"When I'm down in the crypt," Cardinal O'Connor, then a still hale and energetic man in no hurry to relinquish the reins of power, told me three years ago, "reflections about each of my predecessors [who are buried there] run through my head. But my most focused thought has to be that I will one day be in one of these tombs, unless I plop into the sea or out of an airplane or something like that."
The insomniac cardinal--who was granting an interview for one of those when-will-he-step-down profiles, this one for the New York Observer--insisted there was nothing morbid about his subterranean peregrinations among the dead. "It's not melancholy. It's realistic," he said. "Whatever pseudo-prestige or pseudo-status I have because of this job, it's all going away."
Cardinal O'Connor was an old-fashioned churchman: simple piety mixed with a combative spirit. He was a feisty man who used the power and prestige of his office to uphold traditional Catholic doctrine in a frequently hostile world. He was also a man with the common touch. Writer John Leo once described him as the cardinal of the Holy Roman Church you could most easily imagine at Toots Shor's.
What other cardinal would inspire this obituary from tabloid scandal-meister Steve Dunleavey of the New York Post? "Johnny O. Whadda dude."
Cardinal O'Connor refused to soft-pedal such issues as abortion. In 1984, he boldly stepped into the political arena and denounced the pro-choice Catholic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. Later in the decade, he became a controversial lightning rod for preaching against the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. Demonstrators thronged the sidewalk outside St. Patrick's, angrily yelling, "Your children are f------, and you have to give them condoms." Feminist celebrity Gloria Steinem quipped that the two worst things about New York were AIDS and Cardinal O'Connor.
Some liberal Catholics viewed Cardinal O'Connor as a mere puppet of Rome, a rigidly hierarchical bishop who didn't nourish the laissez-faire attitudes toward sex and church authority that have developed in the restive American church. Instead of trying to mediate between Rome and America on sexual matters, "he was the Vatican's man and toed the Vatican line," a church liberal who declined to be identified told me.
Although Cardinal O'Connor disinvited President Bill Clinton to the prestigious Al Smith dinner because of the president's veto of a bill banning the procedure known as partial-birth abortion, he was actually an unreconstructed liberal--that is, on classic social and political issues relating to labor, where he was as brashly outspoken as he was on moral topics. "There have been few bishops in my lifetime as supportive of organized labor as Cardinal O'Connor," labor activist Monsignor George Higgins told me. Higgins noted that the Service Employees International Union recently took out a full-page ad in The New York Times to thank O'Connor for all he had done for them.
"It was well-deserved," said Higgins, who recently wrote a column on Cardinal O'Connor for Catholic News Service headlined, "The Patron Saint of the Working Man."
Cardinal O'Connor's distrust of the rich was behind his lack of ardor for one of the activities in which he did not excel: fund-raising. He was famous for walking into a room of deep pockets and announcing, "If my father could see me now, he'd be rolling in his grave." His father had been a gold-leafer and lifelong crafts union man in West Philly.
Indeed, the key to understanding Cardinal O'Connor may be found in the life of "Dagger John" Hughes, the Civil War-era bishop of New York. Like Cardinal O'Connor, Hughes was an outspoken working-class Irishman. Hughes, who was famous for quelling the Irish riots against the Civil War draft and for starting construction of St. Patrick's, once threatened to burn down New York if anti-Catholic riots among the city's Protestants didn't cease. Cardinal O'Connor read and admired Peter Quinn's 1994 novel about Civil War New York, "Banished Children of Eve," in which Hughes plays a major role.
"I was thinking about Hughes long before the Peter Quinn book," Cardinal O'Connor told me. "I read about Dagger John in my early time here, and I was truly fascinated. To be very honest, I've asked myself if I kind of unconsciously began to imitate him. I had to recognize that I was strongly influenced by him."
Like Hughes, O'Connor had a quick tongue--he once denounced Salman Rushdie without having read anything by him. Also like Hughes, he was first and foremost a pastor to his flock. Despite his stance against homosexuality, Cardinal O'Connor established an AIDS ward in the New York Catholic hospital system and constantly expanded care for AIDS patients.
The Village Voice's pro-life iconoclast Nat Hentoff, a close friend of the cardinal's and his biographer, wrote of someone who told him that Cardinal O'Connor's predecessor as New York archbishop, Cardinal Terence Cooke, seemed afraid to shake the hand of a sick woman. But Cardinal O'Connor emptied the bedpans of AIDS patients. "The church never condemns anybody for any orientation," Cardinal O'Connor said, "but the church teaching is very firm [on the sinfulness of homosexual acts]. It's not going to change."
Cardinal O'Connor was the perfect representation of what Pope John Paul II wanted in a bishop: a combination of compassion bordering on bleeding-heartedness on social issues, combined with a retrograde toughness on doctrine.
"He was the American John Paul II," said Scott Appleby, a historian of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. Appleby noted that Cardinal O'Connor had the rare gift of putting the issues the pope considers important--concern for human life, care for the losers in a post-industrial economy--into the American idiom. "He may well be the last of a kind of straightforward, no-nonsense spokesman for the Catholic Church."