O'Brien indicates he'll mix it up a bit

October 02, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Now we're talking.

"Our city has been in crisis for decades," Baltimore's new archbishop, Edwin O'Brien, said shortly after his installation yesterday.

From using "our" in reference to his new city, to bluntly noting the drugs, violence and poverty that beset it, O'Brien sent off signals as loud and clear as the pealing church bells that ended his official induction as Baltimore's 15th Roman Catholic archbishop: This was a church leader who would not retreat behind the cathedral doors but would emerge to mix it up a bit.

Good for him. If it's not too sacrilegious, let me say to his Excellency, "Welcome to Baltimore, hon."

Speaking to a packed church that had gathered to see the new archbishop formally installed at the country's oldest Catholic diocese, O'Brien spoke directly to the political officials attending his first Mass - from Mayor Sheila Dixon to Gov. Martin O'Malley to Maryland U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin - and pledged to help them in "rebuilding this city."

Since O'Brien was named to the post in July, I'd been wondering what kind of a role he would play in town - would he be more like his predecessor, Cardinal William Keeler, who became known largely for working within his church as well as the larger ecumenical community, or would he be like one of his mentors, Cardinal John O'Connor, who used to jump into every public fray at the weekly news conferences he would hold on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral after Sunday Mass?

That remains to be seen, of course, but O'Brien - who noted the irony of the pope sending a son of the Bronx to lead the diocese of an American League East rival - seems as if he's going to be a presence beyond his own church.

"I want to be a good citizen ... and contribute to the common good," O'Brien said at a news conference yesterday when a reporter (OK, it was me) asked how active he planned to be in Baltimore's civic life.

"The church is not an island," he added, but declined, for the moment, to be more specific about the issues he would jump into.

"You'll get an earful in a little while," O'Brien promised, responding to a how-soon question from another reporter with a quick: "During the homily."

The man was good to his word. He did provide quite the earful as he gave a passionate assessment of what he believes is the church's role in combating the urban ills of drugs, poverty and violence. He seemed to draw inspiration from a predecessor, Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, lauding the 1960s-era Baltimore Catholic leader who testified before the City Council in support of open housing legislation, appealed to his priests to save their city and joined Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" March on Washington.

O'Brien urged his audience yesterday not to "write off large parts of the city as hopeless."

"We cannot allow this as a people, as a church," he said. "We cannot allow large parts of our city to die. We cannot allow thousands of our neighbors to live lives of hopelessness and despair. I have no master plan for urban revitalization. But I pledge to you today that this archdiocese will make every effort to ensure that the dream that animated Dr. King and so many others of us does not die."

The role that religion should play in public life is, of course, a hot one these days. I thought it was appalling when during the last presidential campaign some Catholic bishops said they would deny Communion to John Kerry because he supported abortion.

But it's another thing to speak out about a city, as opposed to an individual, and about broader issues like justice and poverty, rather than a Catholic politician's hewing to the Catholic Church's line.

Coincidentally, O'Brien's installation happened to take place on the day that a congressional subcommittee held a hearing in Baltimore where the subject also was how to combat the city's crime and drug problems. Ohio Rep. (and presidential aspirant) Dennis Kucinich and Baltimore Rep. Elijah Cummings heard from representatives from a number of drug-treatment and gang-intervention programs as well as city officials and judges.

The speakers I happened to hear noted some impressive successes - from keeping kids in school and away from gangs, to getting drug abusers into recovery programs. But they also said so much more needs to be done to combat Baltimore's seemingly bottomless problems of drugs and crime - and how they're luring ever-younger children into that kind of life.

There might have been a physical separation of church and state yesterday, with the congressional hearing taking place at the University of Maryland School of Law in downtown Baltimore while O'Brien's installation was up at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen about eight miles to the north. But it looks as if O'Brien might be on the same page as his secular counterparts when it comes to wanting to do something about what ails the city.


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