New home for a new archbishop

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien had barely moved in before he got orders to ship out.

The Archdiocese of Military Services opened its new headquarters in Washington in May, and the prelate still had boxes of books and mementos to unpack from a 42-year career as priest, seminary rector, military chaplain and close aide to two cardinals.

But there's no need to empty them now. O'Brien, whose appointment as the new archbishop of Baltimore was announced Thursday, will move into the residence at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Roland Park before his October installation.

O'Brien, 68, will replace Cardinal William H. Keeler, who has served 18 years in the post.

After a whirlwind introduction to Baltimore, the archbishop-delegate took some time away from congratulatory phone calls yesterday to expand on his views about issues as diverse as abortion, war and the priesthood.

As a traditional theologian with a military background, O'Brien will inherit a community with a history of liberal and antiwar Roman Catholic activism - including the Catonsville Nine, a group of clergy and laymen who burned records in a draft board office in 1968.

Maryland is also the home of several prominent elected Catholics, such as Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, both of whom support abortion rights.

O'Brien stated just before the 2004 elections that Catholic politicians who disregard the tenets of their faith should refrain from Communion, according to the Catholic News Service. That falls short of some other bishops who have said they would refuse Communion to politicians who differ with church teachings.

"I think our job is to educate, to persuade, and privately to work with individuals - if they believe that abortion is the taking of a human life - to do everything we can in a persuasive way to have them live that out," the archbishop said yesterday.

"If it got to a point where a serious scandal was being created, maybe it would be a point to go further and to deny [Communion]," he said.

"Even that should be done in a private manner and not in headlines," he said. "I would be very strong in speaking about the issue and challenging anyone with responsibility - Catholic or not - to respect life in all its stages."

Contrasting posts

The archdiocese O'Brien will lead numbers more than a half-million Catholics, with 200 priests, five Catholic hospitals, two seminaries and 151 parishes, including two cathedrals.

For the past decade, O'Brien has led a very different organization, spending up to two-thirds of the year on the road to minister to more than 1.4 million Catholic servicemen and women, their families and hospitalized veterans around the world.

According to news reports, O'Brien posed tough questions to the Bush administration before the March 2003 Iraq invasion, calling for an evaluation of the threat using Catholic "just-war" theory.

This means "establishing a set of rigorous conditions which must be met if the decision to go to war is to be morally permissible," according to American Catholic.org.

"I think the church's mission is to propose," O'Brien said yesterday. "John Paul II used to say the church proposes; it doesn't impose. I think that's the role we took when it came to the Iraqi war - these are the principles; hold yourself up to them."

O'Brien said he will focus on getting to know the priests of his new archdiocese, which covers nine Maryland counties and the city of Baltimore.

Unconventional

The archbishop said he was inspired to enter the seminary by the example of his parish priests in New York. Even so, he has never served as a conventional parish priest - although chaplains are pastors under canon law.

"The main task of a pastor is to bring people together, to celebrate with them and share the sacraments," he said. "Wherever I've been, I've tried to do that."

The only U.S. bishop to have served as rector of two seminaries, O'Brien will be chancellor of both St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore and Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg.

While he led the Pontifical North American College in Rome, he established rules that included a curfew and mandatory morning and evening prayers.

"People were coming in at all hours, and that's not formation," he said. Priestly formation is the formal term for the overall process that leads to ordination.

He said the strict rules emerged from an examination of education for priests that Pope John Paul II had begun in the 1980s. Seminaries had lowered academic standards in the 1970s, allowing any college graduate to begin studying theology, even if he had not taken philosophy.

"Most seminaries took stock and said, 'Hey, we have drifted too far. We've got to set some standards,'" he said.

After sex abuse scandals began to rock the church in 2002, O'Brien led a Vatican review of seminaries looking for evidence of homosexuality and other issues.

"Because of the sex scandals, the Holy See and the American bishops said, 'Let's try it again and see how we are approaching formation for celibacy.'"

His soon-to-be vacated offices in Washington include a sitting room that overlooks the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception near Catholic University. The space is decorated with souvenirs from military installations and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he served as a chaplain for five years.

He also has photos of his past and current auxiliary bishops, former New York archbishop Cardinal John O'Connor and Archbishop Tim Dolan of Milwaukee,.

During a tour of the building, the archbishop genuflected upon entering the private chapel on the floor where he and other priests live. O'Brien said he loved the chapel in the military archdiocese's former location in John Paul II Cultural Center, so the archdiocese tried to retain as many of its elements as possible.

The dark wood paneling was transported from that site, along with the wooden door. The front of the tabernacle, where the Eucharist is stored, is modeled after an image of Jesus that O'Brien spotted on an 11th-century church door in northern Italy.

When he moves to Baltimore, he will be the first archbishop to live at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Roland Park, which was built during the 1950s. Cardinal Keeler and his predecessors have had quarters at the Basilica of the Assumption downtown.

Usually, archbishops are installed within 60 days of the announcement of their appointment. But O'Brien said it was so difficult to schedule this transition during the summer that the Congregation of Bishops agreed to allow more time.

The installation will take place Oct. 1, the feast day of one of O'Brien's spiritual heroes: the French Saint Therese of Lisieux, also known as the "Little Flower."

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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