Rocco Palmo over on Whispers in the Loggia reminds us that this week, January 15 to be precise, was the eighty-eighth birthday of John Cardinal O’Connor. Of course the fifteenth is also the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., who, had he lived, would now be seventy-seven years old. They were both friends, although I was certainly closer to O’Connor. In my personal rituals of remembrance, I usually observe their days of deathApril 4 for King and May 3 for O’Connor.
But Mr. Palmo got me to thinking again about O’Connor. He titles his reflection “Recalling the Lion,” and His Eminence was that for millions of people. Wherever the discussion turns to models of episcopal leadership, somebody will sooner rather than later ask why there aren’t more bishops like John O’Connor. He was not so popular with many other bishops. When he came to New York in 1984, he had the temerity to point out that the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, was misrepresenting Catholic teaching on abortion. That prompted a great media brouhaha, and when O’Connor went to the bishops’ meeting that fall he received little encouragement. The bishops who mentioned the matter, he told me, were mainly puzzled that he didn’t realize that the fight against abortion was a lost cause.
O’Connor didn’t accept that for a moment, and his boldness was a major factor in revitalizing the pro-life movement in the 1980s. He and I hit it off right away. I was asked to arrange a number of dinner meetings to introduce leading New Yorkers to their new archbishop. I have written about some of those exchanges in First Things. I was a Lutheran then, and on public occasions His Eminence was given to saying that he hoped I would never convert, since “we Catholics need all the ecumenical help we can get.” Of course, he didn’t mean it. When I told him of my decision in the summer of 1990, he went very graciously overboard in his expressions of delight. I do not feign modesty when I say that he greatly overestimated the public significance of my becoming Catholic.
At his behest, my ordination to the priesthood was honored with cardinals, bishops, and priests galore. At the beginning of the Mass, His Eminence said that he was possibly the only one there whose joy was mixed with a measure of apprehension, because “Richard has told me that he wants my job.” I had once told him that, when I was a boy, I was much impressed by the old story of Dick Whittington and his cat, and I thought it would be the grandest thing in the world to be Lord Mayor of London. I told him I had since changed my mind and now thought that being Cardinal Archbishop of New York must be the grandest thing in the world. He knew I meant that John O’Connor being Cardinal Archbishop was the grandest thing, but the Dick Whittington reference was occasion for friendly banter over the years.
It was the grandest thing, and he exulted in it. In his first meeting with the pope after his appointment, John Paul the Great came out of his study, held out his arms, and said, “Welcome to the archbishop of the capital of the world.” O’Connor was keenly aware of the media and saw New York as a great platform for preaching the gospel. It is frequently said that he was a showman, and there is something to that. He was good at it. In his last few years, however, he became ambivalent about whether he was less using the media than being used by the media. The truth is that he was a very shy and private person. He was not naturally gregarious. Apart from the members of his family, there were very few whom he counted as friends. Most of the time he seemed to enjoy the attention, but maintaining the high public profile was more a matter of duty. He was, and knew he was, shepherd of the city and something very much like a pastor to the nation.
It is commonly said that he carelessly dispensed money to causes he thought worthy; disliked raising money from the very rich, whom he despised; and left archdiocesan finances in a shambles. I’m not sure. People well informed about such matters tell the story quite differently. It is frequently asserted that the archdiocese was “hemorrhaging” $20 million per year. Twenty million isn’t chicken feed, but neither is it a life-threatening hemorrhage in an archdiocese with a budget in the hundreds of millions in a city with, or so it seems, a billionaire on every block. Yet there is no doubt that His Eminence was generous, also in dispensing archdiocesan monies.
And he was uneasy with the very rich. There was something of a populist streak, even a Robin Hood streak, in the man. This had everything to do with his loyalty to his working-class childhood in Philadelphia, and with his fervent devotion to his father, a skilled craftsman. That, in turn, is related to his uncriticalor so I thoughtcommitment to labor unions. The only unpleasant disagreement we had was over his very public endorsement of the union position during a newspaper strike in the city. I thought it a doubtful use of his office to be taking one side or the other in a dispute with considerable merits on both sides.
A Catholic university professor who knew him well and liked him well enough once told me: “His problem is his cockiness. He is conspicuously lacking in intellectual curiosity.” I don’t think so. There is no question about his intelligence. He did graduate work under Jeane Kirkpatrick at Georgetown, and she said he was the most intelligent student she had ever known in her long years of teaching. And he was a voracious reader. Until the last years of his life, he suffered from insomnia and would spend most of the night reading and making notes.
His apparent cockiness was his way of arguing, or, rather, of not arguing. One could urge a viewpoint at length and he would appear not to be listening, coming back with the opinion he expressed in the beginning, or not responding at all. Some time later, whether days of months, he would raise the question again and express a judgment that clearly indicated he had been thinking and reading about the matter. His revised opinion was not acknowledged as such, and one knew better than to express satisfaction at his having come around.
Well, about John Cardinal O’Connor I could go on for hours, and frequently have. His mad love affair with the priesthood, his encouragement of every impulse of renewal, his frequent eloquence as a preacher, his confidence in the persuasive power of what he called “vibrant orthodoxy,” his discovery of the spiritual bonds with Jews and Judaism, his almost mystical connection with the mentally and physically disabled, and the list goes on and on. He was a giant who elevated one’s understanding of the human potential for greatness.
Let me stop with a story. One ordinarily does not repeat in public what the pope says in private conversation, but I asked and John Paul gave me permission to tell this one. When during the O’Connor years I had occasion to meet with the pope, he would always ask, “How is Cardinal O’Connor?” And I would always say that Cardinal O’Connor is flourishing and is an inestimable gift to the Church. One time I went on to say, “You know what Cardinal O’Connor said the other day, Holy Father?” “No,” he answered. “What did Cardinal O’Connor say?” “Cardinal O’Connor said that he gets up every morning and prays that he will go to bed that night without having discouraged any impulse of the Holy Spirit. Now isn’t that a beautiful thing for a bishop to say?” A pause of several seconds. “Yes,” said the pope, “that is a beautiful thing for a bishop to say. I told him that.”
John Cardinal O’Connor. John Paul the Great. I think about them, I thank God for them, I talk with them, every day.