As I watched the funeral, I heard the eulogists, led by his close friend Bernard Cardinal Law, praise his uncompromising fidelity to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. This point was made, unmistakably, even before the first word was spoken at the funeral, when the pope sent his secretary of state to conduct the funeral mass. It was an occasion for the universal church to assert and underline the fact that one of its central pillars was being accompanied to his last resting place. All eight American cardinals who are the heads of archdioceses, the two other American cardinals who are high officials of the Vatican, and a number of other cardinals from elsewhere in the world were in attendance, as well as hundreds of bishops and priests.
Of course, the church was right in its assessment of Cardinal O'Connor. He had been its most visible and most orthodox representative in America. He had been confrontational in espousing its position against abortion, under all circumstances. He held these views without making personal enemies, at least not very many. I opposed him on this particular issue. I argued that as a rabbi, I am commanded to instruct a pregnant woman whose life is in danger to save her life by having an abortion, and that Cardinal O'Connor's efforts to outlaw abortion completely would result in curbing my religious liberty in the name of his Catholic doctrine. I knew that he did not like what I said, but I also knew that he understood that what I wrote and said was a matter of Jewish principle to me, as what he said and wrote was a matter of Catholic principle to him. There was even an occasional intimation from him that he knew very well that both our opinions would have a long life in American society, and that there was no immediate prospect that either would obliterate the other.
As I watched his majestic funeral, with its emphasis on Cardinal O'Connor as belonging to the church universal, I was ever more conscious of the counter-theme of his life, which the liturgy and the homilies were underscoring. Cardinal John O'Connor, in all the splendor of his office, was a very American personality. He was a chaplain longer than he was bishop and archbishop-combined.
By the time Chaplain O'Connor left the military, he had learned the most important lesson that his job could emphasize for him. The men, and eventually the women, who put on the uniform and marked it with the chaplain's insignia are there to serve, especially at times of tragedy. We were there, and our successors are there, to have compassion and to love every one of the children of God.
In his years as bishop and cardinal, John O'Connor extended his love and compassion widely beyond the conventional boundaries of his office. One supreme example of his caring was his capacity, even as he abhorred and forbade homosexual practices, to set up the first hospital in the New York area for those who suffered from AIDS. He abhorred the actions of those whom he regarded as practicing sin, but he loved the people whom he considered sinners. Years ago, when I first heard of what he was doing, I remembered that one of my jobs in the Air Force had been to try to comfort those who had picked up venereal disease from prostitutes in central London. The older chaplain who gave me the assignment said to me that the sin had already been committed. I was to be not judgmental but compassionate.
I wish that at the majestic funeral for Cardinal John O'Connor someone had remembered to speak of this chaplain in the American military. It was there, in the military, that O'Connor had learned to minister to the many sub-communities of America, to sinners of all kinds, and to some quiet saints from all faiths. As they carried Cardinal O'Connor's coffin down the aisle of the cathedral, the congregation I saw on television stood in somber meditation. Many crossed themselves. I, who had never risen beyond the military rank of chaplain (first lieutenant), stood at attention and saluted him.