Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien flies to Rome next month for a new job leading a global order of Catholic knights, a post that likely will lead to his elevation to cardinal, but which also begins his departure from the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Pope Benedict XVI named O'Brien, 72, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the Vatican announced Monday. The predominantly lay order, which traces its history to the 11th-century Crusades, now ministers to Christians and people of other faiths in historical Palestine.
Informed of the appointment by Benedict earlier this month, O'Brien said he accepted instantly, although he wrote the pope that it is with a "heavy heart that I will be departing the Premier See of the United States."
O'Brien, the spiritual leader of the area's half-million Catholics, will continue to serve here in the caretaker role of apostolic administrator until a successor is named — a process that could take as long as 18 months, an archdiocesan spokesman said.
Until then, O'Brien said, he will split his time between Baltimore and Rome, with other travels also possible.
The move makes O'Brien, who came to the archdiocese in 2007, the first of Baltimore's 15 archbishops who will not complete his career here. It officially ends his tenure as archbishop of the country's first Catholic diocese.
"The work of the diocese will be carried on," O'Brien told reporters at a news conference Monday. But while the archdiocese awaits his replacement, some decisions might have to be put on hold.
O'Brien said he will not be able to take actions "that would prejudice my successor." With tongue in cheek, he added, "I couldn't sell a church, or the Basilica," the grand, domed 19th-century Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which stands as the country's first cathedral.
O'Brien, who was installed as archbishop on October 1, 2007, will be empowered to ordain priests but will be sharply limited in his authority to move them around because they have "certain rights in canon law. It would put my successor in a difficult position."
But he could launch a fundraising campaign and take other actions that could potentially be reversed by his successor.
He said he would continue to be a forceful spokesman in Maryland on such issues as the legalization of same-sex marriage. He conveyed his opposition to gay marriage last month in a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley.
"There's no diminution of my own efforts and leverage in pursuing issues in the church and for the common good," O'Brien said.
Since coming to Baltimore, he has spoken out against capital punishment and nuclear weapons and in favor of a tax credit supporting donations to Catholic schools. He led a successful court challenge to a Baltimore City ordinance that required pregnancy clinics that oppose abortion and birth control to post signs saying they did not provide the services.
Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, called O'Brien a "vocal and passionate advocate in the public square."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a theologian at Georgetown University and former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said local Catholics shouldn't worry about the interregnum.
"The diocese will not come crashing down," Reese said. "I don't think it's anything anybody's going to notice. The emphasis is on no change. Canon law says 'steady as you go. Leave everything in place. Leave the pastors in place. Don't make any radical changes.'"
Reese said he was "confused by the whole appointment," not least because O'Brien is "going from a job with a 24-7 work schedule to one that's really part time." He said "this may be a way of making him a cardinal."
Pope Pius XII decreed in 1949 that the Grand Master of the order should be a cardinal. O'Brien is succeeding Cardinal John Patrick Foley of Philadelphia, who resigned in February due to poor health.
O'Brien said the tradition is that the Grand Master position is held by a cardinal, but it's not a guarantee. He said his elevation would depend on the decision of the next assembly of cardinals, or consistory, and it is not clear when that would take place.
Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, said the step up would move O'Brien "into the inner circle of Vatican cardinals who advise the pope. … He becomes a Vatican insider and can have significant influence."
But the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, cautioned about overstating that significance.
"If he becomes a cardinal, he will have more influence at the Vatican," McBrien wrote in an email. "But the increase will be modest. Cardinals are a dime a dozen — in the Vatican and beyond."
In the meantime, O'Brien takes the reins of an ancient order of knights that was established during the First Crusades in the late 11th century to guard sacred sites in the Holy Land, among them the places where Christ is believed to have been conceived, born, crucified and buried.
Today, the order is devoted chiefly to supporting schools, health care and humanitarian relief to the Holy Land, chiefly for Christians but also for members of other faiths. Accounts of membership vary from 18,000 to 23,000.
With 52 subdivisions, called lieutenancies, on five continents, the order pursues the Church's effort to ensure a continuing presence of Christians in the Holy Land, where they are a very small and often embattled minority.
In 2009, members donated more than $10 million to the Holy Land to support schools and humanitarian relief, according to the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
O'Brien, who has served since 2007 as a member of the Congregation for Catholic Education and Seminaries, said his appointment as Grand Master "does show the importance that the Holy Father gives to the Holy Land."
He said he got the word on Aug. 17 while on a visit to the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where he had served as rector from 1990 to 1994.
"The appointment came as a shock to me," he said. He was "minding my business," he said, when he received a call from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state.
Bertone spoke in Italian, a language in which O'Brien said "I can get by in the basics." The call lasted about three or four minutes.
"It was pretty direct," said O'Brien. "He said the Holy Father would like this, and I said 'Yes.'"
O'Brien said declining would have been an option if he did not feel he up to the job for health reasons. Otherwise, he said, he accepted the position about as quickly as he had taken the appointment as Baltimore archbishop when he was Archbishop for Military Services.
"They said then, 'Don't you want to pray on it or think about it?' If the Pope wants me to do it, I say 'Yes.'"
He said he'll fly out to Rome on Sept. 14 for 10 days "just to get the lay of the land."
Asked to reflect on the high and low points of his tenure, he said at the news conference that a high point was "getting to know this community … people have been nice and understanding."
He said he considered the restructuring of the archdiocesan school system that was announced last year a "high point," but acknowledged the turmoil and emotional impact of closing 13 of 64 schools and consolidating some others.
"I know the trauma it caused," O'Brien said. "I don't regret doing it, but I regret having to do it."
O'Brien emphasized when the reorganization was announced that the archdiocese had no choice but to make sweeping changes to save the school system in the face of falling enrollment, rising costs and mounting debt.
The decisions angered many parents and students, particularly those at Cardinal Gibbons School, which was among those that were ordered to close. Parents, students and alumni there said the archdiocese seemed indifferent to their concerns.
He said during the news conference he hoped he had been able to leave the archdiocese in better financial shape that it was four years ago, but he acknowledged that some employees were laid off and the organization has learned to "live on a very tight budget."
He said he regretted that he had ordained only seven priests in his four years and that he won't be able to complete the work of reorganizing parishes to cope with falling attendance at Mass and declining ranks of priests.
Such decisions would be up to his successor. For now, he said, "Know that I am always within reach until someone else is standing here. …Thank you and God bless you all."