John Cardinal O’Connor — A Rock of the Church

In a quiet section of Tirana, the capital of Albania, in a relatively palatial building, John Cardinal O’Connor sits calmly sipping espresso and speaking to a reporter after arriving on a flight from Poland. “It’s still difficult to believe,” he exults, “that great big sign we saw in the center square, Welcome Pope John Paul II, when God Himself was excluded for 50 years.” In a while, a van pulls up outside, and doors slam. Someone announces, “Mother Teresa is here.”

“She’s impossible!” Cardinal O’Connor responds in a teasing fashion as he gets up and makes his way to the front door. “Impossible.” And as the saintly nun hobbles up the steps of the little palace, Cardinal O’Connor takes on the persona of a superior. “Who gave you permission to come here?” he demands, in a manner reminiscent of his background as a naval officer. Not missing a beat, Mother Teresa one-ups him: “I got permission from guardian angel of cardinal,” she responds gleefully, ignoring the need for definite articles. And the two greet each other with the embrace of old friends.

What made this encounter so extraordinary is that it took place in the former home of Enver Hoxha, the Albanian dictator who tried to make his people forget who God is. Hoxha’s death in 1985 brought Albania’s years as the world’s only officially atheist country to a dismal close. And the residence of this man, who presided over one of history’s worst persecutions of priests, bishops, and lay faithful, was now a government guest house, where a world-traveling cardinal from New York could lay his head for a night and a fragile-looking nun with great inner strength—herself an Albanian—could visit for an hour, telling the prelate about how she and her sisters had brought the Lord to Albania, hidden in their saris under the appearance of bread, even while, Mother Teresa said, you could still be shot “if they heard you speaking about God.”

But what has this got to do with the archdiocese of New York, the see to which a relatively unknown Bishop John J. O’Connor was appointed in 1984? What has it got to do with the American Church and the things that the bishop did to keep it Catholic, to keep it faithful to Rome, to advance its causes and interests? What was the archbishop of New York doing in Albania anyway? Or Poland? Or any of dozens of other places?

The cardinal was on hand, a week after Easter in 1993, to see a New York priest ordained a bishop for Albania by Pope John Paul II—and to witness the historic restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in the Balkan country. The contrast with the United States was telling. While Albania, the former Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe once again allowed the open practice of religion, Cardinal O’Connor’s native America was letting secular values take over, fooling itself that multiculturalism admitted falsehoods and tolerance permitted immorality

And the dean of American bishops, said to have been specially chosen by the pope to lead the key New York archdiocese and redirect the U.S. Church back to orthodoxy, was trying to persuade his society not to turn its back on the truth, not to shut out the divine but, in the words of John Paul, to “make room for the mystery of God.”

Seeing the (Lime)Light

One might object that Cardinal O’Connor’s duty was to stay home and tend his flock in New York. And it might be argued that his foreign trips were taken to create a high profile for himself in the Church and the world. Indeed, some saw him as a headline-grabber.

He admitted early on to a desire for media attention, telling reporters, “I will use you.” But his purpose was to get the Church’s message out. And the New York press provided him a larger pulpit than the one in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, perhaps reminding some people, otherwise absorbed with the cares of a materialistic, me-first society, that the Church and her values are still there, or leading fallen-away Catholics back to take a second look.

And his high profile made it so that he could still be an effective teacher even when he was jetting off to Argentina, El Salvador, or Australia. His words and actions, reported in the secular and Catholic press, provided moral commentary to his flock of some two million—and the wider New York audience—as well as to an extended flock in far-flung places. He went abroad, said his longtime secretary, Auxiliary Bishop James F. McCarthy, as the “chief shepherd of the archdiocese in terms of being able to bring with him media attention.”

The trips gave the New York press plenty to write about in a town with large populations of Jews, blacks, Hispanics, and Irish. As president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency, he went to the Middle East several times. In Israel in late 1986, he caused a stir because he wanted to meet with top Israeli leaders in their Jerusalem offices. But he had to rescind the request because the Vatican at the time did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. He later worked out a compromise with two of the officials by meeting them in their homes. When full relations between the Jewish state and the Holy See were established in 1994, he was credited with a behind-the-scenes role in bringing them about.

In the Middle East, as in Northern Ireland, he insisted that peace be based on respect for human dignity and spoke out about the need for fair treatment and employment of minorities—Palestinians and Irish Catholics. He negotiated with Fidel Castro in a three-hour, late-night meeting in Havana in 1988, winning visas for foreign nuns to work in Cuba, the release of 400 political prisoners, and permission for visits to ailing Cubans by members of their families in the United States. In Ethiopia, he held an emaciated baby in his arms and helped bring attention to the starvation there.

Cardinal O’Connor got to know presidents and prime ministers in the places he visited—and used the connections he made to advance the cause of the Church there and at the United Nations (UN). Throughout a series of UN-sponsored conferences in which certain western governments and nongovernmental organizations have tried to impose legal abortion and contraception on developing nations, “the cardinal has been a tremendous help, first of all with his encouragement,” said Archbishop Renato Martino, papal nuncio to the UN. “He understands all the problems and issues at the UN, and I have received from him all the support I could hope for.”

Controversies at home also provided fodder for the dailies. The cardinal stood his ground in a dispute with New York Mayor Ed Koch over an executive order that would have required agencies with city contracts, including Church agencies, to employ homosexuals. The archdiocese, which received large reimbursements from the city for its childcare institutions, challenged the order in court and eventually won. “We do not condemn the sinner, but we cannot condone the sin,” the cardinal said in reference to homosexuality.

In the late 1980s, Cardinal O’Connor quietly visited thousands of AIDS patients at an archdiocesan hospital in Hell’s Kitchen, night after night, listening to them, cleaning their sores, and changing their bedpans. Part of the reason was to be better informed about the disease, so he could serve on President Reagan’s special commission on AIDS.

Yet the activists still were angry about the cardinal’s fidelity to Church teaching and, later, his fight with the public school system over the distribution of condoms and “safe sex” education. Members of ACT-UP staged a protest during a Mass he celebrated at St. Patrick’s in 1989, yelling slogans and desecrating the Blessed Sacrament.

He challenged pro-abortion politicians, as well as Catholics who voted for them. “I do not see how a Catholic could, in conscience, vote for an individual expressing himself or herself as favoring abortion,” he said.

Protecting the Unborn

Abortion is perhaps the issue for which he is best known. His eloquence and engaging style was a great assist to the pro-life cause—in St. Patrick’s, in newspaper columns, in the halls of power, and in a 12-page booklet, Abortion: Questions and Answers, published in 1990. “Some people argue that changing laws will not eliminate abortions,” he wrote. “It is certainly true that a change of heart is more important than a change of law. What is forgotten, however, is that the law is the great teacher. Children grow up believing that if a practice is legal, it must be moral.” He helped give the cause respectability, in spite of attempts by Planned Parenthood and others to paint the movement as fanatical and violent or even link the cardinal himself to those who pulled triggers.

“Without him, many in the movement would have faltered,” New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith told me earlier this year, soon after his colleague from New York, Vito Fossella, introduced legislation to mint a Congressional Gold Medal for His Eminence. “If anyone deserves it, he does—for standing up boldly and very compassionately for human life.”

“He radiates Christ,” Smith said.

Scores of times Cardinal O’Connor repeated the offer he made in his first year as archbishop: that any woman in need could go to him for help rather than abort her child. The archdiocese and Catholic Charities provided such assistance—medical, housing, adoption, legal— to hundreds of such women.

He has not simply delegated others to do this work. He himself has privately counseled women in difficult situations, helping to restore in them a sense of hope. “He’s gone out of his way to be in contact with people in trouble, even to the point of visiting them in prison,” confided Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., the noted author and preacher.

Though Dr. Lisa Marrero’s situation was not as extreme, she is still grateful for the role the cardinal played in saving her career and believes that his “personal touch and warmth” has helped keep many Catholics faithful. The New York pediatrician had corresponded with him since high school, and by the time she got to her internship in a Pennsylvania hospital, the macho and corporate atmosphere there was too much for her. She wrote the cardinal that she was about to quit her field, and he called her. “I have a better idea,” he said, encouraging her to apply to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. She was hired and, in a couple of months, was flourishing.

“He encouraged me to be a physician for Christ,” she told me. Though she now works in a secular hospital, she does not shy away from speaking the truth about contraception and the abortifacient nature of contraceptive pills. “I think that because of the cardinal’s intervention, I have a profound sense of the privilege that it is to care for other people’s children and that it is the joy of my life to touch the body of Christ in this way,” she said. “If His Eminence has shown and taught me anything, it is that true respect for human life proceeds from the moment of conception.”

Founding Religious Orders

Despite all the material efforts the cardinal made on behalf of the pro-life movement, he felt something more was needed in the fight for the sanctity of life. Reflecting on Christ’s telling his apostles that certain kinds of demons “can only be cast out with prayer and fasting,” he felt that God was calling him to found a religious community.

In time, the Sisters of Life was formed to assist women and work to promote the cause. But the most important part of their vocation would be to pray that society recovers its sense of the sanctity of human life. The community has attracted many professional women who have had experience in the world: a perfect position to be in to counsel women tempted to abort.

Cardinal O’Connor also backed the formation of another religious community, after seven Capuchin friars found it too difficult to live religious life in their own communities. He let the fledgling group use an old Polish parish in the South Bronx, and in time, the community became the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. “He stood by us all the way,” said Fr. Benedict, one of the original members.

The communities have two things in common, besides Cardinal O’Connor: they pray in front of abortion clinics, and they wear traditional habits. “By establishing the Sisters of Life and calling upon Catholics to be countercultural, he has strengthened religious life,” Fr. Benedict said. “Religious life is supposed to stand outside in some critical relationship to society, and he saw that.”

Cardinal O’Connor spent many hours giving retreats to the Sisters of Life, but he also had another “community” to nurture: a dwindling corps of diocesan priests. The cardinal took a number of measures to foster vocations, again, many of them personal.

Fr. John Higgins recalled how the cardinal saw something in him and gave him the push he needed to become a priest. Higgins was working for Catholics United for the Faith, when it was still in New York, when he attended a centennial Mass the cardinal celebrated at his parish. He approached communion genuflecting and stayed after Mass to make a thanksgiving as the congregation filed outside. Cardinal O’Connor took notice. “Bring me that young man,” he instructed his secretary.

“He asked me if I’d ever thought about the priesthood,” Fr. Higgins recounted. “I said, ‘Yes, I’m thinking about becoming a priest in a religious order: He said, ‘Why don’t you study for my diocese?'” the priest said, mimicking his bishop’s serious, deep voice.

Cardinal O’Connor pioneered vocation discernment retreats, devoting an entire Presidents’ Day weekend, much effort, and personal involvement to men discerning a call. Two constant themes on the retreats were love for and devotion to the Eucharist and modeling one’s discernment after Mary’s acceptance of God’s will.

His vocation efforts were undertaken not simply in response to a crisis but because he wanted to share his joy with other men, he said. The cardinal once wrote in Catholic New York, the archdiocesan newspaper, “I love being a priest when I’m lonely and when I’m not, when I’m tempted and when I’m not, when I’m bone tired and when I’m not, when I wish I were a lot of other things and had a family of my own, when I think life will drag on forever and when I think I may die tomorrow.

“I am awed in being a priest,” he wrote. “For me, to be able to say over a piece of bread, ‘This is my Body, over a cup of wine, ‘This is my Blood’…frightens me out of my wits, while it fills me with a wonder beyond anything else imaginable.”

In interviews earlier this year, the rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers and his predecessor discussed Cardinal O’Connor’s concerns about the formation of priests. The cardinal was always concerned about the quality of the academic and spiritual formation, said the rector, Msgr. Francis J. McAree. “He has always encouraged us to recruit and train the most competent faculty we possibly can?’ He ordered that a spiritual year be added to the four years of study because he wants priests to be “first and foremost holy men,” he said.

“He pays attention to what’s being taught, who’s on the faculty,” added Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, the former rector.

The cardinal took a “fatherly” interest in seminarians, added Msgr. Edmund J. Whalen, rector of the St. John Neumann Seminary Residence in the Bronx, where many men complete philosophy courses before going to St. Joseph’s for theology. Msgr. Whalen, who studied in Rome, said that when Cardinal O’Connor visited the Vatican, he would gather New York priest-students and seminarians there to “see how we were doing.”

“It wasn’t that he was checking up on you; he’d want to read what you were writing and would offer very good commentaries, reactions, ideas,” Msgr. Whalen said.

The priest once served as the cardinal’s secretary and got to see the prelate’s “deep love of the priesthood and of priestliness:’ He would reach out to newly ordained bishops appointed to a new diocese who suddenly found themselves “lonely at the top.”

“He sees the priesthood in ontological terms: a priest is a priest is a priest,” said Msgr. Edward D. O’Donnell, archdiocesan chancellor. At an ordination one year, the cardinal said, “These men will not merely be designated priests—they will become priests. They will become other than they are, yet they will remain men, with all of the weaknesses of men.”

He had to respond to several cases of sexual misconduct among clergy and formed a task force of doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, and priests to make recommendations. Rejecting suggestions that celibacy is the cause of the deviancy, he said that the “pursuit of holiness” should be the primary response to the crisis. “Your celibacy doesn’t restrict you, doesn’t bind you,” he told new priests at an ordination Mass one year. “Your celibacy is not a heavy yoke to be borne begrudgingly, reluctantly. It’s a path to freedom. [It] reminds you that the priesthood is not a profession, it’s a vocation, a total giving, a complete response to the call of that Lord who said, ‘You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you:”

“Every ordination is a new sign of hope; it is a new sign of resurrection in the Church,” he said. “If you are good priests, I can promise…the greatest joy that any human being can experience in this world.” But since they share in Christ’s priesthood, they should also “expect to share in His sufferings,” he said. “We may suffer rejection from the world or scorn from those who promote the culture of death. This should not discourage us. It should give us an awareness that we all have to pay the price for being a priest.”

The cardinal frequently reminded priests that the primary reason for their ministry is to save souls, and in a 1989 pastoral letter, he urged them to emphasize the importance of confession and to take special care in preaching. “Huge numbers of our people are ignorant of even the basics, which is one reason why many young people are attracted to fundamentalism: it gives them straightforward teaching and makes straightforward moral demands,” he said. He himself preached on the Catechism of the Catholic Church every Sunday for a year, when it was first published in the United States.

He has repeatedly said that the Eucharist is the center of his life and has called it a particular joy to celebrate weekday Mass and the Sunday Pontifical Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In 1997, members of the Legionaries of Christ approached him to revive a centuries-old tradition, the Corpus Christi procession. The cardinal responded enthusiastically and has led the procession himself around St. Patrick’s Cathedral each year since, with thousands of people lining the streets.

“For me, evangelization is the transmission of the Good News of the living Lord, Jesus Christ, who is present in the Eucharist,” he told a congregation that filled the middle of Fifth Avenue after he conducted Benediction on the front steps of the cathedral. “That He is present in the Eucharist is the Good News that we want to take to the world. Because it is He alone who could change New York, the United States, and the whole world.”

“Through the Eucharist, we help create community in the Church:’ he said on another occasion. “We priests are created into a community through this same Eucharist?’ Speaking of his joy in having a chapel in his residence, he suggested that priests designate a room in their own houses where the Blessed Sacrament might be reserved, saying its immediate availability “could enhance the spiritual life of the rectory.” With the Jubilee approaching, the cardinal last November consecrated the archdiocese to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, praying that “young and old alike center their lives on the Eucharist.”

His teachings on marriage and family, appearing in a regular column in Catholic New York, and published as “Covenant of Love” (Liguori), likened the sacrament of matrimony to that of holy orders. Both are marked by unconditional commitment, sacrifice, and the Christ-like emptying of self. In the 1989 pastoral to priests, he urged them to be faithful to their commitment, just as a married man would have to fulfill his responsibilities of providing for his wife and family. In a talk at Franciscan University in Steubenville, he said that when he received his bishop’s ring he was “wed” to the Church of New York. He said he empathized with parents because he, as a bishop, is like a father to his flock, with, among other things, the task of raising money to keep thousands of children in Catholic schools.

He suggested that there is only one really good reason for two Catholics to marry one another: because they are best suited to help each other attain salvation.

He did not speak out about contraception as much as abortion, but at a cathedral Mass for World Marriage Day, he called Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae a “beautiful description of the potential of married life.” He told some 500 married couples that Paul was “just another of the popes in the line of Peter to be rejected, virtually crucified, because of his teaching on human life.” He attributed widespread rejection of the encyclical in part to rumblings in the Church of 1968, when there was “the beginning of various forms of theologies throughout the world…that there can truly be no central authority to guide, to teach, to direct our lives.”

Uniting Suffering with Christ

The cardinal started warning about the coming danger of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia long before most Americans learned the name Kevorkian. In recent years, he gave counsel and encouragement to former New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco as he prepared to argue for the upholding of the state’s assisted suicide ban before the Supreme Court. The cardinal also spearheaded a state commission on end-of-life issues. He preached that death with dignity did not come from the ability to choose your own final exit but from putting your life in the hands of God. He has preached that message not only from the pulpit but through his own life these past few months.

Often, he spoke of the tragedy of “wasted” suffering. Especially at Masses for the handicapped or the elderly or in nursing homes and hospitals, the cardinal compared the ill to a helpless Christ on the cross and urged them to unite their suffering to His and participate in His redemptive work.

“Christ did not save the world when he was teaching or preaching,” he would say. “He saved the world when he was hanging on the cross.”

Cardinal O’Connor has displayed grace in the suffering of his own illness, taking the chance of appearing in public, weak, bald, and bloated from cancer treatments, even stumbling down the steps of his cathedra. In so doing, he continues to teach that life is not worthless when abilities fail. Last fall, soon after he finished weeks of radiation therapy, he told a gathering of mentally and physically handicapped persons in St. Patrick’s Cathedral that he felt one with them. “I don’t know what the future will be,” he told them. “I am confined to my house. All of you experience that. You don’t know how dependent you are on God. It demands such trust and faith.”

He confided that after his doctors diagnosed his brain tumor last summer, he “lay all alone at night” in his hospital bed, “but not all alone. I had the greatest peace I ever experienced because I turned myself totally over to God…. That peace hasn’t left me. I know I’m completely in God’s hands.”

Cardinal O’Connor often spoke of the first time he met Mother Teresa—in Rome, soon after Pope John Paul II had ordained him a bishop. He liked to tell the story of how she beckoned him over and “had only one thing to say to me.”

“Give God permission” was the Albanian nun’s good counsel.

If John Cardinal O’Connor’s legacy is nothing more than teaching his flock to put themselves in God’s hands, that would be enough.


  • John Burger

    John Burger has been news editor of the National Catholic Register since 2003. He came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. Prior to that, he taught English in China and France. He has a bachelor's degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master's degree in English from Iowa State University. He is married and lives in Connecticut.

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