By Ray O’Hanlon
As lines go in New York City, this one was positively heavenly. No pushing, no angry words or gasps of impatience, not even a murmur of complaint. All was serene. And a bit slow.
By 5 o’clock last Friday evening, the warmest of the year so far, the number of people arriving at the end of the line to view the cold, mortal remains of John Cardinal O’Connor was beginning to exceed the rate at which people atop the line were being allowed into St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The police had cordoned off most of 50th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. There was one lane left for an occasional bus, but the rest of the street was divided up by lines of linked barriers between which the faithful, the tourists, the curious and the morbid were being funneled by police officers stuffed uncomfortably into formal dress uniform, black shirts and ties.
The line snaked up and down the street before it turned into the final stretch and eventually reaching a series of steps leading to a side door of St. Patrick’s.
The steps were at the Fifth Avenue end of the cathedral. After what would be more than an hour on line they were to prove a welcome stairway to a cool and shaded granite heaven, beyond the clamor of Midtown at going-home time.
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There was some conversation in the line, but not a lot by the standards of this talkative town. One man took out a blank piece of paper and started sketching. His eye had been attracted by a sign in the window of the New York Health and Racquet Club across the street and next door to Saks. "Rest In Peace, Cardinal O’Connor," it stated.
Right below it was a color poster. A woman in a bikini was stretching out beside a swimming pool. A man stood in the pool. The two were smiling and admiring one another. The message above was about eternal rest, the one below of glowing, albeit temporal health and well being — for a fee, of course.
One man in the line was reading Diogenes. The ancient Greek philosopher, famous for living in a barrel, had been an advocate of self-control, acceptance of suffering and the avoidance of physical pleasure. The reader had chosen well. This was no place for cheap thrillers.
Diogenes wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, even in a line of mourners. Some spent the time in line on a line of sorts, catching up on their lives with cellphones. An impossibility of course. One call merely leads to the next.
An elderly woman moved her fingers and thumb through a set of rosary beads. She kept looking to the sky as if expecting a revelation, an angel perhaps. But those who hopefully followed her stare could only see the spinning wings of network television news choppers.
The line was moving along at a faster clip now. Up the steps and into the cathedral, the great neo-gothic symbol, not just of New York Catholicism but of an Irish American story stretching back to the days when cardinal archbishops were seen not as holy men, but rather as standard bearers for an alien and unwelcome creed.
The mood inside St. Patrick’s was surprising. Sad, yes, but only in part. There was a bustle to the place, the business of the church to be done, hundreds of people to be guided up to and past the body of the cardinal, which had been placed on a raised, open coffin.
The cardinal was dressed in the full regalia of a church prince, flanked by an honor guard of the Knights of Malta. In a sense, the cardinal was still on the job because it was he that so many had come to see, just as they might have done had he, in life, been delivering one of those Sunday sermons so eagerly anticipated by the faithful and the press. As if to underline the on-duty air about his person, the cardinal was even wearing his reading glasses.
Some stared intently at the cardinal as they shuffled past, some only half looked and some seemed unable to bear even a glance. A woman named Olivia brandished a letter. She told an usher that it was signed by the cardinal himself. She had volunteered to do charity work for the archdiocese and the cardinal had responded by welcoming her into the ranks of those who do much, rarely seen and for no earthly reward. Who could she talk to now, she pleaded.
It was suggested by a fellow mourner that she might have to wait for word from the next archbishop. But that wouldn’t do at all, said Olivia, shaking her head. Cardinal O’Connor was her man, in this life and the next. She walked back along the side aisle, tightly clutching her letter, a holy keepsake for the rest of her days.
The push from behind was inexorable. Unless you darted into a pew to pray, the momentum carried each individual back along the aisle and out through a door on the 51st Street side of the cathedral — back into the early summer heat, and the welcome embrace of warm, earthly life.