Cardinal John O'Connor of New York made a three-day visit to Melbourne late last October as the Pope's personal envoy to the centenary celebrations of St Patrick's Cathedral. The centrepiece of his visit was celebration of Mass at the Cathedral and consecration of a new high altar on Monday night, 27 October 1997. There, before a packed congregation, he read a special message from the Pope and delivered the homily (see page 20).
The visit was of considerable significance, given that the Cardinal is one of the top-ranking prelates in the US Catholic Church, now numbering about 60 million. His own Archdiocese contains 3 million Catholics, including one million Hispanics and 30 different language groups. He has long been regarded by religious commentators as the leading spokesman of the 'Pope's men' among the large body of American bishops, noted for his fearless public defences of Church teachings. It is no wonder the Pope has been slow to replace him, even though at 77 (though not looking his age) he has passed the normal retirement age for bishops.
Prior to the Cathedral Mass and a number of civic engagements, the Cardinal appeared at a media conference at the Archdiocesan Offices, accompanied by Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne.
The Cardinal's effortless ease in fielding questions was noteworthy and a lesson to anyone in public life. He was relaxed, charitable, persuasive and, at the same time, articulated the Church's teachings clearly and firmly.
His natural humour was never far from the surface as when asked about his wearing of a bullet-proof vest while celebrating Mass in St Patrick's Cathedral, New York: "Once, only once, the New York Police department asked me to wear a vest because they had received all sorts of warnings there would be an assassination attempt. I wore the confounded thing. It was hot and uncomfortable ...". He added: "Look, you can't be Archbishop of New York without your skin being so thick that you don't need a bullet-proof vest."
The Cardinal's career prior to his appointment as Archbishop of New York in 1984 was remarkable. In 1952 he volunteered to be a naval chaplain during the Korean War, where he saw action, and later he served in Vietnam as well. He retired in 1979 as Chief of Chaplains with the rank of rear admiral before being appointed Bishop of Scranton, New Jersey, and soon afterwards was elevated to New York.
During the media conference, the Cardinal was asked about Archbishop Pell's handling of the recent controversy surrounding the Serrano exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. He was emphatic that he completely supported Dr Pell's stand calling it "a prudent and sensitive approach", one which he would have adopted himself had he been in a similar situation.
He was predictably asked about the Church's stance on homosexuality, given his own encounters with aggressive 'gay' activists in New York. Here he made it clear that there was no prospect of the Church's teaching on the immorality of homosexual activity being changed. The principle of refusing Holy Communion to publicly declared active homosexuals was no different from that applying to anyone else publicly engaged "in acts outside Church teaching", e.g., adultery.
When asked about "unfinished business" he is likely to leave behind after his eventual retirement, the Cardinal cited the problem of abortion: "We still have an emergency at home. Between one and 1.5 million abortions are still being performed each year [in the United States]". But he pointed out that in New York during his time as Archbishop, he had set up an alternative to abortion whereby "any woman who is pregnant and needs help can come to us and we will look after her."
He cited euthanasia - "the threat of legally sanctioned suicides" - as another battle to be fought. He also regretted he had not been able to do more for New York's numerous poor and homeless, including the many immigrants who had not been reached by the Church.
During an interview with Fr James Murray of The Australian (28 October), Cardinal O'Connor described his visits to "a thousand" AIDS patients in hospitals where he "washed the bed sores and bed pans." He added: "The experience strengthened my conviction that any activity which leads to AIDS must be bad." He said he saw "secularism" as "the most pernicious of all the threats" facing the Church.
He expressed confidence about vocations to the priesthood, having run "Evenings with the Cardinal" where he encourages young men to come and talk and listen about the priesthood. "My personal calculation is," he said, "that in the New York Archdiocese, by 2004, when I will be no longer Archbishop, we will have a full seminary again."
During his preliminary remarks at the Cathedral Mass, Cardinal O'Connor speculated about possible reasons for his selection as Papal representative, but suggested there were some reasons "that even [the Pope] wouldn't know about."
The Cardinal recalled that while a chaplain with the US Navy and Marine Corps, he came through Australia "en route to the wondrous Antarctic to commune with the penguins" and that later he served in Vietnam with Australian troops, who "had a superb reputation."
And: "Perhaps most significantly, I was chaplain of the only United States ship ever named after the capital of another country, the USS Canberra, Guided Missile Cruiser, named after your capital because of your country's vital role in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Not insignificantly, I learned songs then like Waltzing Matilda, and tried not to hear others I could not repeat."