I MET Sean O’Malley in the 1970s, when he was just a humble Capuchin friar ministering to the poorest and most marginalized Hispanics in the nation’s capital. He had been sent by his order to head the Spanish Catholic Center, and he took the assignment seriously enough that he found an apartment in the same dilapidated, tenement-style building where the offices of the center were located.
O’Malley rejuvenated the Spanish Catholic Center. He quickly attracted the best and the brightest of the Hispanic professionals in Washington; soon the center offered not only English-as-a-second-language classes, but also a free dental and medical clinic.
Many of the professionals he attracted belonged to Agrupación Católica Universitaria, a Cuban-based Catholic organization founded by the Jesuits in Cuba to help university students pursue studies in theology and philosophy. Soon, as D.C. chaplain of the ACU, he was embraced as a member of the organization and given the medal of full-fledged “agrupado,” or congregant.
He was unofficially but universally recognized as Hispanic, and it didn’t hurt that he had obtained a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature at Catholic University. Those of us who were educated there were often flabbergasted when he outperformed us in Spanish fluency.
One thing that is striking about Cardinal O’Malley, and which makes him supremely “papabile,” or one who might become pope, is his sense of humor. He loves to tell the story of when he first preached to inmates in Pennsylvania, and foolishly quoted from a biblical story in which some prisoners escaped captivity with the help of an angel. The very next day, there was a prison breakout, and O’Malley was chided by his superior when the warden complained about the unhappy sequence of events.
His anecdotes and stories are endless; he seems to enjoy them as much as his listeners do. In that sense, he is like John Paul II. You get the impression that he doesn’t take himself all that seriously. I am sure the people of Boston appreciated it when he quipped, on being named cardinal, that the red hat would blend in well with the red socks he would wear to Red Sox games.
When he preaches to Cubans about the paralytic who was lowered down with ropes into the crowded room where Jesus was, by ingenious helpers who first removed some roof tiles, he jokes that they must have been Cubans to have that kind of ingenuity.
Not that he is lacking when he gets down to serious business. His role as reformer in the clergy sexual abuse scandals helped restore confidence and credibility in the church.
His participation in the 1980s in the Central American post-insurgency treaty known as Esquipulas II culminated with well-received testimony to Congress. As the only fully bilingual bishop in the delegation sent to Central America by the US Conference of Bishops, his understanding of the issues, the history, and the personalities involved was extraordinarily valuable in bringing the conflict to an end.
O’Malley relates well to Europeans, who control 62 eligible votes in the college of cardinals. It is true that 28 of those are Italians, but the trend does not favor an Italian to replace Pope Benedict XVI, since there is a recognition that diversity must be fostered — not to mention linguistic skills. O’Malley speaks fluent English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. And, as far as sheer cultural diversity, who could be more diverse than an Irish-American who received his doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature?
There are all kinds of reasons given for Pope Benedict’s resignation, but the main reason, other than his health, is likely the clergy sexual abuse scandal. O’Malley played a big role in restoring confidence in the church after sexual abuse scandals in Fall River, Boston, and Ireland.
Up until now, the media has opined that being an American is the biggest impediment for a candidate because the United States is a superpower. But they have it all backwards: Being American is actually a huge asset. US power is waning, and there has never been a pope from America. It’s our turn.
I am Catholic, with the strong conviction that the Holy Spirit has the preeminent role in these matters. If that is true, this article was not in the least necessary.
But I am also a follower of the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola. And he always said, we should pray as if everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on us.
Xavier L. Suarez is a Miami-Dade county commissioner and a former mayor of Miami.