He joined the religious order as a teenager because he wanted to become a missionary. Sent off to Easter Island during theological training, he worked happily among the Rapa Nui people and indulged his passion for learning languages. It seemed a fulfilling start to a life already committed, in the model of St. Francis of Assisi, to living simply and building a spiritual community.
But it wasn't to be. Sean Patrick O'Malley never got his dream posting in Papua New Guinea, and today he holds the biggest job in the troubled US Roman Catholic Church - at perhaps the most critical moment in its history.
By all accounts, he's still the humble friar with a thirst for prayer and a clear sense of mission, but after several jobs bearing increased responsibility, he's been thrust into a demanding role played out under a merciless spotlight.
"Being Archbishop of Boston," he recently wrote in the diocesan newspaper, The Pilot, "is like living in a fishbowl made out of magnifying glass."
When the pope named O'Malley archbishop a year ago, Boston's Catholic community was dispirited and alienated by the sexual-abuse scandal that had dragged on for 1-1/2 years without sign of progress. Addressing that crisis, which had undermined the moral authority of the American church, was O'Malley's urgent priority.
But he was soon embroiled, too, in the clamor around the Massachusetts court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. And then, another layer: The shifting fortunes of the Boston Archdiocese made it imperative, he decided, to move quickly with the largest "reconfiguration" of parishes yet seen in the US, a plan that will close some 60 churches by the end of 2004.
"Archbishop O'Malley has taken the people of Boston on an emotional roller coaster," says James Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based national lay organization.
One year after his arrival, O'Malley has shown a decisiveness that those who know him call very much in character. But while aspects of his performance have been hailed by both laity and clergy, that decisiveness has also stirred strong emotions in its wake - particularly with regard to the ongoing parish closings.
Heading the fourth-largest archdiocese in the country may not be a job O'Malley would have chosen, but some people insist he is the right man to do it.
"If anyone in the American hierarchy today can do what needs to be done, it is he," says Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the US Conference on Catholic Bishops. "He's a bona fide pastoral bishop who readily and gladly reaches out to people, which is important in the healing and reconciling process."
Indeed, O'Malley had already acted to right the ship in two other dioceses roiled by clergy abuse cases - Fall River, Mass., and Palm Beach, Fla. - and his arrival in Boston in his trademark brown robe and sandals to sit down immediately with victims of abuse brought an almost audible sigh of relief.
Hopes rose even higher when he switched lawyers and showed up at a late-night negotiating session to break the logjam and reach an $85 million settlement with more than 500 abuse victims.
O'Malley then moved out of the opulent archbishop's residence into a city neighborhood near the cathedral, and sold the mansion and surrounding property for $107 million to pay for the settlement.
"We needed a leader who could bring people together and resolve things as quickly as possible," says Philip Moran, a prominent lawyer in Salem, Mass. "He bites the bullet and does what he thinks needs to be done. That's the sign of a true leader."
Boston Catholics are now watching to see how their leader will go about the longer-term process of restoring trust. Archbishop Sean, as he prefers to be called, clearly was sent to Boston to set things in order pastorally and financially. The question for many is whether he will go beyond that and grapple with the deeper issues many see troubling the church, issues which may have contributed to the crisis. The US bishops themselves seem divided over what is required, discussing it behind closed doors during their semiannual meeting this month in Denver.
One key to the man can be found in the Latin motto he chose for his coat of arms as archbishop, which reads in English: "Do whatever he tells you." Those are the words of Jesus' mother to the servants at the wedding in Cana, before the changing of water into wine. They are a guiding principle of his life, O'Malley once told a Franciscan magazine. When a superior asks him to do something, he added, he interprets it as God's will.
Such an unwavering stance leads some people to the conclusion that O'Malley is unlikely to apply his renowned problem-solving skills to effecting deep reform.
"The man is not doing stuff to ingratiate himself with Rome so he'll get a promotion - nobody suspects that," says Thomas Groome, director of Boston College's Institute for Pastoral Ministry. "[But] he's significantly to the right of center ... and I don't think he will lead a great renewal or a program of reform in the Boston church."
Others are more critical. "The appointment of Archbishop O'Malley has been successful for the institution, but has done little to resolve the problems of victims and their families," says Bill Gately, coordinator of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). "The settlement is a positive step ... but the problem is [church leaders] don't see it for what it is - a systemic problem in the governing body of the institution."
Still, many who know this obedient son of the church well say he's exceptionally capable: a highly educated man who speaks six languages and knows how to get things done, and a holy man who finds his joy in prayer and in helping people.
Jack Healey, founder of Amnesty International, was a fellow seminarian in the Franciscan Capuchin order in the 1960s, and says he admired O'Malley from Day 1.
"The rest of us were like ballplayers hoping to become priests; he was like a little priest growing into a big one," Mr. Healey says. While classmates were studying extra hours, "he also reached into the community and started a painting company for ex-cons."
Healey also recalls that "Shags," the name bestowed on O'Malley when he grew his beard, took the several thousand dollars of an inheritance from his grandmother and "literally gave that money out on the street."
It was during the 1960s that the Second Vatican Council initiated reforms in Catholicism - in areas such as the roles of clergy and laity, liturgy, and church governance - that spurred deep division within the church; O'Malley has remained a conservative while Healey became very progressive. Yet they've stayed lifelong friends.
"I'd like him to be more progressive, but he's the real thing - a holy man on a holy journey. He disarms you with his humility," Healey says.
While O'Malley is conservative on doctrine and issues of morality, most would call him liberal on social justice - a man very much in the mold of Pope John Paul II. He hasn't missed an antiabortion march in Washington, even if it meant plowing through snow in his sandals and socks, friends say. He has also championed the rights of immigrants and the marginalized throughout his ministry. The weekend after his installation as bishop in Palm Beach, "he was not celebrating Mass in the cathedral, but in the fields with migrant workers," says longtime friend Mary Conway, a Catholic journalist.
Born in Ohio and schooled in Pennsylvania, O'Malley went to Washington after seminary for a master's degree in religious education and a PhD in Spanish and Portuguese literature at Catholic University. (So strong are his linguistic skills that the pope once took him to Cuba as his interpreter.)
O'Malley's hopes for a foreign assignment were dashed when he was asked to head the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, providing social services to the burgeoning Latin American immigrant community. Yet he found that made him happy, says his sister, Mary Alexsovich. "My father always said [Sean] would have made a wonderful diplomat in the State Department, but he's much happier in his sandals and robe flying down the street answering calls from immigrants who need a hand."
Concerned about the abuse faced by many Latin American women who worked as domestics, "Padre Sean" started an underground railroad for battered and exploited women, which was featured on ABC's "20/20."
His work with the homeless attracted the attention of Raymond Flynn, then mayor of Boston and head of the US Conference of Mayors' committee on hunger and homelessness. "He's not someone who looks for the limelight; he just goes about the job," says Mr. Flynn.
"A Puerto Rican friend used to joke that when Father Sean was first named to the [Washington] job, the Hispanics said, 'Why do we need an Irishman?' " Ms. Conway says. "But by the time he was sent to another post, they all had little statues of St. Francis in their homes because they looked like Father Sean."
O'Malley's skills were widely noted, and in 1984 he was made a bishop and sent to the US Virgin Islands. Colleagues say fidelity to his faith and to people, and an immense sense of responsibility for the spiritual welfare of his flock mark his work as a bishop. On St. Thomas, he encouraged women to start a center dealing with domestic violence. Hurricane Hugo hit the islands in 1989, causing widespread devastation. Warned of the storm's approach to St. Croix, O'Malley headed there so a local disabled priest would not be on his own.
"The island was practically wiped out - 85 percent of roofs gone, not a leaf left on a tree," says Conway, who had gone to St. Thomas to help start a diocesan newspaper. O'Malley personally drove to every parish to check on people. He took on the task of raising funds for rebuilding, and even cooked a macaroni-and-tuna casserole for a reporter who flew in to do a story.
Yet the energetic friar does have his quirks. His sister teases him about his un-Franciscan lack of fondness for cats. Nuns who worked in the St. Thomas chancery owned cats that were free to roam, she says. One day, a poor man came in off the street and was pouring out his heart to the bishop, when a cat jumped onto the man's lap. The bishop pulled a squirt gun out of his desk and sent the cat scurrying. "I told him St. Francis would never do that," Alexsovich recalls with a laugh. "He said, 'I know, they didn't have squirt guns then.' "
When he's not being a shepherd, O'Malley likes to gather friends for a movie and popcorn, and he loves sharing music, particularly classical and opera. "He took me to my first opera, 'Madame Butterfly,' when I was in sixth grade," his sister says. He used to play piano and harpsichord, but no longer has time. Reading is his great solace, friends say. He's an avid scrounger in bookstores.
When the major sexual-abuse case of the Rev. James Porter broke in 1992 in Fall River, Mass., O'Malley was moved to the heavily Portuguese-speaking diocese. There he won plaudits - even from plaintiffs' lawyers - for reaching out to victims, gaining a quick settlement, and instituting a diocesan policy to prevent future abuse. He visited victims in their homes and listened to their stories, a pattern he has continued.
He also showed that "he's not afraid to put his toe in turbulent waters," says Krysten Winter-Green, a psychologist who ran homeless shelters for the diocese in the Virgin Islands. O'Malley asked her to come to Fall River and set up an HIV/AIDS ministry. "That was a very brave step then," says Dr. Winter-Green.
When the Boston scandal broke in 2002, abuse victims began coming forward from across the country, and the pope sent O'Malley to Palm Beach to take over after two bishops had to resign for their own sexual misconduct. A mere 10 months later, after getting repairs under way, he was tapped for the Boston job.
Calling the challenge "overwhelming," he appealed to Boston Catholics to work together "to repair the church."
Further than ever, perhaps, from his ideal job, the archbishop faces immense tasks in simultaneously seeking to reconcile a deeply hurting Catholic community while putting the archdiocese's fiscal house in order in the face of declining attendance and contributions and a serious clergy shortage. But he was handed yet another challenge when the state Supreme Court last fall called it unconstitutional to disallow same-sex marriage, shifting the national spotlight again to Boston.
O'Malley waded into the emotional waters, working with other church leaders to take a stand on marriage and press the legislature to support a state constitutional amendment. The church's lobbying arm waged a vigorous campaign in parishes and at the State House, and O'Malley spoke at a rally on Boston Common.
"The pressure from the church has been higher than anything previously experienced, even on abortion or assisted suicide," says Maurice Cunningham, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. "The archbishop spurred an unusually strong effort to get priests to speak from the pulpit, and legislators heard not only from constituents but [in some cases] from their own parish priests."
Many Catholics cheered his effort. "It took a lot of courage to speak at the rally; it wasn't politically popular going against the trend," says Flynn, the former mayor and former US ambassador to the Vatican. Others were distressed, however, that he had shared the stage with stridently antigay groups, and worried that the effort was divisive. Almost 70 percent of the Bay State's legislators are Catholic, but many did not back the church's stance against same-sex marriage and civil unions. They passed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage but allow civil unions with the same benefits. It must be approved by public referendum in 2006 before it can go into effect.
Today, the need persists to bring about healing in the aftermath of the abuse scandal. Programs to protect children are in place in parishes and schools, but more victims are coming forward, and lawyers say it's not clear how the archdiocese will respond. O'Malley has been meeting once or twice a week with victims, but some who have been most vocal during the crisis say they haven't been able to see him.
"We developed a list of ideas, and hoped to meet with him and say, 'We know what survivors want and can help you do the things that will help us heal,' " says Ann Hagan Webb, coordinator of a survivors' group. When they wrote directly to him seeking a meeting, she says, they were told they should work through the pastoral-outreach office.
"He hasn't met with some people because there's a feeling there are other agendas and it will be turned into a media event," says the Rev. Christopher Coyne, archdiocese spokesman. (The archbishop also has recently declined direct interviews with the media.)
O'Malley has had a cordial meeting with leaders of Voice of the Faithful, the lay group formed to spur change in the church in the wake of the scandal. He hasn't fully embraced the group, however, indicating a concern about the "ambiguity" of its change agenda. The archdiocese has responded to requests for more fiscal accountability with published financial reports, says the group's Dr. Post.
Where Archbishop Sean has enthusiastically spent time is in parish visits. The Rev. Louis Bourgeois of St. Paul's Church in Hamilton, Mass., says he was astonished to find how easy it was to arrange one last December - with a single phone call.
"We've been through a tough time, and the visit meant so much to people; it brought hope and insight into what the church can be," says Father B, as he is known to his parishioners. After his sermon, O'Malley stood at the door and met each parishioner. The church was so packed that people had to park blocks away.
The archbishop's lack of pretense, and willingness to listen, have lifted the spirits of other local priests demoralized by the scandal. He's held regional meetings with them and reformed a diocesan council, giving priests a more active voice, says the Rev. Walter Cuenin of Newton, Mass. But the parish closures have been devastating, as priests lose church homes and are shocked to find that even some financially healthy parishes are part of the downsizing. With more than one-third of parishes operating in the red, numerous churches requiring expensive repairs, and 130 pastors over 70 years of age, O'Malley said he was compelled to act. He set up a process that began with local committees of lay people and clergy making recommendations, which then went up through regional and diocesan committees. Taking care "not to place the burden on the backs of the poor," he distributed closings across the archdiocese. But many parishes are planning appeals, and many people question why it all had to be done at once.
"Even though he gained credibility because of his actions and simple lifestyle, this is one of the toughest things a bishop ever has to do," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a national Catholic weekly.
One year into his new responsibilities, the "bona fide pastoral bishop" has his hands perpetually full. Friends are concerned both about what's being expected of him and his own well-being. "As a spiritual leader, he's being totally wasted on administrative things," Healey says. They've noticed he has lost weight and has no time for a private life.
"He has an inner compass which gives him a kind of serenity - he knows where he needs to go and just keeps going," says his sister. But "this job is testing everything."
Many Boston-area Catholics say they feel the turnaround has begun, but also that they are reserving judgment on the question of restoring trust in the hierarchy. O'Malley replaced Cardinal Bernard Law, but others involved in the scandal are still in place. And questions remain about why the scandal developed. Boston College involved the broader community in a two-year discussion on that question, but "the church hasn't begun to address that at the deep level," says Dr. Groome.
For his part, Archbishop Sean says every effort at communication is part of the goal of restoring trust. "The archbishop's thought is that if we do what we are supposed to do as a church - the caring, loving, and right thing in every situation - then that in itself will be the best message we can put out," says Father Coyne. "It will take a very long time to reestablish trust, but we are going to do it one person at a time, one act at a time."