Cardinal John O'Connor: 'a vigorous defender of human life'
By Luke Coppen
CARDINAL John O'Connor's life was celebrated at a funeral Mass on Monday marked by pageantry, prayer and an outpouring of love for the man who served the archdiocese's 2.4 million Catholics for 16 years.
A massive funeral procession of 800, including priests, 120 bishops and 15 cardinals, wound its way around St. Patrick's Cathedral, where an estimated 3,500 invited mourners including President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had gathered.
Other dignitaries who attended included Vice President Al Gore, former President George Bush, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, UN Secretary General Koli Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Cardinal O'Connor's closed coffin, covered in a white linen cloth, rested at the front of the majestic church.
On top lay the cardinal's personal crucifix and a book of the Gospels.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state, carried O'Connor's staff in the procession. He also presided at the ceremony, which celebrated O'Connor's new life in heaven.
After the service, the cardinal's casket was to be taken down a narrow staircase to a crypt beneath St Patrick's altar, where all previous archbishops of New York are buried.
His coffin will be placed near that of Pierre Toussaint, the 19th-century Haitian whose cause for sainthood was supported by Cardinal O'Connor. That portion of the ceremony will be private, with only O'Connor's relatives and a small group of church officials present.
Cardinal O'Connor, 80, died last week after a long struggle with brain cancer. His health began to fail after he had a brain tumour removed last August. He gathered the strength to make a farewell visit to Rome to see his friend and ardent supporter Pope John Paul II in February. The Pope led the mourning for the cardinal with a telegram from Vatican City. "As a deeply spiritual man, a warm and zealous pastor, and effective teacher of the faith and a vigorous defender of human life, Cardinal O'Connor modelled his own life and ministry on the figure of the Good Shepherd who, to the end, gives his life for the flock," the pope said the day after the Cardinal's death.
John Joseph O'Connor was born in Philadelphia on January 15, 1920 and was ordained priest of the archdiocese in 1945. After seven years teaching at a high school, he pursued advanced studies in advanced ethics and clinical psychology. He later earned a doctorate in political science at Washington's Georgetown University.
He became a Navy chaplain during the Korean war and served on warships in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Mediterranean, and in Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
In 1958 he received the Legion of Merit award for his work in preparing and developing the Navy Moral Leadership Program. He received the award again in 1965 for "exceptionally meritorious conduct" as chaplain to the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam.
In 1972 he became the first Catholic chief chaplain of the US Naval Academy and three years later he became the second Catholic in history to be appointed Navy chief of chaplains.
While at the Naval Academy he developed an ethics course for midshipmen and a video catechetical programme that was used by Catholic military chaplains around the world.
He retired from the Navy in 1979 when he was named auxiliary bishop of the Military Vicariate, which at that time oversaw Catholic chaplains in the armed forces. Pope John Paul II personally ordained him a bishop at the Vatican May 27, 1979.
Bishop O'Connor was a key figure in the US bishops' bold critique of Amer
ican nuclear defence policy, The Challenge of Peace. Soon after, the Pope appointed him bishop of Scranton diocese in Pennsylvania. Less than a year later, he was named archbishop of New York and became a member of the College of Cardinals.
He quickly emerged as a vigorous and effective defender of Catholic morality. He and Cardinal Bernardin testified jointly before US Congress, opposing the deployment of cruise missiles in Western Europe and challenging the Reagan administration's proposals for massive outlays on nuclear weaponry and space-based defence systems.
He also declared that the archdiocese would not compromise on its teaching on homosexuality, even if it meant Church service agencies would have to forego millions of dollars in contracts with New York City.
He was an eloquent defender of human life, calling on politicians to commit themselves to changing the permissive abortion laws of the United States and pledging that any woman considering abortion could come to his archdiocese to receive whatever help she needed to bring her pregnancy to term.
As chairman of the bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities in 1989-92, he inaugurated a $5 million
public information campaign to improve American understanding of the church's teachings on abortion.
His concern for people with AIDS led him to start several programmes for them in the archdiocese, including the first hospitalbased dental clinic for AIDS patients, a residence for babies with AIDS and an acute care unit at St. Clare's Hospital for prisoners with AIDS. In 1987 President Reagan appointed him to a newly formed 13member national commission on AIDS.
An ardent advocate of better Catholic-Jewish relations, Cardinal O'Connor gave several important speeches on the topic and received several awards
from Jewish groups. He also worked for peace in the Middle East, travelling there several times and meeting with religious and political leaders.
During a visit to Cuba in 1988, at a late-night meeting with President Fidel Castro, he expressed concern about Cuba's political prisoners. About two months later Castro sent him a list of 433 political prisoners he was willing to release, including some whose freedom had been sought by church officials for many years. Cardinal O'Connor oversaw the formation of three new religious communities under New York archdiocesan auspices: the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in 1990, and the Sisters of Life, formed in June 1991 as a result of a public appeal he made nearly two years earlier for creation of a religious order whose members would be devoted to the defence of human life against abortion and euthanasia.
He also was an outspoken advocate of workers, supporting a strike at the New York Daily News in 1990 and testifying to the US Senate hearing in favour of legislation barring employers from hiring permanent replacements to replace strikers.
Before he left Monday's funeral Mass, President Bill Clinton, paid tribute to the late cardinal: "I think he set a very large role in the life of the church, and even when he was controversial and when he disagreed with me, I liked the fact that he was outspoken and he stood up for what he believed in."