Cloud of Witnesses: Terence Cardinal Cooke

“Oh, just one more thing.” After an hour of incidental conversation on September 6, 1981, Terence Cardinal Cooke (1921-1983) mentioned as an aside that at my ordination two days later it might be good to have a few guards to prevent any difficulties. Hierarchs of the Episcopal Church objected to my ordination, since they had previously ordained me. As it was the judgment of the Catholic Church that Henry VIII was not a prophet and I was not a valid priest, I was to be ordained unconditionally. Terence Cooke would have rather died than contradict doctrine and, at the ceremony in the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he read a statement urging good will all around. He also repulsed the requests of the rector of the cathedral, who had Anglican friends, that I be ordained inconspicuously in the cardinal’s private chapel and that no hymn of John Henry Newman be sung. Master of the velvet glove, Cardinal Cooke smilingly ordered that we sing “Lead, Kindly Light.”

His mother, a native of County Galway like his father, died when he was nine. The world to him was parochial, and he moved from parish school in the Bronx to minor seminary and then to major seminary and studied social work at the Catholic University of America. He was never a parish pastor. In serving writs he made such a name that he soon became an articled clerk: Francis Cardinal Spellman sought no prodigy but he did want an efficient administrator such as Cardinal Cooke as seminary procurator. From the cardinal’s secretary in 1957, he became vice chancellor in 1958, chancellor in 1961, and vicar general and auxiliary bishop in 1965.

Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on the day of Cooke’s installation, and the new archbishop went to Harlem. There was still a legacy of prelacy to bank on, and he was received with respect, but the photographs of his return from Rome as cardinal are poignant, when his motorcade was hailed with red roses. The aura was stale, and no prelate would be received that way again. An inter-parish finance commission propped up poor parishes, but he opened only four new parishes after Spellman had opened 45, and the archdiocesan elementary school enrollment dropped by one-half. His devotion to detail left large financial reserves that would quickly disperse after he died.

His death on October 6, 1983, focused a nation. After eight years contending with lymphoma, he was gathered up as a patriarch, writing letters to the flock. It was a tonic to the faithful after the archbishop of Chicago had died amid rancor. Even the urbane, who thought Cardinal Cooke soporific, admired such a finale.

We dined often during his visits to Rome, and his beribboned documents once stopped a lecture by Ugo Cardinal Poletti in the aula magna of the Lateran University to expedite my diaconal ordination. In 1983, I received a surprise telephone call from him telling me that my parents were Catholic. He had received them in their village in Westchester County without fuss before lunch, the last souls he would bring into the Church before he took to his deathbed. “We really pulled one over on George,” he told them.

Only once did I watch his anger flare, at the mention of a degenerate liturgist. His aversion to confrontation was droll. Had he, in place of Pope Leo, met Attila at the gates of Rome, he might have changed the subject to the weather. Yet there is the case of St. Januarius’s blood liquefying in Cardinal Cooke’s presence out of season. Only the Church can determine the difference between prosaic convention and heroic temperance. He told a radical cleric who insulted him in the garish 1970s: “I may not be the smartest man, but I have a good memory.” In matters pertaining to holy Truth, his memory was more than half as old as time.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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