The shift within the Catholic Church recently to sideline conservative priests and cardinals has seen Cardinal Sean O’Malley rise through the ranks. Observers say that O’Malley is now seen as the key ally in America to Pope Francis.
The move appears to sideline Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York who was not chosen as one of the top eight cardinals to advise the pope. Francis instead picked O’Malley from North America.
Given that New York has always held the most important position in the American church this moves seems a major blow to Dolan’s prestige.
Now dubbed as the ‘prince’ of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, O’Malley is one of eight cardinals and the only North American representative on the pope’s committee to reform the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia.
The shift means that Cardinal Sean O’Malley has the ear of Pope Francis in America and he is clearly someone that Pope Francis holds in high esteem.
Dolan, on the other hand, has been notable by his absence from recent key meetings in Rome.
O’Malley’s prominence has been noted. “It cements his role as a trusted advisor,” said the Rev. James Bretzke, Professor of Moral Theology at Boston College, told the Boston Herald.
“I wouldn’t use the term ‘power broker,’ because I think that’s the wrong nuance. In terms of trying to develop a pastoral vision, as well as a strategic plan, O’Malley is clearly in the inner circle, and the single American cardinal that is in the inner circle.”
Terrance McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, said O’Malley ignores the “culture warrior” rhetoric of past prelates in favor of finding common ground with all believers. That resonates with Francis, who has already benched cardinals who courted controversy in public fights over church doctrine.
“O’Malley is kind of consolidating power within the Francis administration without having any official title,” McKiernan said. “Pope Francis is a shrewd guy. By establishing this side group of cardinals, he side-steps the hierarchy while he’s restructuring it.”
The Boston Herald reports the Rev James Weiss, a professor of church history at Boston College as saying:
“As one of the eight cardinals selected to the committee to reform the church he needs O’Malley to have one foot in the U.S. ... The pope is calling on him for his experience.”
Rev. James Bretzke added, “Pope Francis is trying to, in a systematic way, reorganize Vatican culture, to change the way things were done from his immediate predecessors,” he said. “Not in a dramatic, flashy way, but in organized and incremental ways.” he said.
Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College, said Francis will depend on O’Malley’s advice to lead major church reforms.
“He’s a key consultant to the present pope,” Groome said. “One of the reasons why Pope Francis is going to do so well is precisely because he counts on people like Cardinal O’Malley.”
Pope Francis appointed 19 new bishops this week and moved away from choosing conservative Cardinals in favor of appointing moderates.
Cardinal O’Malley was in the spotlight earlier in the week when at an ecumenical service he 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.
He then asked Robertson to do the same for him, but it has angered critics of the man that declared the church can never allow women to be priests.
The Boston Globe reported Michael Potemra, 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.
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.”
This is one clear example of the leadership that Pope Francis is seeking from the cardinals he has appointed.