Baltimore's archdiocese, the oldest in the nation, can once again claim one of the highest-ranking members of the Roman Catholic Church as its leader.
"This is great cause for rejoicing for me and my friends," O'Brien said in a phone interview Friday while overlooking the dome of St. Peter's Basilica at the
O'Brien, 72, has been splitting his time between Rome and Baltimore since August, when he was appointed Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a position traditionally filled by a cardinal. The predominantly lay order, which dates to the Crusades, ministers to Christians and those of other faiths in historical Palestine.
"We don't get updates on the search for a successor," said Sean Caine, spokesman for the archdiocese. "That is ultimately the pope's decision."
After evening Mass on Friday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North
"It's fabulous and a well-deserved honor; he has been a big part of the church here," Lauman said. "It's great this honor comes while he is still in Baltimore."
Although O'Brien's future was expected to include the traditional cardinal's red hat, the archbishop said the timing of the announcement was a surprise. He was en route to the airport for a flight to Rome on Tuesday when he received a call from "the pope's No. 2 man," he said. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, gave him the news.
"I knew it would be sooner or later, but when it actually happened, it was very moving," O'Brien said. "You don't realize the layers of emotion building up under the surface."
The title gives O'Brien membership in the College of Cardinals, who advise the pope and elect his successor. Of the current 192 cardinals, 108 are under the age of 80 and thus eligible to vote in a papal election. A consistory, a formal meeting of the pope and cardinals, is set for Feb. 18 at the Vatican to formally elevate O'Brien and the other 21 newly designated cardinals, including one other American — New York
O'Brien predicted that the number of American cardinals will grow, given the nation's pool of young bishops. But "while anything is possible in God's grace," he said he doubts an American will be elected pope anytime soon. America's role as a leading world power and the contentious political climate surrounding social issues here could make it difficult for a priest from the U.S. to be chosen for the papacy.
Carolyn Woo, newly named president of Catholic Relief Services, which has its headquarters in Baltimore, had her first encounter with O'Brien this week, when she started her new job.
"He sent me a thank you and beautiful flowers in a truly warm, welcoming gesture," she said. "I am overjoyed that he will be a cardinal. He is such a man of faith as expressed by his actions and his pastoral engagement. … All Baltimore should be proud."
Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, has worked closely with O'Brien on a range of issues and said she has found him an accessible and warm-hearted leader.
"He has been an outspoken, prominent and passionate voice on immigration, repealing the death penalty, upholding the sanctity of marriage and is a strong pro-life advocate," she said. "He is truly an advocate for the dignity of the human person, from conception to death."
The chapel at the Cathedral was filled for Friday evening's Mass, and people were talking about O'Brien's elevation as they spilled out.
Barb Gaver of Mount Washington said she was touched by O'Brien's participation over the past several years in a noon service on
"I am so proud of our archbishop that he is now an assistant to Pope Benedict," she said.
O'Brien said his thoughts will remain with the Baltimore archdiocese. Though his tenure here is about to end, he will retain the title of archbishop emeritus of Baltimore, a deeply meaningful designation for him, he said.
"Baltimore is still my main preoccupation and will remain so until my successor is named, sometime before
The appointment pays homage to the archdiocese and its half-million Catholics.
"It is an honor to have this happen now, while he is still serving in Baltimore," Caine said.
O'Brien is the fourth Baltimore bishop, including his immediate predecessor,
"Cardinals often come from dioceses that have particular importance in the world church," said Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at
O'Brien, a New York native, was ordained in 1965 and frequently served as a military chaplain, including a stint in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne and as archbishop for military services for the 10 years before his arrival in Baltimore. For 18 of his 45 years in the priesthood, he was involved with the military, a duty he welcomed.
"We can all learn from the self-sacrifice of our military leaders and the kids in service," he said.
From the start of tenure here, the city with all its diverse faiths embraced him, he said.
"The city is not as solidly Catholic as it used to be, but there is still great enthusiasm and great respect for the church," he said.
His plan for consolidating the archidocese's schools strengthened the system overall, he said, but forced the closing of 13 schools, including Cardinal Gibbons High.
"That was difficult for me," he said. "In hindsight, I know some are still unforgiving."
O'Brien will be the first in the line of 15 Baltimore bishops that dates to 1789 who will not complete his career in the archdiocese. He will return to Baltimore by the end of the month and expects to remain in the city through the transition in leadership. After that, he said, he plans to be a frequent visitor but will be based in Rome.
His departure will be bittersweet, he said.
"Baltimore has made an indelible impression," he said. "It has been a great experience to lead a diocese as historic as this."