Beliefnet
Few modern American religious leaders had as bold a public profile as John Cardinal O'Connor of New York. He was an instantly familiar face here, a grand and powerful public figure who exuded charm and grace. But as is the case with the mighty and majestic St. Patrick's Cathedral, from whose lofty pulpit he delivered his eloquent sermons, most New Yorkers, and most Americans, have little knowledge of the complexity that lay behind the façade.

For years, the cardinal carried the Catholic Church's banner in high-visibility campaigns against abortion and homosexuality. In the process, he became known as one of the Vatican's favorite conservative dogmatists. His equally vigorous efforts on behalf of the rest of the Catholic agenda, however, received less attention.

Over the past decade and a half, his archdiocese--comprising 413 parishes in New York State--educated, housed, cared for, comforted, and counseled hundreds of thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics. None of the great American philanthropies have done more for society's most vulnerable people. And the archdiocese often led the way for other private charities.

His attempts to repair the social fabric should have earned him a reputation as one of the Vatican's favorite progressives, as well as one of its premier conservatives.

One example in particular comes to mind. In 1983, when HIV and AIDS suddenly struck New York like a plague, our great city nearly panicked. Frightened and confused New Yorkers began scapegoating homosexuals as the cause of the problem. People who were thought to be HIV-positive or suffering from AIDS were treated as pariahs: It was difficult to get bed space and doctors and nurses to accommodate AIDS patients.

With no prodding from the government, the cardinal made St. Clare's Hospital in Manhattan a haven for AIDS patients. That example helped relieve the anxiety of caregivers, which in turn encouraged their aggressive response to a uniquely severe crisis. There is no way to measure the good that this accomplished. However vigorous the cardinal's advocacy against gay practices was, his compassion was at least as heartfelt and impressive.

The cardinal also advanced classic American Catholic social policy by being one of the last undiluted and proud public advocates of the union movement, committed to working toward ensuring dignity and economic equality for all working men and women. And his gentle but insistent importunings advanced reconcilation particularly with the Jewish community.

Indeed, before the pope's recent visit to Israel and his moving apology to the Jewish people on behalf of the 2,000-year-old Catholic Church, few Catholic leaders, if any, had been as effective as the cardinal at expressing to the Jewish community the church's contrition for its insensitivity and indifference over the centuries.

All together, Cardinal O'Connor's attempts to repair and strengthen the social fabric should have earned him a reputation as one of the Vatican's favorite progressives, as well as one of its premier conservative dogmatists. And it's important to remember that with both his theological conservatism and his social progressivism, this former admiral found himself constantly sailing against the prevailing winds in a nation that has become more sexually permissive and less willing to offer collective support for social needs.

All of this can be found in the public record, but little beyond his advocacy against abortion and homosexuality have been memorialized in the headlines. Beyond that, there are things that we're only now learning about the cardinal that tell us even more about the man he really was. Things like unpublicized visits to AIDS patients and others to comfort them in their last hours; long personal letters to Catholic leaders filled with humble admissions of his own imperfection, and gentle attempts at saving people in authority from committing what he believed to be grave and dangerous errors of judgment; scores of homilies to small groups of communicants at daily Mass.

All of these were private acts of conscience and compassion by an extraordinary Prince of the Church who has always been a priest first. He will be difficult to replace.

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