Skip to comments.The Good Priest (6th Anniversary of John Cardinal O'Connor's death)
Posted on 05/03/2006 9:45:48 AM PDT by NYer
Hard to believe how the time's flown, but six years ago tonight, John Cardinal O'Connor passed from our midst much too soon.
How quickly we forget.
In his final years, as he wound down his ministry as archbishop of New York, I was immeasurably blessed to know the cardinal, to meet up with him every so often, and to have received a good bit of his wisdom, humor and the lessons he had picked up along the way. His kindness to a young upstart was a gift which remains alive with me constantly.
At sunset on 3 May 2000, as the news came from 452 Madison that the cardinal's suffering was past him, and the earthly journey which touched so many lives was completed, I distinctly remember thinking that we had reached the end of a halcyon age -- and only with time did we realize the extent to which that was the case. No US churchman since has been able to fill the gaping void left by John O'Connor's larger-than-life personality (and that won't change until Tim Dolan gets a red hat). But even more crucially, in his ministry the goldleafer's son from Southwest Philly was able to strike the fine balance between the two concepts weighed in his episcopal motto: love and justice. Even when he was (viciously) disagreed with -- and in New York, this happened quite often -- the city's eighth archbishop could never be written off, nor pigeonholed.
Cardinal O'Connor realized instinctively that in an age where the church's message could easily be ignored by those not comfortable with it, even within its own walls, the most pressing thing was for that voice to remain relevant, and for its clear and unmistakable presence and articulation to remain at the forefront of the public square. To this, and for this, he offered his life and enriched countless souls with so many gifts.
Nothing's been the same since -- and, if you'll forgive the candor, not for the better.
O'Connor's mentor, his onetime ordinary John Cardinal Krol, once said that "No one is more dead than a Catholic bishop." Sad thought, but quite true, even for this most accessibly human of prelates. In his weekly columns in Catholic New York, the cardinal routinely announced where or when he was writing from. Often, when it wasn't on an airplane, it'd be the middle of the night -- he was a chronic insomniac. But what many didn't know is that, when he couldn't sleep, he would often slip out of the house and go incognito to hospitals or AIDS shelters to minister to the sick and suffering, praying with them or simply cleaning bedpans, quietly, away from the glare of the cameras and the trappings of high office, as if to witness that, just as there can be no love without justice, so there can be no justice without love.
Last week, while in New York for a couple days of meetings, I was able to do something I've always wanted to do. And I've been meaning to write about it, but somehow it's kept itself for today.
Every time I head up to the city, I always make it a point to stop at St Patrick's Cathedral. It's just the most marvelous place in the world in my eyes -- doesn't hurt that the place was built by a Philadelphian, either. Usually, I just duck in to spend a couple minutes in prayer at the Lady Chapel and light a candle; it makes for a welcome moment of peace in the midst of the frantic pace of Midtown. But I've also made a habit of walking down to the green-brass doors of the cathedral crypt, where the archbishops of New York are buried, just to say "hey there" to a friend and offer a word of continued thanks for graces received.
The crypt is closed to the public, but in advance of last week's trip I poked around to see if there was any way I could get to see it. To my elated shock and surprise, the reply came that the sacristan of the Cathedral would be expecting me on Monday afternoon.
After a wonderful meeting at America House which stretched hours, the sun came out as I returned to Fifth Avenue for the first time in a long time. The Great Bronze Doors, festooned with statues of saints on the outside and surmounted on the inside by the coat of arms of Cardinal Spellman and his motto, "Sequere Deum," were open -- something which, so I thought, was only the case for ceremonial occasions.
After my usual ritual -- a candle and a few minutes before the exposed Blessed Sacrament at the Lady -- I headed to the Parish House to meet up with Ian Dowding, the sacristan who spearheads the preparations for at least six daily Masses, daily exposition, and the innumerable weddings, funerals and other special events of all kinds which mark the Cathedral's always-busy calendar, not to mention the visitors who want to see this or that.
Even despite the bag search (which is now set up just inside the Bronze Doors), I couldn't help but think while taking it all in for the millionth time (even though it hadn't been years) of how much being back in the Cathedral, and the city, felt more like a homecoming than a simple return to a place I've been before. Though not completely unexpected, it was a good feeling.
From the Parish House, I was taken through a series of corridors and secured doors which seemed for a moment like something out of the Pentagon, finally surfacing behind the high altar. Within seconds, the sight I never expected to see unfolded, and the green-brass doors swung open.
For a second, my favorite question popped into mind -- "How on earth did I get here, again?" -- and I thought of all of you, without whom I would've never experienced the moment, a prayer of thanks in my heart (again, for graces received) as we walked down the marble steps.
At the foot of the steps, with the wall of burial niches before my eyes, I just stood there and gasped, thinking, "Well, here it is." And the first thing I noticed were a line of a dozen or so small stones, pebbles, along the ledge in front of O'Connor's spot. For good measure, there was a small plastic Miraculous Medal alongside, too.
Seeing the pebbles, though, I couldn't help but ask, "Who are these from?" And I should've known when my guide replied, "Ed Koch -- all of them." The Jewish Democrat who served three terms as mayor of New York shared a close bond with the cardinal; they shared breakfast every month and Koch was a front-row mainstay of O'Connor's Midnight Masses on Christmas, where the celebrant always welcomed him by name from the pulpit, even long after Hizzoner left office.
Of course, that's not to say they saw eye to eye on everything, but O'Connor realized instinctively that there's a time when the rough-and-tumble of politics can and should be left aside so a place for what St Thomas called "the love that is friendship" can flourish. Koch's multiple trips to the crypt, evidenced by the Jewish custom of placing a stone at a loved one's tomb, were a powerful reminder that said love is stronger than death, not to mention bigger than politic.
I knelt there for a long, silent moment, to convey my thanks, my love, and to ask the Big Man's prayers from the Heavenly Powerhouse. Putting my head to the stone, I whispered the words of tribute which always meant the most to him -- and the essence of what he was for so many -- "Thanks for being a good priest."
I kissed the stone and got up. And I can't express in words how much it meant to be there and to have had that moment.
"He was never impressed by his surroundings," a friend later said -- recalling the phrase the cardinal often employed, that all the glories of the world "are but dust and ashes." And in more ways than one, despite the Ph.D. from Georgetown, having seen the world as a Navy chaplain and then over 16 years as the Vatican's jet-setting troubleshooter and goodwill envoy, it was no secret that, in mind and heart, he never really left Southwest Philly.
Some saw this as troubling, or a weakness, and in some ways (like the financial situation of the archdiocese he left behind), it was. However, as he always said, "You can't be an effective leader if you're not true to your own temperament." In that vein, for a prince of the church, his outlook on the world kept him unusually grounded, reminded him always of the difficulties which mark the lives of working people, and fuelled his irrepressible and uncompromising conviction that the church must always operate and be most present to the suffering, the disadvantaged, the overburdened, and all those who have no one else to fight and be present for them.
How quickly we forget.
As he was usually the first to willingly admit, he wasn't perfect, but the good cardinal's life and work remains a rich gift, an example which has too often been laid aside in the years since he's left us.
I'm but one of many who still miss him terribly, but holding in mind the things for which he lived, the service he rendered and the good he enabled far and wide are my little way of keeping his legacy of love alive.
Despite the passage of time, may its inspiration never fade.
At the end of the service, an eight-man honor guard solemnly carried O'Connor's casket through the church, allowing mourners to pray and offer a final good-bye. The church erupted in applause as the casket was taken down a narrow staircase to a crypt beneath St. Patrick's altar, where all previous archbishops of New York are buried.
O'Connor helped plan his funeral, choosing many of the songs and prayers. The music included "Ave Maria," sung by Metropolitan Opera soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, and "Lift High the Cross," the hymn sung when O'Connor was installed as head of the New York Archdiocese in 1984.
By John Mallon*
For those who missed it, the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston preached at the funeral of his close friend John O'Connor, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York. O'Connor was a bold and fierce preacher on the subject closest to his heart: the sanctity of human life.
The funeral, broadcast live nationwide, was attended by the president and vice president, their wives and numerous dignitaries including the mayor of New York City.
At one point in the sermon, O'Connor's hand picked homilist said, "What a great legacy he has left us in his constant reminder that the Church must always be unambiguously pro- life."
There was a beat and then applause broke out. It grew louder, increasing as the cameras fixed on the Clinton-Gore party showing them on screens throughout the cathedral. Cardinal Law attempted to quiet the crowd with his hand, when suddenly the congregation began to stand up, applauding in a wave that moved from the back of the church to the front. If it hadn't been a funeral they would have cheered. It was a defiant, pivotal moment.
Then the bishops and cardinals in the sanctuary stood up. The elder George Bush stood up applauding, as did his son somewhere off camera. The camera panned back to the Clinton- Gore party who looked bemused and bewildered.
Having no water glasses to reach for as they did in 1994 when Mother Teresa received a thunderous ovation for telling the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington that there could be no peace as long as a mother could kill the child in her womb, Clinton leaned back and started whispering in Hillary's ear. Gore's face was as blank, flat and white as a sheet of paper. Behind them another abortion "rights" supporter, Rudy Giuliani, began to applaud, albeit weakly, and stood. And lest they be the only ones left seated, the Clintons and Gores lamely stood up but refrained from applauding.
It was not Cardinal Law's intent to embarrass anyone. He was merely doing his job and honoring his friend. The vehement applause came from the people.
When the applause subsided, Law quipped, "I see he hasn't left the pulpit." Even a news commentator said it was as if O'Connor himself had spoken "from beyond the grave." Even through the TV screen you could feel the presence of that humble but larger than life churchman fill St. Patrick's Cathedral one last time, driving home the message he lived.
The leaders of the free world are currently the hierarchy of the culture of death and it is difficult to know what those poll-conscious politicians took away from that anointed moment, but I have some suggestions.
Perhaps they can no longer smugly snicker up their sleeves, take the Catholic vote for granted and play us for suckers. They can no longer ridicule other Christians and pro-lifers while claiming to be "compassionate" and "for the children" as they condone scissors being driven into infants' skulls, their brains sucked out and the unborn chopped into pieces and sucked out of their mothers with industrial strength vacuum machines. They are on the wrong side of history. In no small part thanks to John O'Connor, the future belongs to life.
Well done, Cardinal O'Connor. Requiéscat in pacem.
Cardinal O'Connor was wonderful, and I think he should be canonized.
I - and thousands of other New Yorkers - used to line up on Good Friday to hear him preach on the Seven Last Words. He wasn't like Fr. Rutler, witty and elegant and scholarly, but he was incredibly orthodox and sincere and prayerful.
He was also very bold and stood up to all the New York City authorities to defend the Church and preserve its right to adhere to its own beliefs and practices. To my knowledge, Cdl Egan has not filled his shoes very well in this respect.
I used to go to the all-night Adoration at the Lady Chapel, and every so often, in the middle of the night, the Cardinal would come out to join us.
Good article about his funeral! I happened to be able to attend. I was in the process of moving out of NYC, but I was there that day and when I walked down 5th Ave, I thought I would see if I could join the line and get in. I was lucky enough to do so (I remember the moment with the pro-abortion pols standing!!!) and to be able to go up to the casket afterwards. I still have the holy card from his funeral.
How truly blessed to be there at that time, especially to witness the Clintons squirming in the pew. I watched it on tv and cried all the way through. For many years, while working in Manhattan, I would attend noontime Mass at St. Patrick's. It is such a magnificent Cathedral.
This article mentions Archbishop Timothy Dolan. He is my archbishop. I know him pretty well. I have heard the rumors that he may be headed to NYC in the space of a few years. Should that happen, our loss will be their gain.
Upon ordination at St. Charles Borromeo, his only goal was to be the pastor of a parish somewhere. He hoped to apprentice to some old wise pastor like the Barry Fitzgerald character in "Going My Way", and then take over the parish.
But his first assignment was at a school for mentally retarded children in Upper Darby. While there were different rewards in that job, it wasn't quite what he was looking for. When the Korean War broke out, O'Connor asked Cardinal Dougherty to let him join the Navy to be a chaplain. It was the key decision of his life.
O'Connor discovered that as a Navy chaplain he was pastor of a parish. Granted, his parish floated and moved around a lot, but a parish is a parish. O'Connor decided to stay in the Navy and ended up as chief chaplain of all the armed forces with the rank of Navy captain.
When he was about to retire, he sent out resumes to bishops in the hope that somewhere there was an opening for a parish pastorship where O'Connor could spend the rest of his career.
Then he got the call from Rome. They wanted him in Scranton-Wilkes Barre -- as a bishop.
The rest is history.
That's an understatement.
I used to go to the all-night Adoration at the Lady Chapel, and every so often, in the middle of the night, the Cardinal would come out to join us.
That sounds like him. I know a priest who knew him since his days in Scranton. The priest told me that one day in the NY Archbishop's residence that O'Connor said to him (more or less), "Essentially, I am just a priest."
One other thing I meant to mention: A friend of mine converted to Catholicism and was baptized and confirmed by Cardinal O'Connor. My friend told me that after receiving the sacraments, the Cardinal said to him, "Now you are as Catholic as I am." Requiescat in pace.
My squadron had gone back to Florida but I stayed aboard to maintain squadron spaces.We used the squadron Ready Room as our base of operations,because it had a TV set and a coffee pot.
Then LCDR O'Connor would stop by when we had football games on during the week-end.
I have fond memories of sitting there with him watching football and just shooting the breeze.He was a class act.
What a lovely story!
Thanks a lot NYer!
I am starting my morning with your post.
Now I have to keep my door closed for a few minutes so I can regain my composure.
I first met him as a cadet at West Point.
The parish on post belongs to the NY archdiocese (very unusual).
He was invited to address ALL new plebes and give us encouragement. I don't recall what he said to us, but I do remember I was uplifted and motivated by his words.
Goosebumps! I remember vividly the TV scenes but had never read this piece. Thanks.