- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2000

After years and years, my grievance with management of St. Patrick's Cathedral jumped immediately to mind the first time I met Cardinal John O'Connor. I couldn't help it.
At least it was not a minor matter but involved finance, taxation and also principle. How often does a poor Jewish boy have to clunk coins into a plate in one professional visit to a church?
As a student, I had been pulling down $12 a week from the New York Times for covering City College enough for daily carfare, secondhand text books, and a kind of lunch mustard sandwiches. I also covered sermons on Sundays, earning a nice $3 extra.
In horror I discovered that the United States government, which considered $12 too little to bother with, began slapping me with taxes on the whole $15. With taxes, subways to and from the office, church and home, plus a collection plate, I was almost back to the $12.
But St. Patrick's often had another collection plate held out at the aisle going in, which pretty nearly made the day a dead loss. But I swear I never allowed my grievance to color my judgment as a reporter or editor.
So here I am, to give my carefully thought out judgment about the cardinal:
He is the most important person in New York. For many Americans of every faith, united to him by a particular work, he is the most important in the country. And for millions in countries far away, many not knowing of his existence, his importance is that he never forgets theirs.
These days, because of his poor health, the realization of his importance is particularly vivid among those who so admire him, but I doubt it has crossed his mind.
My knowledge of the importance of the cardinal, and sense of connection to him, comes from a work he has undertaken that is not known by many Americans who are not Catholics and who do not read him in Catholic newspapers or hear his homilies from the pulpit. But non-Catholics who feel themselves part of a human rights consciousness all know of his work as a champion of the persecuted.
When I began writing about political and religious oppression, I assumed that members of the clergy would be sensitive to persecution, and take what action they could against it.
That was a naive assumption, because throughout history there have been clergymen who were the servants of tyrannies, or looked away, pretending not to hear or see, or simply not caring.
They exist today in Europe, which has known them most often, but in America too. Some of them, like our politicians and most of our population, do nothing to oppose oppression, not even when the victims in our time are members of their own Christian religion, Catholic or Protestant. They listen to sounds other than the screams of tortured and weeping of survivors the voices within their faiths or business communities who tell them to be "realistic," not "rock the boat" of their missions abroad, or who remind them how important the trade of the despots might be, someday maybe.
I don't think Cardinal O'Connor could be silent, even if it occurred to him. He is not silent about the rights and contributions of immigrants. A major union calls him the "patron saint" of the working class. And Sunday after Sunday he reminds the congregation that 2,000 years after the beginning of Christianity, Christians are being jailed or put to death for worshipping where and how they believe, not as the government orders.
He talks about countries like Sudan, and Western eagerness to cover up Beijing's persecution of Christians.
He calls for days of prayer for the persecuted, with other Christian faiths and Jews if they join, or if not, at least by Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York.
Sometimes people yell at me for praising him, because he is against abortion. But he is a cardinal, I tell them that is what he does with his life, be a cardinal, don't you understand? We stare at each other.
Being a cardinal has not given him free passage to say whatever he wants without any opposition; hardly, otherwise there would be more O'Connor-type homilies by more high clergy.
But human-rights types know this man gives them and their cause strength and hearing far outside St. Patrick's, and even beyond Catholicism. That's another thing he has been doing with his life.

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