25 years as a bishop

This Sunday is the feast of Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula. This is a very special Franciscan feast and it is also the 25th anniversary of my ordination as bishop. I was ordained August 2, 1984 at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands by Bishop Edward Harper. On Sunday, I will be celebrating Mass at St. Patrick Parish in Natick. Father Brian Kiely, whom I’ve known since my days in the Virgin Islands, was gracious enough to invite me.

I’d like to share with you a reflection I prepared for our diocesan newspaper, The Pilot, for their special issue on my anniversary.

Pilot front page photo by Gregory L. Tracy

It was a very moving experience for me to be called to this service in the Church. It has been 25 years of a great adventure, for which I am very grateful. I ask the Lord’s forgiveness for my shortcomings and for help so that I may be a better shepherd in the future.

Since this is a significant anniversary, I have been asked to talk about the ministry of a bishop. Although I have been a bishop for 25 years, I do not consider myself an expert. I am still learning in the saddle. Had I known I was going to be a bishop, I would have studied much harder in the seminary.

At 19 I joined the Capuchin Order and was eventually ordained a priest in 1970. As a deacon I had been told I was to be a missionary in Easter Island, but before my priestly ordination, Cardinal O’Boyle asked my Provincial to leave me in Washington to work with the Hispanic immigrants. I began the week that I was ordained and did not say Mass in English, except very rarely, until I became a bishop in the West Indies.

At 39 years of age, I was not a canon lawyer, not Roman trained, not a chancery worker, the last thing I expected was to be named a bishop. After I received the news from Archbishop Hickey there was a total eclipse of the sun, which I was at a loss as how to interpret. The friars said — he was never a guardian, never a provincial — the stone rejected by the builders has been made the cornerstone. When I was informed that I was to be bishop, I was not permitted to tell anyone but I had to go to the Father Guardian and ask permission to go to the Virgin Islands to be there for the announcement. I was a wreck. I thought, what will I say if the Superior asks me why I want to travel to the Virgin Islands? Strangely enough, he gave me permission immediately. (Later I told him, “I would never give you permission had I been your superior.”)

When I arrived on St. Thomas I was 30 years younger than the youngest priest and the only Capuchin. One old Redemptorist told me — “we don’t go crazy, we just get colorful” — and he was colorful.

The young coadjutor bishop, Seán P. O'Malley, preaching at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Photo courtesy of The Florida Catholic)

Preaching at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

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Bishop Harper welcoming me as bishop upon his retirement

We traveled between the islands by seaplane and it was terrifying. The first week on the job I went down to the port and stood in line nervously waiting to get on the seaplane. Suddenly the pilot appeared with a chart and asked the large West Indian women in front of me — “Miss how much do you weigh?” She said, “90 lbs.” He then asked me, “Bishop how much do you weigh? I replied, “300 lbs.”

The diocese had a total budget of $30,000 per annum. It was money sent from the ABCM — American Board of Catholic Missions. It gives you an insight into the importance of our second collections.


This was my chancery. The building is now used by Catholic Charities

I was there almost nine years and came to love the people very much. The singing and joy of the liturgies was something I have never experienced anywhere else. During my time there I participated in the Antilles Bishops Conference — that was part of CELAM and consisted of 17 different countries — the French, Dutch and English-speaking islands and the mainland nations of Belize in Central America and Cayenne (known for Devil’s Island), Surinam and Guyana (famous for Jonestown) in South America.

During my tenure in the islands, the biggest challenge was Hurricane Hugo that destroyed much of the diocese. We were six months without water, electricity and phones. For days we survived on coconut milk. There was no TV for a year. Public schools were closed for two years. We opened the Catholic schools in tents in about three weeks.


The bishop’s residence that was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo


During that time I began to do seminary visitations in Latin America. I eventually visited about 20 seminaries. I received an inquiry from the Vatican asking me if I would be willing to become the Bishop of Machiques in Venezuela — an Apostolic Vicariate of the Capuchins near the Amazon region. I said that I would be glad to go. Shortly thereafter I received a letter from the Holy See naming me Bishop of Fall River, Massachusetts. I felt like “wrong way Corrigan.” This was in 1992 and the Porter case had just broken during the interregnum and the diocese was in havoc because of this terrible pedophile predator who had abused hundreds of small children. I was in Fall River 10 years speaking Portuguese and it was a good fit.


The installation in Fall River


A few photos from my time in Fall River





In 2002, I was sent to Palm Beach to replace two bishops who had been removed, one after another, for sexual abuse of minors. My first week there I was finger printed and at the press conference one of the reporters asked me if I was a pedophile.


My installation in Palm Beach


The 2003 March for Life in Washington



After 10 months the diocese began to calm down. My family took me out to dinner on my birthday, June 29. The phone rang. It was Archbishop Montalvo telling me that the pope wanted me to be Archbishop of Boston. I dropped the cell phone on the ground. I thought I really need to get caller ID on this thing. I was told that I was to be installed as soon as possible. I was numb.


Arriving in Boston for the first time

Press ConferenceBW

Facing the Boston media



The climate in Boston could not have been more negative. One newspaper reported, O’Malley gets a fixer upper.” At that point I doubted that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would be able to pick up the pieces. For starters there was a shocked and angry flock that was horrified and profoundly disappointed with the Church. The priests were very hurt and embarrassed. The victims and their families were indignant and devastated.

Archbishop O'Malley is silhouetted against the stained glass windows of the Cathedral as he celebrates the Eucharist.  Pilot photo by Gregory L. Tracy

The archdiocese was in economic free fall. There was an annual operating deficit of $15 million, the archdiocese owed the Knights of Columbus $35 million, the Catholic hospitals were losing $30 million a year, many parishes and schools could not pay their bills, the lay pension fund was failing, the priest pension fund was failing and there were 1,000 law suits against us. I told the priests that I used to think that a vow of poverty meant that you did not own anything but that was before I owed hundreds of millions of dollars to impatient creditors.

 Jennifer Metybier, 8, displays an interest in Archbishop O’Malley’s cincture during picnic at the Missionary of Charities convent in Dochester July 19.  The archbishop spent the morning visiting with the children and volunteers of a day camp program run by the sisters for the mostly immigrant children of the neighborhood. Earlier the archbishop had celebrated Mass for the group.  Pilot photo by Gregory L. Tracy

I have often been scandalized by the thought that a bishop might be angling to get a larger or more prestigious diocese. Small is good. We need to bloom where we are planted. It has been my fate to be transplanted to four dioceses — I am certainly one of the few bishops to have four dioceses. Before coming to Boston, my Provincial commenting on my ministry in vacation spot dioceses like the Virgin Islands, Cape Cod, and Palm Beach asked me when I was going to get a real job. At my installation as Archbishop of Boston, I asked him, “Does this count?”

Serving in four very different dioceses has been a very special grace, an opportunity to experience the catholicity of the Church. I have grown to love each of the four dioceses where I have been privileged to serve. The great thing about being in so many different places, is to be able to experience the beauty of our Catholic faith lived out generously by devoted priests, deacons, religious and laity in very different settings.

It is the same Eucharist that draws us together, the same love for the Lord, His Blessed Mother and His Saints and His Church. It is the same mission that Christ has entrusted to us to make His Kingdom more visible, to build a civilization of love.

In every diocese where I have served, I have seen beautiful Catholic families devoted to the ideals of the Gospel. I have seen our people caring for the sick and the poor, living the works of mercy, bearing the cross of suffering with courage and hope. Everywhere I have seen how our people love our Church and our traditions. I am edified by the pastoral zeal of our clergy and religious and extraordinary lay leadership.

In each of my dioceses I have looked forward to spending the rest of my life among the people of that diocese. I would never have imagined that I would be called to serve in so many different places. I have been enriched by each local Church where I have served. I thank God for the call and ask for His Grace to be able to serve His people better.

As I look back at 25 years as a bishop, I am filled with awe and gratitude to be given such a responsibility, despite my shortcomings. There have been many challenges, but also many graces, so many joys. Confirming our young Catholics, ordaining priests and deacons, gathering for diocesan celebrations like the Chrism Mass, experiencing the vibrancy of our parishes, diocesan organizations, apostolic moments, the seminaries, the dedicated religious, deacons, diocesan and parish staff is a source of joyful hope. The help I receive from the auxiliary bishops, vicar general, secretaries, cabinet members, staff, lay leaders and volunteers is such a great assistance and allows me to minister to the vast Catholic community of the archdiocese. Without you, I could do nothing.

In this year for the priest, I ask for the prayers of our Catholic community. Know that you are in my prayers each day. Together let us continue to announce the Good News of God’s love and invite others to be a part of Christ’s Family. Let us strive to be what the Lord is calling us to be and to live our Catholic Faith in love and joy. “For all that has been, Thank you Lord, for all that will be, Yes Lord, Yes.”

– – –

Earlier this week I was in Dallas with Bishop Bob Hennessey attending a workshop for bishops based on the Good Leaders, Good Shepherds program.

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Celebrating Mass with the bishops participating in the conference

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Good Leaders, Good Shepherds is a two-year program developed by the Catholic Leadership Institute which helps priests take leadership principles from the business world and apply them to their ministry.

CLI was founded by Tim Flanagan, whose brother, Father Brian Flanagan, was one of my priests in Palm Beach. This is how I first heard of this program. Father Bill Dickinson, from the Diocese of Cleveland, is CLI’s national director and Matthew Manion is president and CEO.

For priests and bishops, ongoing formation is a very important part of our lives in ministry. We cannot depend on what we learned in the seminary, but we must constantly be updating ourselves and trying to learn new and better ways to serve God’s people.

Good Leaders, Good Shepherds is one of the most outstanding instruments of the ongoing formation for priests I have seen. Over 50 priests in our archdiocese have been involved in the program and it has been very well received.

Now, they are beginning a program for lay leadership among parish staffs in the archdiocese as well as the workshop for bishops.

The workshop itself was held in something of an unusual place — not a place I otherwise would have seen — called The Cooper Institute.

It is sort of a health center founded by a physician, Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, whose whole thrust has been preventive medicine – the idea of treating people while they are healthy people to prevent them from getting sick. He said that our health care here in the United States is too much health care, too late. I must say, being here has helped remind me that I need to constantly stress, to all priests, the importance of taking care of their health!

The workshop has been a very enlightening and interesting experience having the opportunity of being with other bishops from around the country and to have a greater understanding of ourselves and how we can relate with others. It has helped me to appreciate why our priests in Boston are so enthused about the Good Leaders, Good Shepherds program.

Until next week, blessing to you all!

– Cardinal Seán

27 thoughts on “25 years as a bishop”

  1. Cardinal Sean:

    Congratulations on your 25 years as Bishop! God does leads us through extranger but beautiful places…
    Also thank you for your lovely words during Senator Kennedy’s Funeral Mass.

    For some reason I feel we have crossed paths… somewhere!

    Fecilicitaciones y que Dios lo proteja!

  2. Congratulations on your 25th anniversary! I enjoyed reading your reflections on your time as bishop. My husband, Adam, and I had the honor of meeting you during a visit you made to the MIT campus a few years ago. We now live in Indiana, but think of Boston fondly. Keep up the good work!

  3. I am capuchin brother missionary in Thailand. I read all Cardinal Seán Blog. I want to give my best wishes to Your Emminence on the occasion of 25th anniversary of ordination as bishop. Pax et Bonum

    fra Antonio Valsecchi ofmcap

  4. Cardinal Sean, I belong to St. Mary’s parish in Fall River. I enjoyed reading your reflections on your priesthood. As a former parishioner of St. Louis in Fall River, I will always be grateful that you brought the priests of St. Charles Borromeo to our diocese. Their excitement and enthusiasm for their mission and their faith was truly inspiring and rejuvenating to my own faith. I will keep you in my prayers as I have since you left Fall River.

  5. What an inspiring ministry of Bishop for the past 25 years. Congratulations on your anniversary.
    This blog should be compulsory reading for all priests and Bishops.
    Your concern for the health of priests is comforting to hear and your promotion of the Good Shepherds Program is positive. Those with the task of Bishop need an opportunity for ongoing formation too!
    Thank you Cardinal Sean for this blog. I read it completely each week.

  6. Your Eminence:

    Congratulations on your 25 years as a bishop! Reading your recollections fascinated me, as well as left me stunned at the situations which Rome entrusted to your leadership. For what a life-long Kansan’s opinion is worth, whatever missteps that have been taken (and we in the laity seem to find it difficult to recognize that bishops err like the rest of us), it is evident to me that those in the Vatican, as well as the Holy Spirit, knew what they were doing when recommending you to the Pope at each stop!

    I hope and pray that God grants you good health and happiness and continues to strengthen your faith as you serve the people of Boston and the larger Church.

  7. Thank you for all that you do for the Archdiocese of Boston and for the Church. Many best wishes for you on this momentous anniversary. Pax et bonum!

  8. Congratulations on 25 years as Bishop! You are a blessing to our Church. What a lovely surprise to see two of my favorite people in one of your photos – Matt Manion and Bishop Jaime Soto. Wonderful leaders and men of faith. I found your recollection of your time as bishop refreshing and beautiful. Thank you for your sharing your journey with us.

  9. Cardinal Sean,

    Thank for sharing your experiances of the last twenty five years. You’ve certanly had a depth of diffrent experiances good and bad. Its to easy to foRget the suffering that can be brought by a few. Its good to a see a man like yourself being brought in to solve problems and remember the victims. Unfortunatly the problems in Boston have been repeated else where. Hopefully as a catholic community we have learned from the mistakes and that they wont be repeated.

    Thomas, Scotland, UK

  10. I wanted to let you know that I appreciate your good work. God Bless you. Keep helping us do good works. Keep us in prayer.

    Thank You!

  11. Cardinal Sean,

    God bless you on your 25 years as bishop! I have had the joy of having you as my bishop for most of my life (in Fall River and now in Boston) and I wanted to thank you for being a great shepherd for us all. Ad multos annos!

  12. Congratulations Cardinal O’Malley! Your story was filled with one surprise appointment after another and I truly enjoyed reading it.

    I also write because I thought you might be interested to know that my good friend Kevin Galiè, music director at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary, and organist at the Italian churches in the North End of Boston, will be performing a concert in Italy at the Capuchin Chiesa del Beato Bernardo di Offida on 20 August. He will be performing works by Padre Soler, and others, with an American string quartet.

    Enjoy the rest of your summer, and once again, enjoy this 25th anniversary.

    All best wishes,
    Kellie Gutman

  13. Querido Padre Seán, we are remembering you in our prayers with love and affection on your Silver Anniversary as Bishop. The prayer that it was said on your consecration as Bishop August 2, 1984, said it all: Lord our God, you have chosen your servant Seán to be shepherd of your flock in the tradition of the Apostles, give him a spirit of courage and right judgment, a spirit of knowledge and love by governing with fidelity those intrusted to his care may he build your Church as a sign of Salvation to the world, we ask this to our Jesus Christ your Son who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.
    And the one that you said to our Mother: Mary, Queen of the angels, Patroness of the Franciscan Family, Mary Queen of the Angels, 22 years ago (now 47) in Assisi I consecrated myself to you on this feast, 22 years later, I turn to you on the same feast and renew the consecration, I make your words my motto, do whatever He tells, you always direct us to Christ and challenges us to live His Gospel as you did, help me to be true to this motto and to faithfully serve your Son and His Church all the days in my life.

  14. congratulations on your25th anniversary! wishing you PEACE and God’s blessings@ PAX ET BONUM! ~tara t~

  15. God bless you Cardinal Sean! You have been an inspiring leader for our archdiocese; enjoy this celebration of your years of dedication to the Church. Lauren, St. Bonaventure Parish, Manomet

  16. Dear Cardinal Sean, Friar and Friend: Prayerful cogratulations on your Anniversary. This blog brought back many memories of times that I shared with you…Masses and baptisms in St. Thomas. Mass on St. John Vianney Day is for your intentions. I’m just beginning my 18th anniversary in Pocasset. Life here is AOK. God bless you always and in many ways! Bob

  17. Ad Multus Annos padre Sean! esta en mis oraciones junto con todos los feligreses que ha servido durante todo su ministerio.

  18. Cardinal Seán,

    Ad multos annos! Great reflection, shared with humour and conviction. Can’t ask for more or better than that. Long may you continue to share your Faith, passion and, I suspect, “Irish” sense of humour! Had the great pleasure of visiting Holy Cross and celebrating Mass there earlier in the month and of meeting Frs Kevin and Jonathan. Sadly you were away at the time. Certainly would have been great to have met you. Another time, please God. Mentioned to Fr Jonathan that Attymass, a parish in our diocese, is the birthplace of Fr Patrick Peyton – The Rosary Priest – whose cause for canonisation you began. This is the centenary of his birth so he’s especially remembered. Perhaps you might join us at some stage before the year ends??? (www.achonrydiocese.org)

    God Bless

    Vincent (Sherlock)

  19. In thanksgiving…
    for faith
    that leads to fearless love


    In praise
    of love
    that leads to fearless faith

    through Jesus Christ
    we pray to the Lord,

  20. Dear Eminence:
    Congratulations on celebrating your Silver Jubilee of your Episcopal Ordination. Thank you for the exemplary work you have done for the Archdiocese of Boston. I pray that God may continue to bless, guide, and protect you as you continue to shepherd the people of Boston.

    Respectfully Yours,

    John R. J. Lee
    South Boston

  21. Eminence, Thank you for sharing this most interesting story of your 25 years as a bishop. I will celebrate Mass in thanksgiving on Sunday at Our lady of Guadalupe Church in Doral. I enjoy your blog every week. Congratulations and many blessings on your ministry. Tomas Marin

  22. Thank you for sharing your reflection, it was a delight to read! Congratulations on your anniversary!

  23. Cardinal Sean;
    Greetings from Washington DC. I have admired you for so many years and enjoyed your reflection on 25 years as a Bishop.
    Boston is so very fortunate to have your service and our Church is so blessed by your deep humility.
    Peace and all good things.
    Tom Wilkey

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