After last week's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., many people are turning to spiritual leaders for guidance.
One of those leaders is Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston. WBUR's Bob Oakes spoke with him Thursday, for a wide-ranging interview.
Bob Oakes: After the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, you called for tighter gun control and better care for people with mental illness. Why did you feel it was important to take a public stance on this?
Cardinal Sean O'Malley: I think this terrible incident that took place is at the same time a call to all of us to try and prevent this kind of tragedy from taking place in the future, and if we look at the root causes, obviously the situation of guns in this country and the lack of adequate care for people with a mental illness are part of the reasons that this took place.
It certainly seems you and the archdiocese have been getting more involved in politics recently. In the past election, the church here worked successfully to defeat ballot Question 2, which would have legalized physician assisted suicide. You were recently named the pro-life chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, giving you a national position to shape the agenda. What do you plan to do with that position?
Obviously the church's first responsibility is to teach the faith. In the initiative here in Massachusetts, we were involved with a very broad coalition. Our first task is one of education, of helping people to understand the church's teachings on these issues. We don't see the life issues as simply being Catholic doctrine, but a matter of human rights. And therefore something that everyone needs to be aware of and concerned about.
Does it feel odd though, especially here in Massachusetts, that you're involved in politics or political issues when in 1980, a Massachusetts congressman, Father Robert Drinan, was essentially ordered out of Congress by Pope Paul II, who said that ordained priests had to stay out of political matters.
Well, I would certainly distinguish between partisan politics or running for office or supporting an individual candidate, and trying to teach people on ethical and moral and social issues. I think that is a very important contribution that the church needs to make to the public discourse.
One of the big changes ahead for Catholics in the Boston Archdiocese is the plan to group parishes into clusters that share resources and share priests. Why do you think this is the best way for the archdiocese to respond to the challenges of declining church attendance and fewer men entering the priesthood?
Well, actually right now the seminary is filled, we're very pleased that vocations are on the rise. But we have a situation where we have a lot of pastors who are up for retirement and we need to be able to serve all of the parishes.
We're trying to train and prepare our personnel to become involved in what we called evangelization — outreach. Because we know that there are un-churched and inactive Catholics who are out there who we would like to invite to be a part of our worshiping community
It's been a major focus for you to try and make things right in the Boston Archdiocese — heal people — especially since 2002 after the clergy sex abuse scandal came to light. Under your leadership, the archdiocese has started an ad campaign here in the Boston area and you've taken to blogging and tweeting. Do you think you're bringing people back, is attendance turning around?
In some places it is, and a lot depends on the local leadership of the parishes. Traditionally where people just came to church and for the sacraments, the priest's role was much different. And as I tell the priests, maintenance is very important but it's not enough and part of the pastoral plan is that each cluster will, within a year, come up with their own plan as to how they're going to do this evangelization — how they're going to promote vocations, how they're going to reach the youth, what they're doing to make sure that the shut-ins and others and all the different demographics in a parish are being served. And we think that will help.
Do you sense that that healing has begun?
I do. I think that it has begun, I think that the effects of the crisis will always be with us and we need to be vigilant and be constantly redoubling our efforts to assure the safety of children in our care. But we're anxious to work also with other organizations who are trying to face the same problems.
I think that we have carried on training of thousands of people and screenings and education process with all of the children in our Catholic schools and the 150,000 in the CCD classes and I think that a lot has been done. We're working with a review board that is made up of volunteers — not all Catholics, some victims of sexual abuse — who are constantly reviewing what were doing and our policies and so we see this as a very important part of our ministry.
This article was originally published on December 21, 2012.