Remembering Cardinal O'Connor

He stopped taking my calls after I slammed him in the press, but he still had time to be kind to my mother, an Orthodox Jew.

Published May 5, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

The doctors gave up and said that there was no hope; the cancer had spread to my mother's brain. They recommended that we find a hospice where my mother could spend the remaining months of her life. We got her a room at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, an Archdiocese of New York facility where terminally ill patients are treated with dignity and extraordinary care, where the aim is comfort, not cure.

When we arrived at the hospice, we were greeted by the medical director. He said he would personally supervise my mother's case. We met with the social workers and the staff chaplains, who were particularly concerned with making arrangements so that we, an Orthodox Jewish family, would be entirely comfortable in a Catholic hospital. They arranged for kosher food and took down the crucifix in my mother's room.

The check-in procedure at the hospital, while highly emotional, went smoothly. After it was over, I commented to the director about the amazing attention the facility's staff gives its patients and their families.

He thanked me and explained, "Well, it's not every day the cardinal calls."

To this day, I don't know how Cardinal John O'Connor knew that my mother, Judith Alda Goldman, was a new patient at Calvary. The Archdiocese of New York, which O'Connor led for 16 years, runs 17 hospitals, as well as churches, schools and social service agencies. The hospital system alone has over 2,000 beds. How did O'Connor know my mother was in one of them?

The question, and the incident that prompted it, came back to me Wednesday night when the Archdiocese announced that O'Connor had died at the age of 80. In many ways, O'Connor was a tiger of a man; he was a conservative ideologue of the highest order who fought his political and religious foes with a take-no-prisoners ferocity. But at the same time, O'Connor was a man of unusual compassion, who quietly acted with kindness to me and thousands of other New Yorkers.

For 10 years I covered him as a religion reporter for the New York Times. From 1983, when O'Connor was plucked from the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., to be the Archbishop of New York, to 1993, when I left the Times to teach at Columbia, I monitored his every public move.

Over those years, our relationship had its ups and downs. I traveled all around the sprawling 10-county archdiocese with him, especially during his first few years in office, and chronicled the outpouring of goodwill that greeted his selection. He was a great showman. He donned a Mets cap at his installation at St. Patrick's Cathedral and then a Yankees cap a week later, just so no one should take offense. Most often, he was the butt of his own jokes. He'd squeeze into a T-shirt presented to him in the gymnasium of, say, a Staten Island Catholic school and give a school cheer. Then, he'd turn serious, saying that he hoped that the boys in the room would consider a vocation in the priesthood. "The ugly ones could be priests," he'd say to the shock of school officials. "And the really ugly ones could be bishops." The children would rock with laughter.

During his first four years in office, he held a news conference virtually every Sunday morning after the 11 o'clock Mass at St. Patrick's. Still in his ecclesiastical garb, he'd comment on the issues of the day, from peace talks in Northern Ireland to the sex curriculum in the city's public schools.

Once, he invited my wife and me for lunch at the chancery, the office of the archbishop on First Avenue. The meal, served on paper plates, was strictly kosher. When our first child was born, he sent a bouquet of flowers to the bris ceremony with a note that said, "Welcome to the world, Adam Goldman."

My relationship with O'Connor suddenly turned sour after I published a somewhat unflattering profile of him in the Times magazine. I wrote that during the 1984 presidential campaign, he viciously attacked Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (then running for vice president on the Democratic ticket headed by Vice President Walter Mondale) for her position on abortion. Ferraro, a Catholic, had, some years earlier, signed a letter by a group called Catholics for a Free Choice, that said "there is a diversity of Catholic opinion on abortion."

"There is no diversity," O'Connor roared, "there is only one Catholic opinion on abortion. Abortion is the taking of a life."

O'Connor maintained that he was not attacking anyone, just stating Catholic doctrine. After that article appeared, he cut me off. He was still a phone call away, but suddenly he wasn't taking my calls. The blackout lasted six months. When I repeated my version of the Ferraro story and his reaction to it in my 1991 book, "The Search for God at Harvard," O'Connor's lawyer sent a letter to my publisher threatening a lawsuit.

And so, in 1995, two years after I left the Times, I was surprised that O'Connor still kept track of me, let alone my mother. I'm sure the medical director and the staff of Calvary are wonderful to everyone, but we felt especially blessed and protected by the cardinal's intervention.

I wanted to thank him, so I called the cardinal's office. I reached his priest/secretary, Monsignor James McCarthy. "How did you know?" I asked the monsignor. "We just know," he said omnisciently. McCarthy added that the archbishop would do his best to stop by to visit my mother on his next visit to the area. I wanted to tell him that that was a terrible idea; my mother wasn't much of an ecumenist. Seeing a cardinal in his collar and pectoral cross could set her back even further. But, out of respect, I held my tongue, just hoping the cardinal had the good sense not to visit.

That was in January 1995. In April, my mother passed away. A few days later, I got a letter of condolence from the cardinal. This week, after hearing of the cardinal's passing, I pulled out the letter and read it once again. "I regret I was unable to have had the opportunity to visit her in Calvary and to assure her and your family of my prayerful support," he wrote. On some level, I suppose he knew it was not a good idea.

Then the cardinal continued: "May He, who is the Author and Giver of Life, be the source of your own hope and consolation ... may she rest in the bosom of Abraham."

I now feel compelled to wish him the same.

By Ari L. Goldman

Ari L. Goldman is a member of the faculty of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and the author of "The Search for God at Harvard" and the forthcoming "Being Jewish."

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Catholicism Geraldine Ferraro Religion