The spiritual leader of Catholics serving in America's armed forces was announced yesterday as the 15th archbishop for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the nation's oldest Catholic diocese, founded in 1789.
Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, 68, head of the Archdiocese for Military Services, will succeed Cardinal William H. Keeler, 76, who last year reached the mandatory age of retirement for bishops. Last month, the cardinal underwent brain surgery to offset injuries suffered after a car accident in October.
The installation is slated for Oct. 1 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore. The archdiocese includes 517,679 Catholics in Baltimore and nine Maryland counties.
"I am humbled at being named shepherd of this historic premier see whose Catholic roots reach deep into our nation," Archbishop O'Brien said at a press conference at Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption.
He learned of his appointment on July 3 — 3:35 p.m., he told reporters — while working at his office near Catholic University of America. He had just sent other staff home early for the July Fourth holiday when he got a call from Monsignor Martin Krebs, charge d'affaires for the papal nuncio's office on Embassy Row.
"Are you alone?" the monsignor asked. When the archbishop said yes, Monsignor Krebs informed him of his new assignment.
"He said, 'Do you accept?' " the archbishop continued. "I said, 'Well, yes.' That's one thing you learn from the military. You accept orders."
Archbishop O'Brien described the news as "a thunderbolt," adding, "Why me? I don't know. I don't know. ... Maybe they were short of candidates. Only kidding."
Born on April 8, 1939, in the Bronx borough of New York, the archbishop grew up as "a Bronx Irish Catholic, a culture unto itself," he told reporters. Although none in his extended family was a priest or a nun, "There isn't a day in my life I haven't wanted to be a priest."
He was ordained in May 1965, for the Archdiocese of New York, then assigned as a parish priest and civilian chaplain at West Point. He stayed in the military chaplaincy until 1973, when he left for doctoral studies at the Angelicum in Rome. He then returned to New York, where he served in several posts around the archdiocese.
Between 1985 and 1996, he was rector of the North American College, an American seminary in Rome, and of St. Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y. His seminary experience led to his appointment in 2005 as head of an "apostolic visitation" of U.S. seminaries instituted by the Vatican in the wake of massive scandals involving sexual abuse by priests, mostly of male youths.
His 12 years in priestly formation, he said in response to a reporter's question, led him to believe that allowing homosexuals to enter the priesthood is not "a good idea."
In 1996, he was made an auxiliary bishop in New York. In 1997, he was named archbishop for military services. He spends about 60 percent of his time on the road visiting military installations and meeting with chaplains. His contacts there, he said, "will always occupy a special place in my heart."
In a Sept. 20, 2002, statement, he expressed reservations about pending U.S. involvement in Iraq and challenged the Bush administration to prove that removing Saddam Hussein was a justifiable act of self-defense.
Once the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, he told Catholic troops that they could fight in good conscience. About 375,000 Catholics are in uniform, and the archbishop for the military services also is responsible for more than 1 million other Catholics in that post, mostly family members of troops.