Although not unexpected, the death of John Cardinal O'Connor of New Yorkmarks the end of an era in the American Catholic Church. Without question,he was the most powerful American cardinal of his generation.
New York makes a bully pulpit for any archbishop with the talent andchutzpah, and Cardinal O'Connor had lots of both. He was never afraid ofspeaking out, even when it upset powerful people and groups. He was liked bymost New Yorkers who respect a man who says what he thinks, even when theydisagree.
Cardinal O'Connor was the de facto spokesperson for the church in theUnited States, although he was never the president of the NationalConference of Catholic Bishops, the elected leader of the America bishops.In the media capitol of the world, O'Connor was never shy about expressinghis views whether from the pulpit, from his regular column in Catholic NewYork, in press conferences, or when approached on the street by reporterslooking for a quote. Speaking out got him in trouble, and he readilyadmitted that sometimes he should have kept quiet. For the press, he was arefreshing change from bishops who never return phone calls or whose normalresponse is "no comment."
Although often labeled as conservative in the media because of hisopposition to abortion, the cardinal was to the left of most liberalDemocrats when it came to concern for the poor. He opened Catholic hospitalsto AIDS patients, took on Mayor Giuliani for New York's treatment ofhomeless and refused to cross picket lines. One reporter recalls overhearinghim scream on the phone, "There will be no scabs working at Catholichospitals as long as I am archbishop."
John O'Connor was one of the first archbishops I interviewed for my book,Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church. Hevery different from his predecessor, Cardinal Terrence Cooke. Cooke grew upin New York and spent all his priestly life in the Archdiocese, where he hadbeen at various times in charge of finances, Catholic Charities, priestpersonnel and Cardinal Spellman's secretary. He was the consummateadministrator who knew the archdiocese inside and out.
O'Connor, on the other hand, knew little about New York when he arrived andwisely delegated administrative tasks to others so he would have time forhis public role. He rarely interfered with how a pastor ran his parish. Heallowed the Jesuits, for example, to sort out the problems at St. FrancisXavier, their parish near Greenwich Village in Manhattan.
Instead of micromanaging his archdiocese, O'Connor devoted his time to hisrole as a city, national and international leader. He studied Spanish so hecould communicate better with his flock. He reached out to the Jewishcommunity who grew to recognize him as a true friend. He became a power tobe reckoned with in the NCCB. His amendments almost always were adopted onthe floor. Wise episcopal chairmen consulted with him before their documentswent to the other bishops.
The cardinal's closeness to John Paul II enhanced his position in theUnited States and in the Vatican. They were kindred spirits on substance andstyle. Whenever he visited Rome, the pope's door was open. As a member ofthe Congregation for Bishops, the cardinal had a strong say in episcopalappointments in the United States.
Nor was he afraid to speak the truth to the pope behind closed doors. Whenthe papal commission studying the crisis in Seattle went to give theirreport, before Cardinal Bernardin and Archbishop Quinn could even sit down,he told the pope, "Well, you are just going to have to admit you made amistake sending Wuerl to Seattle." The pope would accept such blunt talkbecause he knew he could trust and rely on O'Connor.
Cardinal O'Connor wanted to be remembered as a good priest and that he was.He will be a hard act to follow.