Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., Archbishop of Chicago, Illinois
Gaudium et Spes teaches that “in virtue of the Gospel entrusted to it the Church proclaims the rights of man.” It is no exaggeration to say that the foremost American practitioner of the “public Catholicism” Vatican Council II had in mind has been John Cardinal O’Connor.
In a society where the pressure is on to make religious faith a purely “private” matter, Cardinal O’Connor has never accepted that notion for one minute. “Neither the Church at large nor individual Christians should be the slightest bit surprised,” he once wrote, “to hear from those who speak for this world’s values that we are the ones who create problems, “stir up the people, impose our values on others whenever we proclaim, ‘This is what we believe,’ Remember the charge levied against Jesus standing before Pilate: ‘He stirs up the people.’”
Cardinal O’Connor has stirred up the people. He has stirred up the people to respect the lives of the unborn, the infirm, and the unwanted. He has stirred up the people to respect the dignity of human work and the right of workers to organize. And he has stirred up the people to respect authentic religious freedom for everyone. Through it all, he has demonstrated by his life that this is not just rhetoric, that it proceeds from the heart of a true shepherd. His late-night visits to dying patients in AIDS hospital wards, his special pastoral care for people with mental and physical disabilities, his determination to keep Catholic parochial schools open and available to every child seeking a good education, all tell of a man filled with the love of God and His people.
Cardinal O’Connor’s greatest contribution therefore is, this: he has shown the Church and the world how to be an archbishop who is a passionate, yet respectful advocate for public Catholicism and, even more clearly, how to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.
Joseph M. Scheidler, Executive Director, Pro-Life Action League of Chicago
John Cardinal O’Connor has been both a beacon of light and a pillar of marble for pro-life activists. Where too many Church leaders shy away from taking an active role in the pro-life movement and assiduously avoid being seen on the streets in front of abortion clinics, Cardinal O’Connor has been bold in spreading the Gospel of Life and has on many occasions joined the activists on the sidewalks. He has also offered the resources of his archdiocese to help any woman who is contemplating abortion to choose life instead.
Cardinal O’Connor has experienced the wrathful shouts of abortion proponents as he walked through the streets of New York from church to an abortion clinic to pray. He has led the March for Life through the streets of Washington, D.C. He has given dozens of pro-life sermons at Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and has been disrupted by abortion rights activists more than once.
In 1992, Cardinal O’Connor proposed that every diocese in the country have a Tomb of the Unborn, a memorial to those babies who have died in abortion. Many have complied. This was his way of recognizing the legitimate grieving of mothers who acknowledge the loss of their children through abortion.
While Cardinal O’Connor was head of the pro-life committee of the National Council of Catholic Bishops, he held several meetings with pro-life leaders. I was honored to attend. The cardinal sought advice from the grass roots so that he and the other bishops could be more effective in communicating the pro-life message to save more babies. He was genuinely attentive to every comment and concern and respectful of the various approaches to fighting abortion. He is our kind of priest.
Excerpted from a toast to Cardinal O’Connor on the occasion of his 80th birthday by Ted Forstmann, chairman and CEO of the Children’s Scholarship Fund
Around 15 years ago, I was a very busy young fellow, running my firm, pretty sure that I knew what I needed to know in order to have a pretty successful life.
One day, while sitting in my office, I received a call from “an intermediary” of John Cardinal O’Connor saying that the cardinal would like to see me and suggesting a date. Being the very busy young fellow that I was, and knowing as much as I thought I did, I, of course, was unable to accommodate this date and, sadly, I managed to avoid another five or six phone calls from this intermediary. Then, to my horror came a call, followed by another call from “The Residence,” the cardinal’s residence, and I knew in my heart that I had had it.
When breakfast was over, the cardinal said, “Ted, I know a great deal about you, much more than you might think.” I was quivering. “Well,” the cardinal continued, “besides being a cardinal, Ted, I am a priest, which means I am a shepherd and I have decided that you are going to be one of my sheep.” He ended saying, “I have some ideas for you with respect to how you might help other people, especially children. Are you interested?”
Feeling a gigantic sense of relief, I blurted “yes,” and the cardinal said, “Well, good. Then first, Ted, you’re going to have to grow up.” I am still trying. But, seriously, as one of the cardinal’s lucky sheep, my life has never been the same.
We have a cardinal who not only has incredible compassion but also enormous courage. We have a cardinal who not only has unbelievable intellect but also total understanding of the problems of the ordinary person, who teaches us that every person, no matter what his behavior or beliefs, is a child of God, but who also teaches us never to compromise our convictions.
Most Rev. Brendan Comiskey, Bishop of Ferns, Ireland
There is an old saying to the effect that those who accomplish great things make great mistakes, those who accomplish little things make little mistakes, and then there are those who make no mistakes at all! Any mistakes that John Cardinal O’Connor made were made for the same reason that St. Peter made his, that is, out of an exuberant zeal and a wonderfully bighearted love for Jesus Christ, whom he has served so well and so faithfully.
Sometimes it is easier to describe a person by the qualities he doesn’t possess. The Letter of St. James scorns the doubtful mind that is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. Every decision, it says, of such a person will be uncertain as he turns first this way, and then that. John O’Connor has most definitely never been that kind of person.
Little characteristics gave the cardinal away. He didn’t walk to the altar; he ran. And every time I saw him do this, I thought of those wonderful words with which we priests began the Mass in the old days: “I shall go unto the altar of God, the God who gives joy to my youth!” Illness in recent times may have slowed John O’Connor down somewhat, but I suspect his youthfulness of soul grows apace.
The cardinal was at his best on the altar and in the pulpit on St. Patrick’s morning. We Irish loved him, but why shouldn’t we? Wasn’t he one of our own? As long as I live, whenever I hear the name of John Cardinal O’Connor, in my mind’s eye I shall see St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the morning of its feast day, bedecked with green, awash with the little and the large of New York society, majestic in its music, anointed by the laughter of a happy people, presided over by a wonderfully human, inherently decent man called John O’Connor.
Illinois Congressman Henry J. Hyde
Over the centuries, the Church has been literally saved by strong and saintly leaders. Each era has had its heresies, but always Christ’s promise to St. Peter is validated by the heroism of a St. Ignatius Loyola, a St. Thomas More, or in our tumultuous times, a John Paul II, a Mother Teresa, or a John Cardinal O’Connor.
The scourge besetting our civilization today is abortion, the destruction of millions of preborn children yet in the womb. Although there are many who bravely resist this carnage, one man stands above us all, one man has been the most effective and unshakable leader defending God’s gift of life, one man whose example has given us hope and inspiration—John Cardinal O’Connor.
It has been truly said that we should tremble when we think that God is just, but we can take heart that God hasn’t given up on us yet—He sent us Cardinal O’Connor.
William J. Flynn Chairman of the Board of Mutual of America Life Insurance Company
In recent years, since John Cardinal O’Connor has graced all of New York by his presence, he has also touched the entire world with his energy, his strong convictions, his wit, and his unflinching defense of Church teaching. And while his stamina and strength have faltered slightly in recent months, he has continued to be a beacon of inspiration to our city and our Church and a tower of that same commitment and courage that have always flowed through every vein of his priesthood.
And even when he first came to us by way of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the United States Navy, most of us realized even then that we had been blessed with a modern-day prophet, a man of God, and a lasting friend. There are so many valiant chapters of what he has done, what he has stood for, and what he has given all of us through the years.
He personally opened the doors to New York’s first AIDS-only facility in St. Clare’s Hospital.
The cardinal has also been a strong, resounding voice on the issue of racism and has often implored the city to unite in this struggle for peace, equality, and simple justice.
He founded the Sisters of Life as a religious congregation of dedicated women who shared his commitment in working for the innocent unborn with the same vigorous and relentless determination as their founder.
The cardinal has also been a tireless supporter of inner-city education, refusing to close school doors even when it seemed fiscally reasonable to do so.
The litany could go on. We have each been blessed by all those stunning moments in time in which he has become a lasting, loving part of all our lives.
Helen Alvaré, Director of Planning and Information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops
His Eminence John Cardinal O’Connor is both larger than life and intimately, personally charismatic. In my time with him, I have experienced both and have seem him perform the neat trick, too, of being both at once!
Like our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, Cardinal O’Connor has the gift of making ordinary people feel like they know him, and when he encounters them, he sees another person who has a whole life story, one that matters because it belongs to each person, a human being with God-given dignity.
God could not have chosen a better person to be the visible symbol of the pro-life movement in the United States at this time in history. For the secret to being “one of the greats” in the pro-life arena is this: to be one whose very presence, demeanor, words, and actions make people feel like they want to sign up with whatever it is you’re promoting. They want to wear a smile like that on their face. They want to be equally gracious to those from humble and grand worldly circumstances. They want to walk a road that’s Catholic in the truest sense, where work on behalf of the homeless, the pregnant, the poor, and the unborn is all in a day’s work.
I have so many memories of our pro-life work together, beginning with the week I was hired to work for the bishops and introduced him with the wrong name in front of every bishop in the United States. And the time that he came all the way to Washington with a severely injured leg just to sit on the steps of the Capitol to beg President Clinton to stop the awful practice of partial birth abortion. Or the time he baptized my youngest son and told me he was honored to do it. He is loved sincerely by hundreds of thousands of pro-life people, and l am proud to include myself among them.
Thomas S. Monaghan, Chairman, Ave Maria Foundation
John Cardinal O’Connor once told me that he says a prayer every day that he “not get in the way of somebody doing something good.” Since my aspiration has been to do good work for the Church with the resources and experiences that God has given me, I have many times approached Cardinal O’Connor for advice and direction. Not only has he not tried to block anything I have wanted to do, he’s enthusiastically supported me, and never once has he asked me for a penny.
More than 13 years ago, I approached Cardinal O’Connor about my idea of starting Legatus, an organization for Catholic CEOs. He was very supportive from day one and has continued this support over the years. Early on in the development of Legatus, he asked to meet with me privately. During this meeting, he proceeded to grill me on my spiritual life and devotional practices. After the grilling was over, he told me about all the great movements in the history of the Church, all of which experienced extreme difficulty in their early stages. He said that if Legatus was going to survive and thrive, I had to be ready for hard times. I assured him that I was ready and would persevere.
Well, we’ve had our tough times, and after 13 years, Legatus is still here and growing faster than ever. I can’t be sure that if I hadn’t been forewarned by Cardinal O’Connor that we’d still be here, because we have had some tough times.
About four years ago, I had another experience of Cardinal O’Connor’s support and encouragement for a project that I was trying to get started. Mother Assumpta Long was in the process of starting a new religious order in New York. At the same time, I was looking for an order of sisters to operate our grade schools, Spiritus Sanctus Academies, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I persuaded the sisters to come to Ann Arbor to take on this project and build their order. Cardinal O’Connor, while losing one of the “super-stars of women religious,” not only wished me well but graciously helped with the process in Rome. To facilitate the process, he started the order in New York at St. Patrick’s with the idea of transferring their legal status to the Lansing diocese later, which has now taken place. It is this kind of charity and self-sacrifice that is commonplace throughout my encounters with the cardinal.
During another occasion, I was at the cardinal’s residence and the weather turned bad. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an overcoat with me. Without missing a beat, the cardinal took his overcoat from the closet and gave it to me, telling me to keep it. I still have it and will always keep it.
One time when I was meeting with the cardinal, I believe it was actually the first time we had ever met, we were posing for pictures and he took off his red zucchetto and put it on my head for the pictures and told me to keep it. I later mounted the picture and the hat and put it in my office.
I feel very privileged that over the years the archbishop of New York has been so kind to me. It’s far more than I deserved or ever expected. For certain, Cardinal O’Connor has never stopped me from doing anything that at least I thought was good.
Most Rev. Edwin F. O’Brien Archbishop for the Military Services, USA
The telephone rang in my room at 452 Madison Avenue at 7:30 a.m., February 1, 1984. It was a half hour before the 8:00 official announcement would be released in Washington, D.C. After my opening greeting, the voice said, “Hello, Ed. John O’Connor here, from Scranton.” Something like, “God bless you” was my unimaginative reply. His response: “Thanks. And now it’s on to Calvary.”
Despite an appearance that exuded unlimited self-confidence, uncanny humor, and full control, John O’Connor has not known a day since that morning during which the Paschal Mystery was not the prism. The conviction that Christ can continue his work of redemption only through the total self-sacrifice of his disciples has impelled Cardinal O’Connor to speak the truth and do right, regardless of the criticism, misunderstanding, and personal attacks with which he became all too familiar.
I once suggested to him that the word “absorb” could aptly describe his pastoral spirituality. And he agreed. Just as the Good Shepherd willingly “absorbed” the poundings of the scribes, Pharisees, and Roman authorities, so must the bishop, whose divine commission is to shepherd the flock in His name. In the face of New York’s aggressive, highly charged secular media, he would not be intimidated.
As I write, this man of extraordinary courage is facing a different kind of Calvary and a continuing opportunity to live, teach, and preach the paschal mystery. The words of Terence Cardinal Cooke, spoken to me in 1983 as Bishop O’Connor was leaving New York for Scranton, ring in my mind ever so forcefully: “I’m going to miss Bishop John. He’s a good friend and a good priest. I think he’s the finest priest I’ve ever known.” To which so many of us must echo, “Amen!”