A Light to the World

For those of you accustomed to our Catholic ways, it will be noted that we do not have a casket present here because Mrs. Luce was in fact buried on Sunday [October 11]. We offer the Mass nonetheless for what we speak of as the repose of her soul. She was a great and wondrous woman, a famous woman, a beautiful woman. You have read all the accolades. They extend far beyond anything I could say. But she was a human being, subject as is every one of us, to all of the weaknesses of being such. As a human being, she slipped, she fell, she sinned—not nearly so frequently, I’m sure, as I have slipped and fallen and sinned. She did so precisely because she was human.

It is for this reason that we offer the sacrifice of the Mass. This is not simply a panoply, this is not merely a memorial service as oft times these things are called. Rather, we Catholics believe that we are plunging into the mysterious and the spiritual renewal of no less shattering an event than the crucifixion and resurrection of our Divine Lord Himself. We believe that in this Mass, when we take a piece of bread and say over it, “This is My body,” then take a cup of wine and say over it, “This is My blood,” in some way we don’t pretend to understand, we actually, intensely, urgently believe that all the power of the Crucifixion is renewed. That power just radiates out through these walls, penetrating the entire world, certainly penetrating into that state that we call purgatory.

We believe that everyone has sinned, and even if everyone has died repentant and been forgiven of sins, we believe further that it is quite possible that we may not have compensated in this life for whatever sins have been committed. But we believe that the Crucifixion, renewed in the Mass, can serve as great compensation and can release souls from that period we call purgatory, a period of purgation, a period of cleansing, so they will be able to see God face to face, and enjoy eternal happiness.

This is why we offer this Mass. We offer it with a great sense of joy in the hope that we are truly celebrating Clare’s dim resurrection. We offer the Mass in the hope that she may, at this moment, be facing Almighty God in happiness for all eternity. But we offer it also, if need be, that there be a cessation of any suffering that might be due and that soon she will be in the arms of Almighty God.

Many of you know that Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was buried beneath the main altar here in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And you know too that it was he who prepared Clare Boothe Luce for entrance into the Catholic faith. What you may not know is that it is said that after he had completed the preparations, he told her that he would not hear her confession. Whom did she want to do so? She allegedly answered, “It must be someone who has seen the rise and fall of empires.”

I feel that way standing here. There are many, I am sure, who would feel that only those could deliver an appropriate eulogy who have seen the rise and fall of empires. I have not, and I will not attempt any kind of magnificent oratory. There’s another reason why I will not attempt such an address…I learned very quickly in knowing her, that she had no use for fraud or pretense. Consequently if I stood before you and pretended to be able to speak with profound and intimate understanding of her life or person, all of you, and more importantly she herself, could accuse me of being completely fraudulent.

I first met Clare Boothe Luce in Hawaii, and I would say without vanity that she liked me immediately, not because of anything in my person, but because I was at the time a bishop for the Armed Forces. As you know, she loved the Armed Forces. I was invited to one of those famous dinners where many distinguished and prestigious individuals, but most importantly the military, were present. Her liking me instantly almost as rapidly turned into dislike when she heard me speaking pompously about nuclear weapons. She rapidly made clear that she knew far more than I about the subject and made it equally clear that she respected Roman Catholic bishops too much to take them seriously when they talked nonsense.

This I think characterized her. Catholicism. It was a very sound Catholicism, certainly in the mature years of her faith. Everything was sacred and yet everything was subject to examination. The truth was the truth, and whoever spoke falsehood must be branded as speaking falsehood. Even the great Fulton Sheen, whom she admired so much (and who, had he outlived her, would undoubtedly be standing here now), even he was not beyond her jibes if we are to believe Wilfred Sheed’s book. Here is what he says:

The playful side of Clare cohabits strangely with the moralist, producing in recent years a species of jaunty sermon peculiarly her own: essays on the good man and the good society written with a straight face, like the funny teacher trying to bring the class to order. When Bishop Sheen asked her to be one of the readers at his last Good Friday Mass, she accepted with all due gravity and humble pride. But when the Bishop went into one of his lengthy spiels about “grant thy servants this,” and “grant thy servants that,” she found herself thinking involuntarily, “And while thou art up, grant thy servant a double martini.”

It is about the other Clare that I would like to reflect on but a few moments within the context of today’s exquisitely chosen Gospel. It is a Gospel that says so much. It’s from Matthew: ” You are the salt of the earth. But what if salt goes flat, how can you restore its flavor? Then it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

In reading the two principal books about Clare Boothe Luce, in listening to a number of people who knew her, it is clear to me that, however frivolous, indeed at times banal, she may have seemed to some, she was a woman of elemental understanding and goodness. This woman so frequently accused of seeking the limelight, seeking publicity, thought of by some to have lived only on the basis of her good looks and her brains, this woman wrote in McCall’s magazine what seems to me to be so reflective of those words of today’s Gospel. What happens if the salt loses its flavor?

Her daughter had died.

Some time after midnight, alone in my room, all the doubts which I had ever felt concerning the dogmas and doctrines I had held in all the years before, all the futile and sterile relationships I had ever nursed or tolerated in pride or vanity, all the lacerations of the spirit, suffered so helplessly in contemplating my meaningless world, soaked in blood and violence, converged in a vast sour tide within me. I tasted at long last the real meaning of meaninglessness. It is to believe that one is crawling to extinction unloved, unlovable, and unloving in the same kind of a world.

I now vividly remembered my four clever friends who had committed suicide so long ago. Riddles were still smoldering in their eyes. Riddles that still seemed to beckon me. I despaired out of myself, and for myself. I despaired of the world and for the world.

It might sound very strange to you if I suggested that in writing those words Clare was both most human and most Catholic. That’s the Clare whom I came to know if ever so casually, who appealed deeply, deeply to me as a person and as a priest, the Clare who suffered that existential anguish, that sadness so deeply rooted in the human condition. The salt of her life had lost its flavor, it all turned to bitterness. That’s when she learned perhaps more than at any other time her total dependence on Almighty God and the necessity of utter abandonment.

In 1946 Clare Boothe Luce was confirmed in this Cathedral. At that time she was asked once again, that question so very frequently, why? Why a Catholic? Her answer was given with the simplicity that a mind such as hers could grasp. “Why have I become a Catholic? To have my sins forgiven, that’s why. Nobody who hasn’t sinned could understand this.”

The concluding part of the Gospel seems to me to mark the deep, deep goodness that went far beyond motivations of humanitarianism. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Men do not light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; they set it on a stand where it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, your light must shine before men so that they may see goodness in your acts and give praise to your Heavenly Father.”

If there was one thing perhaps Clare never did come to understand, it is how men or women could be truly Catholic and not commit themselves courageously in every thought, word, and action in giving praise to their Father. After I was elevated to my current position, she called me not infrequently to ask me to straighten out those bishops who failed to see the defense of our beloved country in the same terms as did she. She could never understand. I hope now she can forgive. But even a cardinal couldn’t be expected to have the courage of this woman whose light, whose luce, shone so fearlessly, so radiantly, so gently for the world.


  • John Cardinal O'Connor

    John Joseph O'Connor was an American prelate of the Catholic Church. He served as Archbishop of New York from 1984 until his death in 2000, and was created a cardinal in 1985. He previously served as auxiliary bishop of Archdiocese for the Military Services (1979–83) and Bishop of Scranton (1983–84).

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