- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

During an interview several years ago John Cardinal O'Connor told me he intended to spend his retirement working with the retarded and handicapped. God and the pope had other plans. But in the end his obedience, courage and witness may have done more good than any retirement he could have imagined.

Cardinal O'Connor died last week following a nine-month struggle against cancer. A brain tumor had robbed him of his trademark energy and transformed the archbishop. His calvary was more subtle than most. The cardinal's suffering came not from overt pain, but from being forced by illness to exercise his ministry without the robust elan that had characterized his 16 years in New York. Though he was the oldest active bishop in the United States, at 80, the pope refused to replace him with good reason. In a world of timidity (a trait not lost on the clergy) Cardinal O'Connor was an outspoken giant. He was a man's man, like the pope himself, unafraid to say the unpopular and invite criticism in the service of the Gospel. Shunning ideology, Cardinal O'Connor championed the rights of the unborn, while vocally supporting labor unions and arguing for fair housing practices in New York.

Even as he expressed his opposition to homosexuality, he made it his business to volunteer regularly at a New York AIDS hospice. He was a contradiction to the world; a consistent apostle to those familiar with church teaching. With ample doses of love and charity he unflinchingly made the truth manifest in season and out.

Cardinal O'Connor was a perfect fit for New York. The old Navy rear admiral had been trained on the battlefront. After staring down the death and depression all too familiar to an active duty chaplain, the media crush of New York was a cake walk. But the cardinal wasn't merely another showboat in the media spotlight; he was a spiritual force in the city. I will never forget the site of Cardinal O'Connor on the feast of Corpus Christi making his way out of St. Patrick's Cathedral, holding the body of his savior high in the air.

Traffic came to a standstill as New Yorkers fell to their knees. Even nonbelievers could not fail to be captivated by the sheer theater of the moment. No self-respecting New Yorker could ignore his conviction and audacity. Who but Cardinal O'Connor could stand on a crate in the middle of Wall Street, at lunch time, and preach an impromptu sermon? The cardinal did; proving time and time again his willingness to do whatever was necessary to take the Catholic faith to the man in the street. With grand oratory and bold gestures Cardinal O'Connor did what other church leaders were unable to do: engage the popular culture and get the message out. When was the last time you saw a high-ranking cleric preach on a street corner at high noon? He was constantly on television, giving speeches, reaching out to other faiths, challenging popularly held views, and perhaps most importantly, dispensing the sacraments. He had real moral authority in an age when neither morality nor authority was held in much esteem.

How hard it must have been for him in those last days. The fit man who led New York's 2 million Catholics was unrecognizable. He could no longer muster the energy to say Mass at his beloved Cathedral during the last weeks of his life. In the end, the voice that had challenged New York and brought hope to so many was still: Communication became impossible. But in that silence, Cardinal O'Connor offered his loudest witness. Like Christ himself, Cardinal O'Connor embraced his suffering, accepted his frailty, and became what he had spent his entire priesthood defending.

In his final days Cardinal O'Connor became the living symbol of the frail elderly, the defenseless, the unborn and the retarded. In his silent state he was saying: "We all have value. Each human life no matter its condition must be respected and cherished; not for what we can do, but for who we are: Children of God." This final message may be the most powerful and memorable ever delivered by the cardinal. One only hopes people were listening. May John Cardinal O'Connor rest in peace.

Raymond Arroyo is the news director at EWTN, the world's largest religious television network.

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