The Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Washington, D.C. – which this year celebrates its 175th anniversary – is not only the official seat of the Archbishop of Washington and at the center of decades of Catholic history in the nation’s capital, but it is also a place that remains close to the heart of Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
Cardinal O’Malley, who served at the cathedral from the years before his 1970 priestly ordination until his assignment as coadjutor bishop of the Virgin Islands in 1984, spoke to hundreds of St. Matthew’s parishioners on April 26. The cardinal’s talk was part of a series of special events during the year to mark the cathedral’s anniversary.
Known affectionately as “Padre Sean” in those days, Cardinal O’Malley recalled fond memories of his early years as a seminarian and then a priest at the cathedral, where he mainly served and ministered to the archdiocese’s growing Latino Catholic population. During his talk, the cardinal wove both humorous and poignant anecdotes from his time in residence at St. Matthew’s around his reflections on the significance of such a sacred urban space in the Church and the world today.
“Cathedrals have a special presence of God in a city, ” he said. “Fifty years ago, this was a very important place in my life, especially the 20 years I spent as friar, deacon and priest.”
Cardinal O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston since 2003, was appointed by Pope Francis in 2013 to the Council of Cardinals that serve as special advisors to the Holy Father with regard to the organization of the curia in Rome. Last year, the pontiff named Cardinal O’Malley, a professed Capuchin Franciscan since 1965, to the newly established Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Describing some historical events in the 1960s as “unforgettable moments” of his time at the cathedral, the cardinal recalled the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, how the city erupted in flames from riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the tensions between dissident priests and Washington Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle after the release of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical affirming the Church’s teaching against artificial birth control. He also praised Cardinal O’Boyle as a pioneer of the civil rights movement for his work to desegregate Catholic schools before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision to end segregation in public schools.
He remembered other events including a bomb scare that forced him out of the confessional one afternoon, an assassination threat against the priests that was left in the poor box and other protests during a turbulent era, as well as the Mass celebrated there by Pope John Paul II in 1979.
Following his priestly ordination, Cardinal O’Malley said he was almost sent permanently to Easter Island in the South Pacific until Cardinal O’Boyle stepped in and begged “Padre Sean’s” Franciscan superior to allow him to remain in Washington, D.C., since the cardinal needed him as the archdiocese’s only Spanish-speaking priest at the time.
The Cathedral of St. Matthew, named for the apostle who was a civil servant, contains many beautiful works of art and architecture that “raise our minds to God,” said the cardinal, pointing out the mosaics, the Stations of the Cross and the burial place of the former archbishops of Washington Cardinals O’Boyle and James Hickey.
“Cathedrals are places of worship for the glory of God, a New Jerusalem that conveys a sense of heaven and beauty that leads us to God,” he said. “...There is much that is broken and chaotic (in the world), but the Church is a place of beauty and splendor.”
Echoing the words of Pope Francis, Cardinal O’Malley stressed that St. Matthew’s has always been a “field hospital” that heals the spiritual wounds by offering mercy and forgiveness, especially in the “emergency room” of the confessional.
He said during his time at the cathedral his eyes were first opened to the plight of the immigrants, who have always turned to the Church as a spiritual family. St. Matthew’s Cathedral also became an oasis for the mentally ill and homeless who have long sought refuge and aid there. Msgr. John Kuhn, a former pastor of the cathedral who served during then-Father O’Malley’s tenure there, was remembered by the cardinal for his heroic work in founding Anchor Mental Health, which has offered services for the mentally ill since 1958 and is now part of the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities.
Along with its tremendous history, Cardinal O’Malley said the cathedral has long been a witness to those who are marginalized in society by bringing the light of Christ to Washington, D.C.
“This is the house of the Good Shepherd that exists to gather the scattered into a community,” he said. “(This is) a field hospital of people filled with a faith who are motivated to go out and care for the sick...May all people who come here experience the joy of reconciliation and discover how much God loves them...Happy birthday St. Matthew’s.”