O'Brien becomes Catholic cardinal Saturday

New cardinal Edwin Frederick O'Brien (C) archbishop of Baltimore receives the biretta cap from Pope Benedict XVI.
New cardinal Edwin Frederick O'Brien (C) archbishop of Baltimore receives the biretta cap from Pope Benedict XVI. (Franco Origlia, Getty Images)

Even as he prepared in Rome for the weekend ceremony that will elevate him to cardinal, Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien vigorously lobbied for political issues important to the Roman Catholic Church — a hallmark of his five-year stint here.

The vocal 72-year-old O'Brien — who has been the spiritual leader of Catholics in Baltimore and nine surrounding counties — has sparred with the likes of President Barack Obama and top Maryland lawmakers. He didn't always succeed, but he pressed on, as he has on a number of highly charged issues.

Last month, O'Brien decried a proposed federal regulation from the Obama administration that would have required Catholic hospitals and universities, among other institutions, to provide employee health insurance that covered contraception.

In recent days, the O'Brien went head-to-head with Gov. Martin O'Malley, a fellow Catholic, over the elected leader's support for legalizing same-sex marriage. O'Brien called several state lawmakers from Rome, urging them to oppose the measure, in the hours before a crucial Friday night vote moved the measure closer to becoming law.

And in one of his most criticized moves locally, O'Brien made the budget-minded decision to close 13 Catholic schools in the spring of 2010, frustrating students and parents.

"He's certainly not afraid to take a stance," said Dan Schuster, owner of an Owings Mills concrete construction company who tangled with O'Brien over the school closings. "You talk to him for five minutes, and you know where he stands."

Despite their differences, Schuster and others expressed respect for O'Brien.

"He a strong and compassionate person," said Schuster. "I think a lot of him."

O'Brien became a cardinal early Saturday in a ceremony at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Last summer, he was appointed Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, an ancient association that ministers in historical Palestine.

Pope Benedict XVI could name his successor in Baltimore as early as March, O'Brien said last month. He has been traveling between Rome and Baltimore, working two jobs since August, and did not respond to interview requests for this article.

The field is wide open for the 16th archbishop of Baltimore, who will oversee a flock of roughly 500,000 people — about 8 percent of the state's population, according to Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based blogger on Catholic issues.

The man who assumes O'Brien's role as apostolic administrator of the nation's oldest archdiocese will be taking on a position that garners deference from other U.S. archbishops, according to Vatican law.

More than 100 parishioners from the Archdiocese of Baltimore have made the pilgrimage to the Vatican to witness O'Brien and 21 other men, including New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, become cardinals.

The pope's creation of the cardinals, who act as special advisers to the pontiff and are eligible to participate in the election of a new pope until age 80, is set to take place at 4:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Receptions for pilgrims are scheduled following the consistory ceremony, and a Mass of celebration is planned for Sunday morning.

A public figure

O'Brien, a New York native who was ordained in 1965 and frequently served as a military chaplain, will become the fourth archbishop in the Archdiocese of Baltimore's 223-year history to ascend to the rank of cardinal. He is the first Baltimore bishop to not complete his career in the archdiocese.

Palmo, who has sources in the Holy See and broke the news of O'Brien's new appointment, said the O'Brien's strong leadership style likely contributed to his elevation and transfer to Rome, where he is expected to take on additional assignments for the pope.

"O'Brien's always been given sensitive assignments by the Vatican," Palmo said, pointing to O'Brien's role as the head of an in-depth study into all U.S. seminaries, to root out the potential origins of child abuse by Catholic clergy.

"I wouldn't be surprised if O'Brien were called in as a troubleshooter for the Vatican, in addition to his day job," Palmo said.

The U.S. seminary assignment led O'Brien to make one of his most controversial statements, that homosexuals should not be allowed to become priests, in 2005.

During his time as Baltimore's archbishop, O'Brien continued making strong statements, even if they were unpopular with certain segments of the population, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

"My sense is that he was someone who was very willing to use public media to make clear the point of view of the church on controversial issues," said the Rev. John J. Conley, a philosophy and theology professor at Loyola University Maryland. Many bishops choose quieter, more insular tactics, communicating their messages from the pulpit and through Catholic publications, he said.

O'Brien has frequently appeared in the press, including writing opinion pieces in The Baltimore Sun, to make the Church's position known: opposing the death penalty, arguing for humane immigration practices, and advocating for the continued religious ownership of St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, among other issues.

He testified in Annapolis in support of tax credits to aid Catholic schools and filed a federal lawsuit to try to block a Baltimore law that requires pregnancy counseling centers to post signs stating that they do not refer women for abortions or birth control. The law was voided by a federal judge last year, and the ruling is being appealed.

O'Brien has put the Catholic Church's positions at the forefront of political debate in Maryland even as his time here is winding down. This month, O'Brien said in a strongly worded letter that the archdiocese would not submit to a federal law that required religiously affiliated institutions to offer birth control coverage, even it means dropping health insurance for its 3,500 employees.

"We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law," O'Brien wrote in the letter, which was read during Sunday Mass at the area's 153 Roman Catholic parishes. The Department of Health and Human Services regulation was later revised to require insurance companies to make birth control available at no cost to religious employers that object to contraception.

Then, on Thursday, O'Brien called from Rome to speak with state delegates to persuade them to vote against O'Malley's Civil Marriage Protection Act.

Shuttering schools

About halfway through his stint in Baltimore, O'Brien confronted one of his most difficult issues. In the face of rising costs and declining enrollment, the Baltimore Archdiocese decided in March 2010 to close 13 schools, including Cardinal Gibbons in Morrell Park, a storied West Baltimore high school. The move displaced more than 2,000 students.

"The archbishop really didn't have a choice in the matter," Schuster said Friday, reflecting on his interactions with O'Brien after the closure announcement. Schuster vigorously opposed the closures, and went so far as to buy radio ads telling Catholics not to make donations to their parish's collection plate on Easter Sunday.

Schuster offered the archdiocese $700,000 in order to continue the operation of some of the schools, an offer O'Brien declined. But the two men arrived at a compromise: Busing students to nearby Catholic schools that remained open.

Schuster, who said he is paying about half the cost of the busing program, is pleased with the result. Roughly a quarter of the students at closed schools continued at Catholic institutions by using the bus program.

Though their relationship started off tense, Schuster came to appreciate O'Brien's leadership. He has since promoted the busing program in radio ads.

Jay Dillow, who said his family has generations of history with Baltimore's Catholic school system, was left with a different feeling about O'Brien's leadership style after the closure of Cardinal Gibbons.

"I drive by the building weekly … and seeing the facility not being used is tough," said Dillow, who launched a small nonprofit after hearing that the school was slated to be closed. He and other Gibbons boosters gathered funds to preserve the school's history and offer scholarships, and one day they hope to reopen the building.

Dillow said O'Brien didn't meet with his group. When Dillow met with archdiocese staffers about the Gibbons closure, he said: "We were just told the archbishop said so and that's how it was going to be."

Even now, almost two years since the closure, the archdiocese has been tight-lipped about the future of the Gibbons property.

The way it was handled "causes people to question that faith and belief structure," Dillow said of Gibbons' closure. As a result, he said, he sees fewer people in the pews on Sunday.

Dillow's main hope for O'Brien's successor is a willingness to engage in open dialogue with members of the archdiocese.