Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Good Priest

Hard to believe how the time's flown, but six years ago tonight, John Cardinal O'Connor passed from our midst much too soon.

How quickly we forget.

In his final years, as he wound down his ministry as archbishop of New York, I was immeasurably blessed to know the cardinal, to meet up with him every so often, and to have received a good bit of his wisdom, humor and the lessons he had picked up along the way. His kindness to a young upstart was a gift which remains alive with me constantly.

At sunset on 3 May 2000, as the news came from 452 Madison that the cardinal's suffering was past him, and the earthly journey which touched so many lives was completed, I distinctly remember thinking that we had reached the end of a halcyon age -- and only with time did we realize the extent to which that was the case. No US churchman since has been able to fill the gaping void left by John O'Connor's larger-than-life personality (and that won't change until Tim Dolan gets a red hat). But even more crucially, in his ministry the goldleafer's son from Southwest Philly was able to strike the fine balance between the two concepts weighed in his episcopal motto: love and justice. Even when he was (viciously) disagreed with -- and in New York, this happened quite often -- the city's eighth archbishop could never be written off, nor pigeonholed and, consequently, disregarded.

Cardinal O'Connor realized instinctively that in an age where the church's message could easily be ignored by those not comfortable with it, even within its own walls, the most pressing thing was for that voice to remain relevant, and for its clear and unmistakable presence and articulation to remain at the center of the public square. To this, and for this, he offered his life and enriched countless souls with so many gifts.

Nothing's been the same since -- and, if you'll forgive the candor, not for the better.

O'Connor's mentor, his onetime ordinary John Cardinal Krol, once said that "No one is more dead than a Catholic bishop." Sad thought, but quite true, even for this most accessibly human of prelates. In his weekly columns in Catholic New York, the cardinal routinely announced where or when he was writing from. Often, when it wasn't on an airplane, it'd be the middle of the night -- he was a chronic insomniac. But what many didn't know is that, when he couldn't sleep, he would often slip out of the house and go incognito to hospitals or AIDS shelters to minister to the sick and suffering, praying with them or simply cleaning bedpans, quietly, away from the glare of the cameras and the trappings of high office, as if to witness that, just as there can be no love without justice, so there can be no justice without love.

Last week, while in New York for a couple days of meetings, I was able to do something I've always wanted to do. And I've been meaning to write about it, but somehow it's kept itself for today.

Every time I head up to the city, I always make it a point to stop at St Patrick's Cathedral. It's just the most marvelous place in the world in my eyes -- doesn't hurt that the place was built by a Philadelphian, either. Usually, I just duck in to spend a couple minutes in prayer at the Lady Chapel and light a candle; it makes for a welcome moment of peace in the midst of the frantic pace of Midtown. But I've also made a habit of walking down to the green-brass doors of the cathedral crypt, where the archbishops of New York are buried, just to say "hey there" to a friend and offer a word of continued thanks for graces received.

The crypt is closed to the public, but in advance of last week's trip I poked around to see if there was any way I could get to see it. To my elated shock and surprise, the reply came that the sacristan of the Cathedral would be expecting me on Monday afternoon.

After a wonderful meeting at America House which stretched hours, the sun came out as I returned to Fifth Avenue for the first time in a long time. The Great Bronze Doors, festooned with statues of saints on the outside and surmounted on the inside by the coat of arms of Cardinal Spellman and his motto, "Sequere Deum," were open -- something which, so I thought, was only the case for ceremonial occasions.

After my usual ritual -- a candle and a few minutes before the exposed Blessed Sacrament at the Lady -- I headed to the Parish House to meet up with Ian Dowding, the sacristan who spearheads the preparations for at least six daily Masses, daily exposition, and the innumerable weddings, funerals and other special events of all kinds which mark the Cathedral's always-busy calendar, not to mention the visitors who want to see this or that.

Even despite the bag search (which is now set up just inside the Bronze Doors), I couldn't help but think while taking it all in for the millionth time (even though it hadn't been years) of how much being back in the Cathedral, and the city, felt more like a homecoming than a simple return to a place I've been before. Though not completely unexpected, it was a good feeling.

From the Parish House, I was taken through a series of corridors and secured doors which seemed for a moment like something out of the Pentagon, finally surfacing behind the high altar. Within seconds, the sight I never expected to see unfolded, and the green-brass doors swung open.

For a second, my favorite question popped into mind -- "How on earth did I get here, again?" -- and I thought of all of you, without whom I would've never experienced the moment, a prayer of thanks in my heart (again, for graces received) as we walked down the marble steps.

At the foot of the steps, with the wall of burial niches before my eyes, I just stood there and gasped, thinking, "Well, here it is." And the first thing I noticed were a line of a dozen or so small stones, pebbles, along the ledge in front of O'Connor's spot. For good measure, there was a small plastic Miraculous Medal alongside, too.

Seeing the pebbles, though, I couldn't help but ask, "Who are these from?" And I should've known when my guide replied, "Ed Koch -- all of them." The Jewish Democrat who served three terms as mayor of New York shared a close bond with the cardinal; they shared breakfast every month and Koch was a front-row mainstay of O'Connor's Midnight Masses on Christmas, where the celebrant always welcomed him by name from the pulpit, even long after Hizzoner left office.

Of course, that's not to say they saw eye to eye on everything, but O'Connor realized instinctively that there's a time when the rough-and-tumble of politics can and should be left aside so a place for what St Thomas called "the love that is friendship" can flourish. Koch's multiple trips to the crypt, evidenced by the Jewish custom of placing a stone at a loved one's tomb, were a powerful reminder that said love is stronger than death, not to mention bigger than politic.

I knelt there for a long, silent moment, to convey my thanks, my love, and to ask the Big Man's prayers from the Heavenly Powerhouse. Putting my head to the stone, I whispered the words of tribute which always meant the most to him -- and the essence of what he was for so many -- "Thanks for being a good priest."

I kissed the stone and got up. And I can't express in words how much it meant to be there and to have had that moment.

"He was never impressed by his surroundings," a friend later said -- recalling the phrase the cardinal often employed, that all the glories of the world "are but dust and ashes." And in more ways than one, despite the Ph.D. from Georgetown, having seen the world as a Navy chaplain and then over 16 years as the Vatican's jet-setting troubleshooter and goodwill envoy, it was no secret that, in mind and heart, he never really left Southwest Philly.

Some saw this as troubling, or a weakness, and in some ways (like the financial situation of the archdiocese he left behind), it was. However, as he always said, "You can't be an effective leader if you're not true to your own temperament." In that vein, for a prince of the church, his outlook on the world kept him unusually grounded, reminded him always of the difficulties which mark the lives of working people, and fuelled his irrepressible and uncompromising conviction that the church must always operate and be most present to the suffering, the disadvantaged, the overburdened, and all those who have no one else to fight and be present for them.

How quickly we forget.

As he was usually the first to willingly admit, he wasn't perfect, but the good cardinal's life and work remains a rich gift, an example which has too often been laid aside in the years since he's left us.

I'm but one of many who still miss him terribly, but holding in mind the things for which he lived, the service he rendered and the good he enabled far and wide are my little way of keeping his legacy of love alive.

Despite the passage of time, may its inspiration never fade.