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VATICAN LETTER Mar-24-2006 (900 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

In Rome, media finds Boston cardinal wields wicked sense of humor

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Always looking for the big scoop, television and print media made a surprising discovery when they covered Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley receiving his red hat in a March 24 consistory at the Vatican.

They found out that underneath the formal veneer of a top church leader and the flowing brown Capuchin robe, Boston's new cardinal wields a wicked sense of humor.

While following the cardinal in Rome, it became impossible for Boston's local media to concentrate exclusively on the hot-button issues swirling around an archdiocese that is still feeling the shock waves of the clergy sex abuse scandals that broke in early 2002.

Here on neutral ground in the Eternal City, the cardinal could breathe freely and crack jokes about the handiness of now having the new red robes if he were called to go hunting with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

"The media didn't realize he had a sense of humor," said Msgr. Steve Avila, who served as secretary to Cardinal O'Malley when he was bishop of Fall River, Mass.

"There's a person behind an office, a special person with great compassion, who's very gentle, and a very, very good listener," Msgr. Avila told Catholic News Service March 23.

The cardinal gave the local Boston press corps wide and frequent access in Rome. Though the outings were prepared and calculated, the jokes and witticisms were spontaneous.

On a March 22 walk to Rome's Bridge of Angels, not far from the Vatican, Cardinal O'Malley let media crews fill the pockets of his brown habit with at least five heavy battery packs for wireless microphones.

"If I fall into the river, I'll sink to the bottom," he said, according to reporters.

At a press conference after the consistory, he told reporters, "Nobody can doubt my sports affiliation now," and, lifting his hem, added, "I have Red Sox."

The cardinal's sister, Mary Alexsovich of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said when she learned Pope Benedict XVI was going to make her brother a cardinal she told him: "No good deed goes unpunished. If you're good, you just keep getting promoted."

But it has not been all fun and games for the cardinal, who was assigned perhaps the most difficult task facing the Catholic Church in America when he was promoted to archbishop of Boston in July 2003.

He inherited an archdiocese reeling from the effects of clergy sex abuse and the financial catastrophe that forced him to close or merge parishes and schools. The cardinal had a track record of successfully handling the many rifts caused by clergy sex abuse in other dioceses.

Msgr. Avila said Cardinal O'Malley's style was to deal directly with the crisis in "a decisive and clear manner and then move on" to other pressing issues.

He did not just clean up the mess left behind by sex abuse scandals in Fall River, Mass., but expanded social programs, set up an AIDS ministry and spearheaded projects to provide affordable housing for low-income people, the monsignor said.

Unfortunately, the cardinal's broader vision of social justice "gets squashed" by so much focus on the controversial decisions being made to keep the Archdiocese of Boston away from the brink of bankruptcy, said Msgr. Avila, a pastor at St. John Neumann in East Freetown, Mass.

Msgr. Bill Helmick, a priest at St. Teresa of Avila in West Roxbury, Mass., who has known Cardinal O'Malley since the 1980s, said by elevating him to the rank of cardinal Pope Benedict was "recognizing the good work he's trying to do in Boston and what he's done and what he's still up against."

The pope is also sending a sign of solidarity to the people of Boston, he surmised. While many Catholics had their faith in the church shaken deeply, "large numbers of faithful have kept to the faith, and the pope is recognizing their stick-to-itiveness and perseverance to the faith," he said.

At the March 24 ceremony in St. Peter's Square, the pope gave Cardinal O'Malley the titular church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, which is right across the street from the titular church of his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard F. Law. It is also one of two newly assigned titular churches that author Dan Brown made famous in his best-seller, "Angels and Demons."

Dozens of O'Malley family members were packed into St. Peter's Square March 24 to see their famous relative get his red hat.

One group of first cousins -- from Huntsville, Ala., and Cleveland -- said they had no idea that he would now be addressed as "Your Eminence."

"Is that what we'll have to call him?" asked one cousin.

"I think I'll just stick to Father Sean," said another.

They said the cardinal possessed a unique aura and a calming presence.

"You really feel you're in the presence of St. Francis," said the cardinal's cousin, Annette Lipaj.

Alexsovich said the greatest gift her brother will bring to the universal church will be the love he feels for people. She added that she hoped Boston Catholics would delve deeper into getting to know her brother, whom she credits as being responsible for her love of other cultures, languages and literature.

"To get to know him is to love him, and that's what (the Archdiocese of Boston) needs now," she said.

- - -

Contributing to this story was Cindy Wooden.


Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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