Archbishop Edwin O’Brien said he was shocked to learn he had been named to lead an ancient Catholic order in the Holy Land, a move he said shows the importance Pope Benedict XVI places on the order’s mission.
The Vatican said Monday that O’Brien will be grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. The order supports schools, health institutions and a variety of basic needs for the poorest people of all faiths in the region, O’Brien said.
“To remove a resident bishop of a major archdiocese to a task such as this shows the priority that the Holy Father has, and I better have in my life,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said he was in a daze for two days after learning Aug. 17 of the appointment, having thought he had found a permanent home in Baltimore. O’Brien said he was in Rome when he received a telephone call informing him of the pope’s decision.
“Anyone I spoke to here on the staff would know that I wasn’t myself, it really took some getting used to,” O’Brien said.
However, the appointment “does show the importance that the Holy Father holds of the importance of the presence of the church in the Holy Land,” O’Brien said. “We’re diminishing in numbers every year, there are some misunderstandings among various faith groups there, and the Holy Father wants to assure everyone in the Holy Land of his support and his desire that peace will be brought about and to see that the good work that can be done will be done.”
The Vatican said O’Brien will replace retiring Cardinal John Foley in the post, which previously has carried with it the rank of cardinal, meaning 72-year-old O’Brien might get a red hat when the pope next appoints cardinals.
A replacement for O’Brien in Baltimore hasn’t been announced, and the archbishop said he would perform both roles until his replacement was selected, splitting his time between Rome and Baltimore along with travel to Holy Land.
O’Brien has been archbishop in Baltimore since 2007, serving previously for 10 years as head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services. He has also served as a chaplain at the United States Military Academy in West Point, at Fort Bragg and in Vietnam. Ordained as a priest in 1965, O’Brien has also served as rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York and at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
The archbishop said when he was appointed to the Baltimore post that he was leaving the military post with mixed emotions, saying the service had taught him much. However, O’Brien has not been shy to speak out on military matters, saying recently that United States should work toward a world free of nuclear weapons.
He also has spoken out against legalizing gay marriage in Maryland and presided over the closing of Catholic schools in the archdiocese. When asked about his tenure in Baltimore, O’Brien said school closings and dealing with layoffs and financial restructuring were the toughest challenges. O’Brien said school closings were very difficult because of the impact they had on students and families.
“I don’t regret doing it, but I regret having to do it,” O’Brien said.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore, established in 1789, was the first Catholic diocese in the United States. It covers the city of Baltimore and the counties of Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, Harford, Howard and Washington.