Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Cardinal John O’Connor, whom Richard John Neuhaus called “my dear friend” and who received him into full communion with the Catholic Church in September 1990 at the chapel in his residence. Following are four tributes to the cardinal, beginning with one from Father Neuhaus, given a few days before Cardinal O’Connor died and later published in “The Public Square.”
A conference on the cardinal’s life and work is being held today at 4:00 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, followed by a tenth anniversary memorial Mass at 5:30, at which Archbishop Timothy Dolan will be celebrant and homilist.
Always a Priest, Always Present
By Richard John Neuhaus
I first came to know the Cardinal when he arrived here as Archbishop in 1984, and our institute was able to be of some little help in his settling in to New York. Of course, some have thought him a most unsettling presence over these sixteen years, but that, not to put too fine a point on it, is their problem.
I think I can fairly say that we hit it off from the beginning, and he made it a point that I should call him my friend. Thus has he been for all these years “my dear and eminent friend.” On September 8, 1990, on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, he received me into full communion with the Catholic Church, and a year later, on the same day, ordained me a priest of the Catholic Church. It was, in his understanding and mine, the sacramental completion of a ministry undertaken many years earlier as a Lutheran pastor.
In 1989 the Cardinal issued a pastoral letter on the priesthood, also dated September 8, the Nativity of Our Lady. The letter is titled, “Always a Priest, Always Present.” There he wrote, “I believe that suffering is of the essence of the priesthood. The priest is preeminently a man of sacrifice.” This I have noted about the Cardinal over the years, that for him the priesthood and the Mass are always under the sign of sacrifice. The Eucharist, as you know, is many things: a meal in memory of Him; a communion of the living and dead in Christ; an anticipation of the eschatological Feast of the Lamb. But in the preaching and piety of John Cardinal O’Connor, it is preeminently the sacrifice of the Mass.
Perhaps some of you, too, have been impressed by the homiletical specificity and force with which he portrays the action of the Liturgy as the reenactment of the suffering, death, and glorious resurrection of Christ. At the epicenter is always the Cross. It is the sacrifice of the Mass not as the repetition of Calvary, to be sure, but as re-presentation to the Father and to us. “Always a Priest, Always Present.” Always a priest as one is present at and in the sacrifice of Christ, our high priest.
In the thought of the Cardinal, and in the testimony of his life, sacrifice is fulfillment, and the immeasurable joy of participating in the redemptive suffering of Christ, which embraces all the sufferings of the world. In the Cardinal’s present weakness he knows yet more deeply that fulfillment and that joy. Redemptive suffering leaves its mark. In the pastoral letter on the priesthood he wrote, “It has always impressed me that even his risen body was scarred with the wounds of the Crucifixion. I cannot imagine an unscarred priest, a priest without wounds, because I cannot imagine an unscarred Christ.” Those of you who have already read Death on a Friday Afternoon know that the last chapter, on the last word from the Cross, is titled “The Scars of God.” About that, too, I have learned from my dear and eminent friend.
In recent weeks there have been a number of public events in tribute to the Cardinal. At one of them, the President of the City Council said that, in the more than three hundred years of New York City, no public figure has left as great a mark for the good. I haven’t been here for three hundred years, but I’m not inclined to argue with that.
The Cardinal speaks often of his father, who was a highly skilled craftsman in Philadelphia. He was a gold-leafer, meaning that he applied gold to buildings and works of art. The Cardinal has followed in his father’s steps. It is a different kind of gold, of course: a human gold not untouched by the divine; the gold of kindness, of generosity, of uncompromised witness to the truth, of devoted service to the end.
For years and years to come, people will be discovering in this often tarnished city the gold of my friend’s craftsmanship. And when they see the signs of its shining, they will say, “Cardinal O’Connor was here. He was always a priest. He is always present.”
Richard John Neuhaus (1936—2009) founded First Things and served as its editor in chief from 1990 to 2009.
My Cardinal to the End
By Brian Caulfield
I was a sports journalist at the time, dealing in the unchangeable facts of box scores and final standings. Cardinal O’Connor’s weekly column in Catholic New York intrigued me because he appealed to another sort of truth, based on faith. It was a truth beyond scientific or mathematical proof that required personal risk and commitment. When I read that as a Navy chaplain he risked his life to be with his men, I saw my own devotion to truth as sadly safe and hypothetical. Cardinal O’Connor won my heart because I knew that someone greater had won his. I wanted to know that someone else.
I returned to Mass, indulging in the Real Presence and the mystery of forgiveness, but I was still on the fence about abortion. My libertarian leanings had me thinking that a little growth inside the womb was like a hangnail that could be snipped off at will. Then I read Cardinal O’Connor’s response to Mario Cuomo’s famous Notre Dame speech. It was a speech poised solely for effect and was accepted only for its conclusion: you can be Catholic and “pro-choice.” O’Connor showed me that to take actions and their consequences seriously was to become a modern-day abolitionist. Soon I was praying outside of abortion clinics and counseling women.
One week he asked in his column for single men, devoted to the faith, who were willing to take on the sufferings of the people by standing at the altar of God. I signed up to be his seminarian.
I finally got to meet him in the flesh when I served Mass with my classmates at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Well done, well did, well deed,” he joked, as he thanked the servers after Mass, extending his bony hand. One time when I held up the thurible for him to pour in incense, he sensed my tense uncertainty and dropped a few grains down the sleeve of my cassock. He smiled that warm smile that said to me he understood everything and told me not to worry.
I was not called to be his priest. God had another plan, and I became a reporter for Catholic New York, recording the words of the cardinal each week, as he preached from the nation’s most visible pulpit, and made front-page news with his comments on abortion, politicians, exorcism, and his fight with the city over condoms and conscience.
“O’C” was a fixture for the New York Post’s headline writers, and at Catholic New York we prided ourselves in telling the story behind the sensation and the sound bites. Fellow journalists asked me if I felt constrained by writing for the Church, and I always said no. I got to tell the whole story, with the full truth of the Gospel and the Christian understanding of the human person as my sources.
After what he described to his brother bishops as “a great ride,” Cardinal O’Connor fell ill with cancer. He was active until the last possible day, still preaching, teaching, and making converts out of seekers like me. At his funeral Mass, a pro-life ovation erupted, in the presence of a host of pro-abortion politicians. It was a moment brought about by Cardinal O’Connor, who even in death, was a witness for life and for the faith that changes lives.
Brian Caulfield is a communications specialist with the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Conn., and editor of the website Fathers for Good (www.fathersforgood.org).
A Prince and the Mayor
By Edward I. Koch
My relationship with John Cardinal O’Connor was, to say the least, unique: he, a prince of the Church, me, a secular Jew, who is very proud of his Jewish traditions. While not observant, I am comfortable attending a synagogue and feel nearly naked without a yarmulke on my head.
We began the practice of having about six dinners or breakfasts together a year, during which we would discuss a host of subjects. Half of them took place at his residence and half at the Mayor’s official residence, Gracie Mansion. The Church was delivering social services under contract with the City, as it had done for generations. Without in any way diminishing the value of civil servants, I said many times that those affiliated with the Catholic Church working to provide services for the poor, the homeless, the sick, single mothers, abused women and orphans with the additional element of religious belief and answering a call to duty, could and would provide an extra dimension of comfort.
During a breakfast at his residence, he said to me, “We should write a book together.” I replied, “I’d love to,” and we did. The title is His Eminence and Hizzoner. We gave our respective advance of $100,000 each to charities or non-profits. His Eminence gave his to Catholic Charities, and I gave mine to city agencies like WNYC, etc.
The Cardinal’s awareness of when I was worried or distressed was exhibited on another occasion. During my third term, corruption in city government was uncovered involving the Queens Borough President Donald Manes and the Bronx Democratic County Leader. Although I had no prior knowledge of their corrupt acts, I fell into a state of severe depression. I did not feel that I could talk to anyone about my feelings or ask anyone for help. I didn’t think it would be helpful to have the people of this city worried that their mayor was incapacitated.
Cardinal O’Connor knew instinctively how I felt. He called me on a Sunday morning and said, “Ed, I know you are depressed. You need not be. Everyone knows you are an honest man.” I replied, “Your Eminence, I can’t tell you how much this call means to me.” He said, “It’s nothing.” I replied, “Your Eminence, it’s everything. The Lubavitcher Rebbe didn’t call me; you did.”
One final anecdote: The night I lost the Democratic primary to David Dinkins, I returned to Gracie Mansion at midnight. About 15 minutes later there was a knock on the door. The police officer at the front gate did not call ahead to let me know that someone had arrived. I opened the door and there stood the Cardinal. The Cardinal said, “Ed, this is not the end of our friendship. I want us to continue with our breakfasts and dinners. We will always be good friends.” We did resume those meetings, our friendship continued, and I went to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve as I had done for nearly forty years.
I loved John Cardinal O’Connor as I did my own flesh-and-blood brother, Harold. On my desk I keep the Mass card from his funeral. Whenever I feel down, I look at his photo, and I’m energized. I was fortunate to have him as my friend for so long and look forward to continuing that friendship in the hereafter, which draws closer every day.
Edward I. Koch was mayor of New York from 1978 to 1989. “A Prince and the Mayor” is part of a tribute he will be giving at a conference celebrating the cardinal’s life at 4:00 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral .
Fearless Defender of Life
By Frank Pavone
When Bishop Austin Vaughan was arrested at a Manhattan abortion clinic in 1988, the archbishop of New York suggested he might one day join the bishop in a jail cell. But his people didn’t need a photo of Cardinal John J. O’Connor in handcuffs to understand his love for the unborn his fearlessness in defending them, and his pastor’s understanding of their mother’s struggles.
In a major address he gave shortly after becoming archbishop, he told “anyone who is within the sound of my voice and is pregnant and considering abortion, come to me and we will provide you with what you need.” That kind of practical care and the willingness to make it happen marked his life as our bishop.
When a mentally imbalanced man shot several people in an abortion clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1994, he Cardinal responded publicly, “If anyone is thinking about shooting an abortionist, let him shoot me first.” And when asked if he was going to put a moratorium on abortion clinic protests as a result of the shooting, as had been done in Massachusetts, he declared, “I too would be willing to call for a moratorium on clinic protests, as soon as the clinics impose a moratorium on abortions.”
My class was the first to go through all our years at the diocesan seminary with him as archbishop, and he was a model for us as a priest, and not only in his pro-life work. He came often to St. Joseph’s seminary and made a deliberate effort to know every one of his seminarians. He told us that “before I lay hands on you, I want to know who I’m giving this awesome responsibility to.” Once a month he brought the seminarians to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in cassock and surplice, and he would say “this is so you can see the people and they can see you.” Afterward he would take us to his residence for coffee and cookies. It was one of the ways he got to know us.
Raised in a Catholic family, the cardinal was naturally pro-life. “It was just a normal part of our lives growing up,” recalled Mary Ward, the cardinal’s younger sister in a conversation with me, but he became radically pro-life after a visit to Auschwitz. When he put his hand in an oven where the bodies of Jews and other Nazi victims were burned, “he found it quite unreal that anyone could think about doing that to another human being. He considered abortion to be just that unthinkable.”
His work for the unborn was not just pastoral but institutional. As chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-life Activities, he helped invigorate the Catholic Church’s public witness to the sanctity of life. When he began his tenure, evangelical Protestants and Catholics were fighting abortion from separate places. Understanding that the movement should grow in unity rather than division, he brought these pro-life leaders together for meetings in his residence. The unified pro-life movement we have today is partly his creation.
In 1991, Cardinal O’Connor founded the Sisters of Life, a joyful community of sisters who, in addition to their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, take a fourth vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life. After Father Lee Kaylor’s widowed mother became one the first Sisters of Life, he envisioned a ministry that would equip priests to be stalwart advocates for the unborn. He went to the cardinal for guidance and with this blessing began Priests for Life on the West Coast.
Two years later, Father Kaylor asked me to take over Priests for Life. I went to the cardinal seeking his guidance, and his permission—in the midst of the much-heralded priest shortage. Always eager not to do all he could to help not only the unborn but their mothers, he encouraged including post-abortion healing in the ministry.
Not long after, I received a call from the priest personnel director: the cardinal had given me his blessing, and a three-year window to build the ministry. He urged me to headquarter Priests for Life anywhere in the archdiocese. We set up our first office in Holy Rosary Church in Port Chester. He let me develop the work on my own, but his support opened many doors.
The cardinal fought for life until the day he died. At his funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, attended by 3,500 mourners, the crowd stood for a thunderous ovation when the homilist, Cardinal Bernard Law, declared, "What a great legacy he has left us in his consistent reminder that the church must always be unambiguously pro-life." Even pro-choice President Bill Clinton and his wife, now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were pulled to their feet.
This summer, as we launch pro-life Freedom Rides in the South to call attention to abortion as the greatest civil rights tragedy since slavery, we will save a seat on the bus for Cardinal John J. O’Connor. We know he will be riding with us.
Father Frank Pavone is national director of Priests for Life.