One of the great bishops of modern times

One of the great bishops of modern times

Michael Gilchrist

New York's Cardinal John O'Connor died on Wednesday 3 May 2000 at the age of 80. He was the oldest US bishop, one of the country's most distinguished and prominent Catholic prelates and a fearless, consistent defender of Church teachings.

Pope John Paul II has named Bishop Edward Egan of Bridgeport, Connecticut, as the new Archbishop of New York.

Cardinal O'Connor's funeral on 8 May was attended by a host of high-ranking dignitaries, including President Bill Clinton and Mrs Clinton, former President George Bush and his son, Governor George Bush, the Republican Party candidate for the Presidency, and UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, and Pope John Paul II's personal envoy at the funeral, read a message from the Holy Father that described Cardinal O'Connor as "one of the great bishops and cardinals of modern times."

Earlier, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Holy See Press Office Director, said that "the Holy Father is deeply saddened by the news of Cardinal O'Connor's death. Cardinal O'Connor was an extraordinary figure in the Catholic Church in the United States. He was a truly faithful shepherd and an outstanding witness to faith and human dignity. He performed his priestly duties in the most passionate manner, always helping those in need. His presence will surely be missed."

The Cardinal's health had begun to fail after the removal of a brain tumour last August, but he gathered strength to make a farewell visit to Rome to see the Holy Father in February. Since then, he had been experiencing a growing weakness, which caused him to limit his public activities and appearances.

An archdiocesan statement noted: "One of the Cardinal's most passionate beliefs was that by uniting our suffering with the suffering of Christ on the cross, we can be instruments of enormous good in the world. The Cardinal united his own illness and suffering of these past eight months with the suffering of Christ, and always accepted the changes in his condition with great faith in God, and in His mercy and gentle goodness."

Many US bishops have paid tribute to the Cardinal's exceptional qualities and achievements.

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Archbishop of Philadelphia, said that "Cardinal O'Connor was an outstanding priest, an exemplary bishop, and a true friend. In the midst of sickness and physical weakness, he demonstrated the strength which comes from trust in God. With his suffering united to the sufferings of Christ, Cardinal O'Connor taught us complete and joyful acceptance of God's Will."

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver recalled the Cardinal as "a skilled leader who never lost the courage to speak the truth; a man of great heart and intellect; and above all, a disciple of Jesus Christ." Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, commented that "Cardinal O'Connor challenged the people of New York and the people of the nation to respect the lives of the unborn, the infirm and the unwanted."

Cardinal O'Connor's career

The future Cardinal grew up in Philadelphia, attending state elementary schools before receiving his high school education from the Christian Brothers at West Catholic High. There, he was inspired to study for the priesthood, entering St Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia at age 16. He was ordained in 1945.

He spent most of his priestly life in military uniform, joining the Navy in 1952 in answer to a call for more chaplains during the Korean War. When he retired 27 years later, he had risen to rear admiral and chief of Navy chaplains. After leaving the Navy in 1979, he was made an auxiliary bishop and assigned to the military vicariate under Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York. In May 1983 he was appointed bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, holding that post for less than a year before being chosen to succeed Cardinal Cooke - who died of cancer - as New York's archbishop in 1984. He was elevated to cardinal in May 1985.

At a time when American Catholics were increasingly inclined to pick and choose on matters of faith and morals, Cardinal O'Connor stood solidly with Church teaching on birth control, abortion and homosexuality. He headed the influential bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

He also battled with prominent Catholic abortion rights supporters, most notably, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice-presidential nominee. O'Connor refused to accept their position, writing in 1990 that Catholics who opposed the Church's teachings on abortion by "advocating legislation supporting abortion, or by making public funds available for abortion ... must be warned that they are at a risk of excommunication. If such actions persist, bishops may consider excommunication the only option."

The Cardinal also led opposition to local homosexual rights legislation and removed a 'gay' Catholic group from a parish church where it had met for years. In 1989, enraged activists responded by chaining themselves to pews and throwing condoms in the air during Mass at St Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Meanwhile, O'Connor made unannounced visits to Catholic hospitals where he ministered to AIDS patients.

He said he would have been content to be a parish priest or teacher, and feared he might instead be remembered for "the alleged - and to me, the mythical - power, about my purported political manipulations and all that kind of nonsense ... What I would like my epitaph to say is simply that 'He was a good priest'."

Not long before Cardinal O'Connor's death, the US senate, by unanimous consent, passed a resolution to award him the Congressional Gold Medal, which has been awarded to just 250 people, including Mother Teresa.

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