From Amy Sullivan in the National Journal:
Stephen Colbert may be—as he bragged in character last month at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner—”America’s most famous Catholic.” But he has serious competition for the title of most important Catholic in the United States. Until recently that distinction arguably belonged to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the powerful New York Archdiocese and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. When the charismatic Dolan’s term wraps up next week at the bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore, however, all eyes will turn to a man in a simple brown cassock with a Santa beard and a direct line to the pope: Boston Cardinal Séan O’Malley.
In the months since Pope Francis’s election, it’s become clear that O’Malley is the closest thing to a papal BFF. He is the only North American member of the Cabinet that Francis formed to advise him. As the world knows by now, Francis does not hesitate to make full use of his cell-phone plan, making it possible for him to call O’Malley—and O’Malley to call him—without involving aides. But the two also email each other directly, resulting in an unprecedented level of communication and giving American Catholics a voice in this unusually collaborative papacy.
“No other popes have had close relationships with an American at that level,” says Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. Schneck notes that Pope Paul VI had close ties to some lower-ranking Americans, such as now-Cardinal Justin Rigali, who served for a time as his English translator. “But to the best of my knowledge,” he says, “there’s nothing that compares to the very close relationship that Cardinal O’Malley has with Pope Francis.”