Cardinal recalls powerful, prayerful conclave

In February 2012, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, was elevated to the cardinalate. Just a little more than a year later, the Bronx native, who has also served as auxiliary bishop of New York, archbishop for the Military Services, USA, and archbishop of Baltimore, found himself in the Sistine Chapel as one of the 115 cardinals participating in the March 12-13 conclave.  

During a March 16 interview in Rome, Cardinal O’Brien spoke to OSV Publisher Greg Erlandson and to OSV Associate Publisher Msgr. Owen F. Campion about his experience with the conclave, his thoughts on Pope Francis and how the new pontiff can renew the Church. 

Our Sunday Visitor: Now that the conclave is over, can you discuss your feelings as a bishop, a priest and a believer about being in the body of cardinals that elected our new pope? 

Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien: It was a great honor and a great responsibility. People keep asking me as we led up to the conclave, “How do you feel?” I said, “Maybe I’m suppressing it, but I’ll know it when it happens.” But once I got in there and once those doors were closed, it was a very, very powerful symbol of the gravity of the moment. I didn’t realize how much emotional energy those days cost until the day after, when I was just exhausted. [Inside] you are totally concentrated every waking moment on listening and on conversing — wherever you are, wherever you go, that is the only thing you have on your mind. It is a rare happenstance in one’s life to be totally isolated and confronted with one major question, that of who among us is worthy and up to the role of pope.  

OSV: How much was the experience one of prayer? 

Cardinal O’Brien: I was very impressed by the prayerfulness. Before each session you would go into the chapel and see these cardinals kneeling very silently and intently — any time you went to the chapel, in fact. So many would be going from one place to another with a little rosary wheel or something. There is a conviction that this is going to be the Lord’s work.  

And you just have to open up the prayer channels so that as we speak to him, he can speak to us. And I think that is just what happened.  

OSV: When it was clear that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would be elected, what was going through your head? 

Cardinal O’Brien: I was thinking of him. I didn’t know him at that moment. But at age 76, looking forward to retirement, and realizing the burden when he stood out there on the loggia motionless after he appeared to the public, all I could think of was the phrase used in the reading today — He was led like a lamb to the slaughter — because it is not going to be fun. But he has been a man so dedicated, so single-purposed, he doesn’t look for diversions or for opportunities for himself. I think his commitment as an archbishop and before that as a superior was single-hearted. At age 76, if anything is going to encourage him and give him strength, it is that reserve that he has built up over the years. 

OSV: You’ve served as a pastor of a large archdiocese. Pope Francis is following a pope who was a writer, a scholar and a member of Curia. Do you have hopes for how he will lead, given his practical and pastoral experience? 

Cardinal O’Brien: I think he’s bound to have a sense of empathy with the problems of parishioners in the pews, in their personal lives, in their family lives, in their worries and concerns. Every day he had to be immersed in the problems of [the poor] — when he says the poor, I think he means more than just the economically poor, it is those who are lacking meaning in their lives, those who are lacking companionship and community. I think that that’s going to come through, not only with his homilies and who he is going to appoint, but I think it is going to come through in approaching some pastoral problems as well. He certainly heard in the general congregations some very good practical advice. Some concerns on the part of others who were or who had been pastors were to see if the Church can’t address them in a fresh way. Not that anyone would suggest that we would reform our teaching on marriage or divorce or the human life issues or family issues. We don’t reform the doctrine. But is there some kind of pastoral approach that can be nuanced so that doctrine is salvaged and human souls are encouraged? 

OSV: People talk about reform of the Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, as a top priority for Pope Francis.  

Cardinal O’Brien: He’s got to address it. Reform is a word open to many soft and harsh interpretations. It doesn’t mean firing people. It doesn’t mean radical change of structure, though it could. I think there are things that can be supplemented that are not there now that would bring greater harmony into the Curia’s approach to questions that are of interest to the pope, that could bring great communications among themselves and with the pope and with the bishops, which would put them in greater contact with local hierarchies.  

Some things are there already. The ad limina visits are wonderful and so encouraging. Everyone said that, and on the Curia’s behalf too. But what other institutions can be formulated to accomplish what those ad limina visits are accomplishing with the relationship with the Curia and the local churches? 

OSV: Do you have an example of what you’ve thought about? 

Cardinal O’Brien: I do. I’m not sure where the general congregations left off and where I start, but the synod is a great thing. After all this experience that we’ve had with synods as far as membership, as far as topics discussed, as far as the rules guiding the synod, that has to be looked at. I think we have enough experience and enough good will to make synods more responsive to the pastoral needs of the Church, more helpful to the pope. And other collegial groups: Every country has a conference of bishops. How well utilized are the heads of bishops’ conferences? 

OSV: Reform of the Curia is one thing. But renewal of the Church? Where does the renewal begin? 

Cardinal O’Brien: We have had many inspired and prophetic documents on the role of the Church in the world. I think now it’s time, it’s the right time, for a pontiff to make a primary effort to put those theories, those pastoral insights into practice. He’s been doing it, I’m sure, with great effectiveness in Buenos Aires, and that experience will be very helpful in leading him to a practical and pastoral application of the Church’s teachings in the universal Church. 

OSV: What are three priorities that you think he has to confront? 

Cardinal O’Brien: He speaks of poverty — a more effective approach to those who are on the edges of society economically and otherwise. 

I think of the Lord’s words to Peter: Strengthen the brethren. I think that a lot of the local Churches are discouraged, and he as the chief shepherd is also shepherd of the shepherds. I think he will make an effort to involve the bishops in sharing the Church’s responsibilities, encouraging them to persevere in their mission despite the sometimes very stormy and hostile atmosphere that many bishops are working with.  

I think the unity of the Church: He has had a good relationship with the Eastern Church. [Patriarch Bartholomew I of] Constantinople is coming here [to celebrate his installation], which is quite unusual. But he has had responsibility for Eastern Catholic Churches [as archbishop of Buenos Aires], and I think that there could be room for a major step forward in ecumenism if once again the Holy Spirit acts in as unexpected a way, as he has done this week. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher. Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.