New York’s New Archbishop: A Profile

About a month ago a nun familiar with New York’s peace demonstrators predicted that if Bishop John J. O’Connor, then of Scranton, was named Archbishop of New York, there would be people lying all along Fifth Avenue in front of the Cathedral in protest. That does not seem to be the case. Yet.

Bishop O’Connor was a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from December 1945 until May 1979, when he was ordained in Rome to serve as auxiliary bishop to the military vicar, Cardinal Cook. For four years — his longest “tour” anywhere — he was the vicar general of that far-flung vicariate, tirelessly serving its over two million people in the U.S. Foreign Service overseas, in veterans hospitals in the United States, and in all branches of the armed forces world-wide. It was equally likely, if you were looking for Bishop O’Connor, for him to be in New York on the 17th floor of 1011 1st Avenue, or at Dugway Proving Grounds on a confirmation trip, or with the Seventh Fleet on a pastoral visit, or at a small upstate country parish at the funeral of a retired chaplain. He worked incredibly hard, and perhaps because of that, he seemed to have time for everyone. A few years ago the National Catholic Reporter ran an open letter to then newly appointed Archbishop Bernardin with recommendations for being a good shepherd in Chicago. The writer suggested he do away with the pomp — maybe walk to work, or eat lunch in the employee cafeteria. As it happens, most of the people who work in the New York chancery building already know their new archbishop. He used to walk to work, and eat in the employee cafeteria.

That he has spent twenty-seven years as a military chaplain, the final three or so as the Navy’s Chief of Chaplains, is readily evident when he speaks of war and peace. He has seen it; he has been there. He has had blood spilled upon him and has suffered the tragic dislocations of national defense. War is never justified, he has said directly and indirectly over and over again, except in proper defense of the defenseless. His own defense of the defenseless is most eloquently seen in his absolute and complete understanding of abortion in all its forms, and his dismay with a society which can allow, even approve, such a public policy and philosophy. He does not suffer opposition lightly when it is the magisterium which is under attack. There are points of Catholic thinking, abortion most clearly one of them, regarding which no discussion is necessary. He has thought these things through well and often, and ascribes completely to the legitimate teachings of the church.

He has impressive academic credentials which ought to put to rest any notion that his dedication is simplistic lockstep. He did a Ph.D. in political science at Georgetown, and has done advanced work in both ethics and clinical psychology as well.

Yet none of his many badges — from academic degrees to military declarations — builds a barrier before him. When the people of Scranton heard they were losing their recently named “newsmaker of the year,” the mayor sent a basket of roses. When you are a hit in Scranton, the mayor explained, the next stop has to be New York.

And so it will be. On March 19 Bishop O’Connor will “fleet up,” as they say where he used to work, and take over from three Josephs: Archbishop Ryan and Bishop Dimino of the military vicariate, and Bishop O’Keefe of New York. Chances are, New York won’t know what hit it. The new archbishop plans to preach at St. Patrick’s Cathedral regularly and often. And if there are quiet demonstrators outside, he will probably invite them in to listen.

The Archbishop of New York, after all, not only knows how the gospels end, he believes it.

By

When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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