Sunday, January 12, 2003

Good piece from the Globe on the lessons of Cardinal William O'Connell of Boston, whose episcopate ran from 1907-1944

But even as he exerted this public influence, O'Connell was concealing a scandal. In the 1910s, his priest-nephew and another priest of his household were secretly married to women in Boston and New York, and they were embezzling money from the archdiocese to support their double lives. O'Connell knew of this but failed for seven years to do anything about it until he was forced by Rome to remove the two from the priesthood in 1920. Boston's priests, other American bishops, and some local politicians had known the story, but deference to the cardinal's authority left them reluctant to go public with the story. Ordinary parishioners never learned of the underside of local church administration. The city's newspapers-it's not clear how much they actually knew-were unwilling to take on the leader of the region's largest church: With a word from him, circulation might drop overnight. After Rome cracked down, O'Connell continued to exercise power locally, but his authority within the national and global church itself was finished. Not until the 1980s did the full story come to light, thanks to the opening of archives in the Vatican and elsewhere.

The parallels between Cardinal O'Connell and Cardinal Law are striking, but they are of more than purely historical interest. O'Connell set in motion trends whose logical conclusion was Law. How the archbishop defined his role in the wider Boston community; how that community, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, viewed him; how an expanding Vatican influence came to outweigh local interests in choosing leaders-the patterns established after O'Connell came to Boston in 1907 remained fixed for nearly 100 years. Law's resignation, following a year of growing outcry from the Catholics of Boston, holds out the hope that the "O'Connell Century" in Boston may also have come to end. Whoever Cardinal Law's successor turns out to be, he may have the chance to move in a different, more positive direction.

At the heart of the problem was the procedure by which Catholic bishops were chosen during the O'Connell Century. Changes in that procedure came from Rome, but O'Connell knew how to take advantage of them, and he showed other American churchmen how to do the same.

Contrary to what many people assume, the appointment of church leaders was not always the sole prerogative of the pontiff. As late as 1870, a mere handful of the several hundred bishops in the world were chosen unilaterally by the pope. In most places, including the United States, the pope's role was largely to select leaders from lists prepared by local pastors and neighboring bishops. This appointment system took account of local needs and knowledge, and it produced churchmen who were intimately connected to their own people. In Boston, this system had worked wonderfully well. John Fitzpatrick (bishop 1846-1866) was a graduate of Boston Latin School, admired as much by Adamses and Lawrences as by the Irish immigrants who flooded into the city. John Williams (archbishop 1866-1907) had spent years in parish work, though he was also a capable and shrewd manager. Indeed, Williams was the last archbishop of Boston who combined competent administrative skills with fundamental decency in addressing problems. His successors have possessed one trait or the other, but never both.

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