By Harry Keaney
As the health of John Cardinal O’Connor deteriorates, fears are mounting that, for the first time in 15 years, he may not be a part of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in New York.
The cardinal, who underwent brain surgery last summer and is resting at his residence on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, has become weaker in recent days.
"He is not well," a source with knowledge of the cardinal’s condition told the Echo.
The cardinal’s spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, said that doctors are trying to reach a conclusion about what is causing the cardinal’s weakness.
"He could rebound from this, but the potential exists that it could be something more serious," Zwilling said Tuesday, adding that O’Connor was "able to be up and around but is spending a good deal of time in bed."
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As to whether the cardinal might recover enough for St. Patrick’s Day, Zwilling said it was too soon to tell if he would be at the Mass or see any of the parade.
"If it were today, he would not be able," Zwilling said Tuesday.
Because of failing eyesight, the cardinal now has difficulty reading, a problem that some medical sources said might be related to surgery late last year to remove a tumor from his brain. Fueling fears about his condition was his failure to celebrate his weekly public Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral last Sunday.
Two weeks ago, the cardinal traveled to Rome, where he met Pope John Paul II, a visit widely seen as a final farewell between two close and like-minded churchmen.
Meanwhile, speculation continues as to who will be named as O’Connor’s successor as archbishop of New York, an announcement of which is expected soon. Among likely successors mentioned is Most Rev. Sean Patrick O’Malley, who became the sixth bishop of Fall River, Mass., in August 1992. O’Malley was born in Lakewood, Ohio, in 1944. In 1998, he was appointed by Pope John Paul to the special assembly for Oceania of the Synod of Bishops, which was held at the Vatican from Nov. 22 to Dec. 12.
Others mentioned include Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, who heads the New York archdiocese for the U.S. military, and Bishop Henry Mansell of Buffalo.
Five years ago, when he turned 75, O’Connor tendered his resignation to the Vatican in accordance with church law. On that occasion, he said that he hadn’t the vaguest idea what the pope’s decision would be on receiving the letter. "I can say . . . swear to it if I was to drop dead in the next few minutes, that I don’t know what will happen," he said, adding that he might be archbishop of New York for a few more months or a few more years.
A few more years it has turned out to be.
O’Connor came to New York from Scranton, Pa. In 1995, he was grand marshal of the 234th New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the first sitting archbishop and the first cardinal to lead the event. It was, according to his own diocesan newspaper, Catholic New York, one of his "proudest moments."
Meeting with journalists the previous December in his house on Madison Avenue, when his selection as grand marshal was announced, the cardinal was asked what he thought his father, who was of Roscommon ancestry, might have thought of him. Displaying his quick-witted sense of humor, he replied: "My father would be astounded because he never thought I would amount to anything. My mother would take it for granted."
He said he was "completely stunned" when he was asked by the parade chairman, John Dunleavy, and AOH officer Martin Kearns to accept the position of grand marshal.
"I didn’t know what they wanted to talk to me about when they asked to see me," he said. However, he said he had such admiration for what the AOH had done that he had no option but to accept.
Dunleavy said at the time that the parade represented "the faith of our fathers, our heritage, our culture and our family values" and "no one could emphasize that better than Cardinal O’Connor."
The cardinal himself often expressed wonder, and gratitude, that someone like him, born on Jan. 15, 1920 and raised in a small row house in southwest Philadelphia, could become archbishop and cardinal in New York, with the added honor of being chosen to lead the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The cardinal and former parade grand marshal Bill Flynn, of the Mutual of America insurance company, are to be guests of honor at a special AOH event this St. Patrick’s Day.
Speaking to the Echo on Tuesday morning, Flynn said that Cardinal O’Connor has graced all of New York by his presence.
"He has touched the whole country, and indeed the world, with his energy, his strong convictions, his wit and defense of church teaching, which is unflinching," Flynn said.
"We can’t help but remember in the mid-1980s, when AIDS was first learned about and people who had it were shunned, he was right there asking New Yorkers for a spirit of compassion toward these people and he opened the doors of St. Clare’s Hospital, on the West Side, to AIDS patients."
Flynn also said that O’Connor had been a strong voice against racism as well as a forceful advocate of pro-life. "He founded a congregation of sisters, the Sisters of Life, to carry on that work," Flynn said.
He also added that the cardinal had been "a great supporter of inner city schools.
"This litany could go on and on," Flynn added.
Cardinal O’Connor was the fourth of five children of Mary Gomple O’Connor and Thomas J. O’Connor, a craftsman skilled in goldleafing. Thomas O’Connor was the only one of 13 siblings to be born in the U.S. instead of Ireland. He was also a proud union member and devout Catholic.
"He was no respecter of persons just because of the positions they held," the cardinal once said of his father.
Young John O’Connor attended public elementary and junior high schools before entering Philadelphia’s West Catholic High School for Boys, where, he said, the De La Salle Christian Brothers helped foster his vocation for the priesthood.
As a youth, missionary life appealed to him and he approached his parish priest with the hope of pursuing his dream of becoming a Holy Ghost Father serving in Africa or a Maryknoll priest in China. But the answer he got from his parish priest was blunt: "If you want to be a priest, be a priest in Philadelphia."
He entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in 1936. Thanks to his excellent grades and extracurricular activities, he was allowed to complete his studies for the priesthood at the North American College, the seminary in Rome sponsored by the U.S. bishops. But the Italian government ordered the college closed during World War II, so O’Connor finished his studies in Philadelphia. He was ordained in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Dec. 15, 1945, a month before his 26th birthday.
His first assignment was as a high school teacher and guidance counselor while in residence at a local parish, where he assisted at weekends. He also conducted a 15-minute Catholic news radio program on Sundays. He also began a ministry to retarded children, work that he often said he would have loved to continue with.
In 1952, as the Korean War was heating up, he was asked by his bishop to sign up for the military chaplaincy. Serving in the navy and Marine Corps, he began a career as a chaplain, which included service with combat troops in Vietnam, chaplain to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and, finally, as rear admiral and navy chief of chaplains. He retired in May 1979 after 27 years.
That same month, he was ordained a bishop and assigned to the Military Ordinariate, then based in Manhattan and headed by Cardinal Cooke, who became his mentor and friend.
After five years he was appointed bishop of Scranton, Pa. In 1984, he succeeded Cooke as archbishop of New York.
Love for Ireland
Since his appointment to New York, he has taken a keen interest in Irish affairs, regularly meeting, usually in his private residence, with participants in the current peace process in the North. In fact, his diocesan newspaper, Catholic New York, in a special issue last January to mark his 80th birthday, carried a full page feature headlined "Son of Ireland."
According to that article, the cardinal made three visits to Ireland: a pastoral visit in 1984 in his role as chairman of the Committee on Social Development and World Peace of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, a pilgrimage in 1988 to pray for peace, and a visit in 1990 to the ancestral home of the O’Connor clan, in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon.
He has regularly spoken out for justice for Irish groups and individuals such as Joe Doherty, the IRA member detained by U.S. authorities for almost a decade before being deported to Northern Ireland, as well as the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven.
In the 1980s, as the Irish economy lapsed into recession and unemployment rocketed, the cardinal’s concern for the droves of Irish immigrants led to the establishment of Project Irish Outreach by Msgr. James Murray, executive director of the archdiocesan Catholic Charities.
As archbishop of New York, the cardinal oversees an array of hospitals, schools and other diocesan institutions serving the 2.3 million Catholics in his sprawling archdiocese.
But despite his many roles, he himself has always said he loves "being a priest."