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A shepherd's trials

When Sean Patrick O'Malley was summoned last July to confront a widening abuse scandal in the Catholic Church's Boston Archdiocese, the genial Franciscan put on the archbishop's mantle and walked into an inferno.

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He joined the religious order as a teenager because he wanted to become a missionary. Sent off to Easter Island during theological training, he worked happily among the Rapa Nui people and indulged his passion for learning languages. It seemed a fulfilling start to a life already committed, in the model of St. Francis of Assisi, to living simply and building a spiritual community.

But it wasn't to be. Sean Patrick O'Malley never got his dream posting in Papua New Guinea, and today he holds the biggest job in the troubled US Roman Catholic Church - at perhaps the most critical moment in its history.

By all accounts, he's still the humble friar with a thirst for prayer and a clear sense of mission, but after several jobs bearing increased responsibility, he's been thrust into a demanding role played out under a merciless spotlight.

"Being Archbishop of Boston," he recently wrote in the diocesan newspaper, The Pilot, "is like living in a fishbowl made out of magnifying glass."

When the pope named O'Malley archbishop a year ago, Boston's Catholic community was dispirited and alienated by the sexual-abuse scandal that had dragged on for 1-1/2 years without sign of progress. Addressing that crisis, which had undermined the moral authority of the American church, was O'Malley's urgent priority.

But he was soon embroiled, too, in the clamor around the Massachusetts court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. And then, another layer: The shifting fortunes of the Boston Archdiocese made it imperative, he decided, to move quickly with the largest "reconfiguration" of parishes yet seen in the US, a plan that will close some 60 churches by the end of 2004.

"Archbishop O'Malley has taken the people of Boston on an emotional roller coaster," says James Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based national lay organization.

One year after his arrival, O'Malley has shown a decisiveness that those who know him call very much in character. But while aspects of his performance have been hailed by both laity and clergy, that decisiveness has also stirred strong emotions in its wake - particularly with regard to the ongoing parish closings.

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