By Harry Keaney
As the wilting sun bore down on midtown Manhattan Monday morning, somber-suited Frank Dowd strolled over and back across the stone steps in front St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s a routine the AOH member from Rockaway has done every St. Patrick’s Day for the last 15 years.
On Monday, however, Dowd was, like the thousands of others who filed into the ornate Gothic edifice, there to bid farewell to the one who dominated the cathedral steps on each of those 15 St. Patrick’s Days, Cardinal John O’Connor.
“I am a liaison for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade committee, so I was on the steps with Cardinal O’Connor for 15 years,” Dowd, a native of Gurteen, Co. Sligo, said. “I always thought it was a great privilege to be with the cardinal. He loved the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. All I can say is, thank God for memories.”
Memories of O’Connor and his legacy were in full flow Monday. Although the cardinal himself always said he wished to be remembered simply as a good priest, he was, in the end, accorded a final farewell fitting in its grandeur and eloquence for a prince of the church.
At 1:20 p.m., with thunderous church music welling within its columned interior, the huge bronze doors of St. Patrick’s swung open to admit a colorful procession of clergy. Led by a crossbearer, it increased in rank as it entered, ascending in hierarchical order from seminarians and priests to bishops, archbishops, 15 cardinals and, finally, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state and second in command to Pope John Paul II.
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Many of them touched the white pall-covered coffin of Cardinal O’Connor in the center aisle before the altar or nodded in respect as they slowly passed by.
Already having taken their places in the congregation were President Clinton and his wife, Hillary; vice president Al Gore and his wife, Tipper; former President George Bush and his son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican party; Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and a host of other dignitaries and politicians.
In introductory remarks, Cardinal Sodano, chief concelebrant of the Mass of Christian Burial, said that O’Connor’s name would “be forever etched in the history of the Catholic church.”
As the Mass continued, Mother Agnes Donovan, superior of the Sisters of Life, founded by O’Connor, read the first reading. She was followed by Therese Snyder of the Catholic Guild for the Blind, who read the second reading from Braille.
Defense of life
For many in the congregation, the highlight came during the homily delivered by O’Connor’s friend Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston.
“My intent and your expectation is not that I deliver a eulogy,” Law began, adding that Cardinal O’Connor’s often repeated request was that “we gather at this time to pray for him.”
Law said that no one proclaimed what Pope John Paul II has called the Gospel of Life with greater effectiveness than Cardinal O’Connor. “It was in proclaiming that Gospel of Life that he became a national and international public figure,” Law said.
“Inevitably there is an effort to categorize public figures as conservative or liberal,” Law continued. “Cardinal O’Connor, like the church herself, defies this type of categorization. He was eloquent and unremitting in his defense of the life of the unborn as well as his support for the value of human life to the moment of natural death. Perhaps his most lasting testament in support of life will be the work of the Sisters of Life, a religious community he founded and loved so dearly.”
Law said that as O’Connor was dying last Wednesday, he bore “witness one last time to the moral evil of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide.”
“He denounced capital punishment,” continued Law. “He championed the rights of workers. He worked for a just peace in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. Were he in this pulpit today, he would applaud the hope for peace in the IRA’s announcement on decommissioning.”
Continuing in his firm, fearless tone, reminiscent of O’Connor’s, Law, almost before the congregation had realized it, had built up to a crescendo. Declaring that O’Connor “preached most powerfully by his example the necessity of seeing in every human being, from the first moment of conception to the last moment of natural death and every moment in between, particularly the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the image of God to be loved and to be served.
“What a great legacy he has left us in his consistent reminder that the church must always be unambiguously pro-life,” Law declared.
With that, the congregation erupted in applause that continued for almost two minutes and culminated in a standing ovation. It was a scene in which some of the politicians present, including President Clinton and Governor Bush, seemed decidedly uncomfortable.
When silence returned, Law, referring to O’Connor, joked, “I see he hasn’t left the pulpit.” It was the type of remark O’Connor himself would have made.
After communion came what is known as the final commendation and interment.
“Into your hands, O Father of mercies, we commend our brother John,” intoned Bishop Patrick Sheridan, an archdiocesan auxiliary bishop under O’Connor.
Cardinal Sodano sprinkled O’Connor’s mahogany coffin with holy water as a thurifier waved incense that that rose to the lofty heights of the cathedral. Then, in solemn procession, Sodano, carrying O’Connor crosier, led the coffin, carried by eight pallbearers, down the center isle, around behind the pews and up the left side, the choir and congregants singing “May the Angels Take You Into Paradise.”
Behind him walked other cardinals and a few members of O’Connor’s family, including his two sisters, Mary Ward and Dorothy Hamilton, and his brother Thomas.
They slowly made their way out of sight of the congregation, around the back of altar and downstairs to the small crypt.
As the coffin disappeared from view, the 3,500 invited guests in the cathedral applauded, a spontaneous farewell to the man about to be laid to his eternal rest beneath the altar where, so often, he celebrated the Mass he loved. On that altar now stood the other cardinals, their backs to the congregation to face the direction in which the coffin was being taken on its short final journey.
A smaller group, comprising Sodano, a few other church officials and O’Connor’s family, entered the crypt. There were more prayers, and the coffin and crypt were sprinkled with holy water.
O’Connor’s coffin was then slowly slid in on the Vaseline-covered floor of his allotted space in the crypt. To his left is the body of Bishop John McGuire, to his right is an empty space, which will probably be occupied by his successor.
In a space to the right and beneath O’Connor’s lies Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave who died in 1853 and whose canonization O’Connor supported. Above O’Connor lies Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes, who died in 1938.
During the entombment, those in the congregation, like the cardinals and bishops on the altar, stood in silence.
At the end of the service, when Sodano and those who officiated with him had returned to the altar, Cardinal William Baum, the highest ranking American in the Vatican, thanked several people who had helped O’Connor, including one of his faithful and least known workers, Maura O’Kelly, who oversaw the cardinal’s residence.
That too drew applause, a gesture O’Connor would undoubtedly have appreciated.
When the ceremony concluded and the cathedral’s huge entrance doors swung open, a shaft of blinding sunlight shot in again. It was almost as if a new day had broken, if not, indeed, a new dawn for the ever evolving archdiocese of New York. Although the O’Connor era had just passed, the legacy of the man who led it will undoubtedly live on.