Wednesday, May 10, 2000 4:00 PM UTC

Mourning the loss of Cardinal O'Connor

America's most powerful Catholic was a tough guy, and he was wise to the ways of politics and human beings.

The funeral of Cardinal John O’Connor at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 50th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on Monday was stuffed with the powerful and the formerly powerful, presidents and ex-presidents, governors and ex-governors, mayors and ex-mayors.

When old men such as this one die at an age like 80, they seem to take entire eras with them. Style, culture, morality, politics, bigotry, decay and revitalization shift direction and dimension at such speeds that they who believe there once upon a time was a civilization in place at their birth can conclude that everything’s over except the shouting.

In the same cathedral, Sunday after Sunday, O’Connor brought a sort of dignity to the pulpit that now almost seems arcane. Oh, but he was not really arcane, if you looked at the man the way he should be seen. Everyone who lives in New York knew who he was, or had seen him somewhere — in the flesh, on television, in a newspaper photograph, in a magazine. O’Connor was an elite part of New York and he upheld a sort of religious majesty. His huge cathedral on Fifth Avenue was almost an argument, with its architecture pointing to the heavens, against all the wealth and money associated with that street, where little of celestial concern ever seems to hold sway.

This is not to say that we can always count on religion to do battle with our slavish materialism. We know better than that. Every religion, surely in every era, has produced its con men and its politicians in supposedly hot get-ups who were bent more on building testaments to their images of themselves and their appetites than to anything deemed permanent and unquestionably worthy of worship in its transcendence. America has had its share of those people over the years, the Elmer Gantrys.

O’Connor was not one of those, nor was he anybody’s perfect guy trying to do a job between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit. He was an American and he was Irish and hard-headed and a man who not only knew how to put his foot in his mouth but how to pull that foot out in front of everyone. He had a sense of humor, which made him a kind of religious leader almost peculiar to this country when it comes to Christianity, which doesn’t leave much room for the making of jokes and the telling of funny tales. If you’ve read the New Testament, you know that there might not be one joking laugh to be had there.

To be a cardinal in New York and in this time is no easy job, and that sense of humor held O’Connor in good stead. His intellect didn’t hurt him either. He was also helped by his street sense and his conception of faith as something that had to be encompassing enough to maintain itself in the face of whatever lions and rabid dogs stood in its path. That made him perfect for New York, a city of conflicts wrapped in enigmas of greed, self-righteousness, guile and ruthlessness — at least, partially.

At least part of his toughness and his faith as well as much of his
compassion must have deepened as a result of the cardinal’s having
served under fire with the Marines in Vietnam. He was a man who knew
well the immeasurably small distance between life and death, perfect
health and suddenly being crippled or disfigured for life and all of
the things that war teaches those who spend their time inside it.

But New York is also the capital of the national urban soul. It is the place where artists immigrate to find their expressive voices and their audiences and where all kinds of people from just about every place on this Earth arrive, sometimes poor, sometimes repulsively wealthy, sometimes well-educated, sometimes ignorant and ready to learn. But all of them have personal stories and, to Cardinal O’Connor, they each had individual and immortal souls.

Yes, Cardinal O’Connor was up to it; he was ready for the protean beast and the multicolored butterfly that are equal parts of New York. He was a tough guy and he was wise to the ways of politics and human beings. There weren’t any issues that he would back away from, and the opinions that he held were his own, whether or not they went with the commonest ideologies of the day. So even if he was an opponent, he was respected.

Women who believed in abortion thought him a hindrance because he did not. Homosexuals under the banner of ACT UP created a ruckus in his cathedral and threw condoms around for his anti-gay remarks. Those who were aware of the interrelationship of the Catholic Church and the brutal methods of colonialism didn’t buy any of it. The people who took their orders from the Vatican had been on the wrong side too often as far as they were concerned.

It didn’t matter. O’Connor knew the history of the church and he was not afraid to say that it had surely functioned sometimes more for the dark than for the light. He could be eloquent and stubborn and he would stand up for what used to be called “the little people,” meaning the common folk with blue collars, callused hands and only a few bucks to show for their toil and sweat.

He condemned bigotry and was very helpful in handling the AIDS crisis when, as former Gov. Mario Cuomo observed, most were emotionally out of orbit. While being berated for homophobia, O’Connor was washing out the bedpans of AIDS victims.

The cardinal nominated Pierre Toussaint, a former slave, for
sainthood. In keeping with his belief that the love of God was not
color-coded, O’Connor was laid to rest next to Toussaint in the crypt
beneath the altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The sweep of his authority and the strength of his example brought them out by the thousands to stand in the 90-degree sun while the ceremony went on inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. They were there in all the national colors, white, black, brown, yellow and everything else. In their differences they represented this country’s diversity, just as the collective feeling of grief transcended those differences. Only our most special people inspire that kind of feeling.