By Harry Keaney
For most people in New York, it’s the city’s parade that forms the centerpiece of the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. For many Catholics, however, the parade ranks second to the morning Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the chief concelebrant of which for the last 15 years has been Cardinal John O’Connor.
But not last Friday.
As has become customary in recent years, the congregation again overflowed into the cathedral’s side aisles, spilling down the entrance steps overlooking Fifth Avenue. And this year, beneath the edifice’s Gothic grandeur, an air of expectation loomed, a hope that, for one more time, the ailing cardinal might, despite his increasing weakness, again be part of the celebrations.
As the majestic sounds of the entrance hymn "Hail Glorious St. Patrick" rebounded around the ornate columned interior, a colorful parade of bishops and clergy shuffled, shoulder to shoulder, to their places upon the altar.
O’Connor was not among them.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
In introductory remarks, Bishop Patrick Sheridan told the congregation that the cardinal "joins his prayers with yours and prays for your good health today and always."
Sheridan went on to introduce the VIPs in attendance, among them Bishop Brendan Comiskey from the Diocese of Ferns, in Ireland, who was given a round of applause; Dr. Kevin Cahill, grand marshal of this year’s 239th annual parade; Westmeathman John Dunleavy, chairman of the parade committee; representatives from Ireland, and representatives of local, state, and federal government.
One couldn’t but think that had O’Connor been present, his quick-witted humor would not have allowed him to let the occasion pass without a wry comment on the current political machinations in New York. Indeed, among those in the congregation were U.S. Senate candidates Mayor Rudy Giuliani and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Sheridan pointed out that 16 years ago, on the 18th day of March, Cardinal O’Connor began "his long tenure as bishop of New York."
"We pray may God continue to bless him," Sheridan added.
And so the Mass began, with Bishop Patrick Ahern taking O’Connor’s place as the chief concelebrant and homilist.
Ahern himself was celebrating his 81st birthday as well as the 30th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. For him, the occasion was a proud one, as much personal as cultural.
"The Irish came from a rich cultural heritage," Ahern said in his homily, adding coyly, "we do not think we are the only ones with a rich heritage."
He pointed out that when he first heard of Thomas Cahill’s book, "How the Irish Saved Civilization," he thought the title seemed presumptuous, even outrageous.
"But Tom Cahill did his homework," Ahern declared.
In comments on the current situation in Ireland, Ahern noted that the church there "is not what it was."
"There have been scandals in the Irish church as there have been scandals everywhere, but in Ireland they have been particularly sensitive," he said, and then asked, "Is it true to say some in the media have been merciless?"
Ahern also prayed that "the painful divisions" in Northern Ireland would "be bridged."
"I hope I have not tooted Ireland’s horn too much," Ahern said in conclusion, adding, "everyone has a heritage to be proud of, wherever they come from on the face of the earth."
For many in the cathedral, however, it was soloist Dana, singing "Lady of Knock" during the communion rite, that truly pricked the swelling emotions.
Even Dana herself appeared to break down as the hymn that’s now so much associated with her, and a favorite of Cardinal O’Connor’s, reached a crescendo.
"It’s certainly not the same without him," she said of O’Connor.
Dana, having been beaten by Mary McAleese in her bid to become president of Ireland, is now a member of the European Parliament, representing the constituency of Connaught-Ulster.
Some were hoping that, although the cardinal was not able to make the Mass, he might have ventured a momentary appearance after communion.
But again, those hopes were dashed.
By the time the Irish and American national anthems had brought the ceremony and the pageantry to a resounding conclusion, the entire experience was almost too much for some, such as three visitors from Glasgow.
"Absolutely brilliant," gushed Frank Ferns. "It’s very emotional, especially when they sing ‘Glorious St. Patrick’ and you hear the national anthems."
It was a view shared by his mates.
"Fantastic, absolutely wonderful," said John Eatken. "Dana was brilliant, that was the highlight."
"A pleasure to be here, a great experience," said Brendan McCarron, also from Scotland.
John Cooke, another Scot, had it all on camera.
"A fabulous experience, I have it forever here," said John Cooke, outfitted in his Glasgow Celtic jersey and brandishing a small video recorder in what was a no camera zone inside the cathedral.
But Cooke’s video images will be without O’Connor, the man who, for a decade and a half, held the center stage. Last Friday, the cardinal could only watch it all on television in his residence behind the cathedral, a spectator removed from the scene.
Outside the cathedral, many reechoed Dana’s sentiments: it just wasn’t the same without him.