Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien flies to Rome next month for a new job leading a global order of Catholic knights, a post that likely will lead to his elevation to cardinal, but which also begins his departure from the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Pope Benedict XVI named O'Brien, 72, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the Vatican announced Monday. The predominantly lay order, which traces its history to the 11th-century Crusades, now ministers to Christians and people of other faiths in historical Palestine.
Informed of the appointment by Benedict earlier this month, O'Brien said he accepted instantly, although he wrote the pope that it is with a "heavy heart that I will be departing the Premier See of the United States."
O'Brien, the spiritual leader of the area's half-million Catholics, will continue to serve here in the caretaker role of apostolic administrator until a successor is named — a process that could take as long as 18 months, an archdiocesan spokesman said.
Until then, O'Brien said, he will split his time between Baltimore and Rome, with other travels also possible.
The move makes O'Brien, who came to the archdiocese in 2007, the first of Baltimore's 15 archbishops who will not complete his career here. It officially ends his tenure as archbishop of the country's first Catholic diocese.
"The work of the diocese will be carried on," O'Brien told reporters at a news conference Monday. But while the archdiocese awaits his replacement, some decisions might have to be put on hold.
O'Brien said he will not be able to take actions "that would prejudice my successor." With tongue in cheek, he added, "I couldn't sell a church, or the Basilica," the grand, domed 19th-century Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which stands as the country's first cathedral.
O'Brien, who was installed as archbishop on October 1, 2007, will be empowered to ordain priests but will be sharply limited in his authority to move them around because they have "certain rights in canon law. It would put my successor in a difficult position."
But he could launch a fundraising campaign and take other actions that could potentially be reversed by his successor.
He said he would continue to be a forceful spokesman in Maryland on such issues as the legalization of same-sex marriage. He conveyed his opposition to gay marriage last month in a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley.
"There's no diminution of my own efforts and leverage in pursuing issues in the church and for the common good," O'Brien said.
Since coming to Baltimore, he has spoken out against capital punishment and nuclear weapons and in favor of a tax credit supporting donations to Catholic schools. He led a successful court challenge to a Baltimore City ordinance that required pregnancy clinics that oppose abortion and birth control to post signs saying they did not provide the services.
Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, called O'Brien a "vocal and passionate advocate in the public square."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a theologian at Georgetown University and former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said local Catholics shouldn't worry about the interregnum.
"The diocese will not come crashing down," Reese said. "I don't think it's anything anybody's going to notice. The emphasis is on no change. Canon law says 'steady as you go. Leave everything in place. Leave the pastors in place. Don't make any radical changes.'"
Reese said he was "confused by the whole appointment," not least because O'Brien is "going from a job with a 24-7 work schedule to one that's really part time." He said "this may be a way of making him a cardinal."
Pope Pius XII decreed in 1949 that the Grand Master of the order should be a cardinal. O'Brien is succeeding Cardinal John Patrick Foley of Philadelphia, who resigned in February due to poor health.
O'Brien said the tradition is that the Grand Master position is held by a cardinal, but it's not a guarantee. He said his elevation would depend on the decision of the next assembly of cardinals, or consistory, and it is not clear when that would take place.