. It must be awful to have to leave Buenos Aires. I read somewhere that at one point he asked to remain an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires instead of being bishop somewhere else, just so he could stay in the city. That’s probably true, and anyway it rings true because he’s so identified with that people and that city.
Q: Does he need to bring in more Argentinians to make the Vatican bureaucracy friendlier for him?
O’Malley: I hope he does. He really needs to have more help around him. Obviously, one of his secretaries is now a young Argentinian priest. And I’m sure he’s getting his maté [a tea identified with Argentina] smuggled in somehow!
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Inés San Martín is a freelance journalist from Argentina.