Stephen Colbert may be—as he bragged in character last month at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner—"America's most famous Catholic." But he has serious competition for the title of most important Catholic in the United States. Until recently that distinction arguably belonged to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the powerful New York Archdiocese and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. When the charismatic Dolan's term wraps up next week at the bishops' annual meeting in Baltimore, however, all eyes will turn to a man in a simple brown cassock with a Santa beard and a direct line to the pope: Boston Cardinal Séan O'Malley.
In the months since Pope Francis's election, it's become clear that O'Malley is the closest thing to a papal BFF. He is the only North American member of the Cabinet that Francis formed to advise him. As the world knows by now, Francis does not hesitate to make full use of his cell-phone plan, making it possible for him to call O'Malley—and O'Malley to call him—without involving aides. But the two also email each other directly, resulting in an unprecedented level of communication and giving American Catholics a voice in this unusually collaborative papacy.
"No other popes have had close relationships with an American at that level," says Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. Schneck notes that Pope Paul VI had close ties to some lower-ranking Americans, such as now-Cardinal Justin Rigali, who served for a time as his English translator. "But to the best of my knowledge," he says, "there's nothing that compares to the very close relationship that Cardinal O'Malley has with Pope Francis."
One reason O'Malley and the pope have been in such close contact is that they speak the same language—literally. Unlike his predecessors, Francis isn't comfortable communicating in English; his first public use of English as pope didn't come until Oct. 18. This will make it harder for the pope to speak one-on-one with American prelates, as surprisingly few of them are fluent in Spanish or Italian. Even Dolan, who spent more than six years stationed in Rome, lacks real fluency in those languages.
O'Malley, however, not only speaks seven languages, he also has a Ph.D. in Spanish and Portuguese literature. In each of his posts, he has worked closely with local Hispanic communities, and even launched Washington's first Spanish-language newspaper, El Pregonero, when he headed the Hispanic Catholic Center in the capital. And it's more than just a matter of vocabulary. One of the least-appreciated aspects of the new pope is the extent to which he was formed by Latin America and not by the theologians who have held sway in American and European Catholic circles over the past few decades. O'Malley's first appointment as a bishop was in the Virgin Islands for nine years, and he has at times been closer to his Latin American colleagues than to his peers in the U.S.