O'Brien is a cardinal

New cardinal Edwin Frederick O'Brien (C) archbishop of Baltimore receives the biretta cap from Pope Benedict XVI. (Franco Origlia, Getty Images / February 18, 2012)

Even as he prepared in Rome for the weekend ceremony that will elevate him to cardinal, Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien vigorously lobbied for political issues important to the Roman Catholic Church — a hallmark of his five-year stint here.

The vocal 72-year-old O'Brien — who has been the spiritual leader of Catholics in Baltimore and nine surrounding counties — has sparred with the likes of President Barack Obama and top Maryland lawmakers. He didn't always succeed, but he pressed on, as he has on a number of highly charged issues.

Last month, O'Brien decried a proposed federal regulation from the Obama administration that would have required Catholic hospitals and universities, among other institutions, to provide employee health insurance that covered contraception.

In recent days, the O'Brien went head-to-head with Gov. Martin O'Malley, a fellow Catholic, over the elected leader's support for legalizing same-sex marriage. O'Brien called several state lawmakers from Rome, urging them to oppose the measure, in the hours before a crucial Friday night vote moved the measure closer to becoming law.

And in one of his most criticized moves locally, O'Brien made the budget-minded decision to close 13 Catholic schools in the spring of 2010, frustrating students and parents.

"He's certainly not afraid to take a stance," said Dan Schuster, owner of an Owings Mills concrete construction company who tangled with O'Brien over the school closings. "You talk to him for five minutes, and you know where he stands."

Despite their differences, Schuster and others expressed respect for O'Brien.

"He a strong and compassionate person," said Schuster. "I think a lot of him."

O'Brien became a cardinal early Saturday in a ceremony at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Last summer, he was appointed Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, an ancient association that ministers in historical Palestine.

Pope Benedict XVI could name his successor in Baltimore as early as March, O'Brien said last month. He has been traveling between Rome and Baltimore, working two jobs since August, and did not respond to interview requests for this article.

The field is wide open for the 16th archbishop of Baltimore, who will oversee a flock of roughly 500,000 people — about 8 percent of the state's population, according to Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based blogger on Catholic issues.

The man who assumes O'Brien's role as apostolic administrator of the nation's oldest archdiocese will be taking on a position that garners deference from other U.S. archbishops, according to Vatican law.

More than 100 parishioners from the Archdiocese of Baltimore have made the pilgrimage to the Vatican to witness O'Brien and 21 other men, including New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, become cardinals.

The pope's creation of the cardinals, who act as special advisers to the pontiff and are eligible to participate in the election of a new pope until age 80, is set to take place at 4:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Receptions for pilgrims are scheduled following the consistory ceremony, and a Mass of celebration is planned for Sunday morning.

A public figure

O'Brien, a New York native who was ordained in 1965 and frequently served as a military chaplain, will become the fourth archbishop in the Archdiocese of Baltimore's 223-year history to ascend to the rank of cardinal. He is the first Baltimore bishop to not complete his career in the archdiocese.

Palmo, who has sources in the Holy See and broke the news of O'Brien's new appointment, said the O'Brien's strong leadership style likely contributed to his elevation and transfer to Rome, where he is expected to take on additional assignments for the pope.

"O'Brien's always been given sensitive assignments by the Vatican," Palmo said, pointing to O'Brien's role as the head of an in-depth study into all U.S. seminaries, to root out the potential origins of child abuse by Catholic clergy.

"I wouldn't be surprised if O'Brien were called in as a troubleshooter for the Vatican, in addition to his day job," Palmo said.