Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Recalling the Lion

Forgive the reflection, but yesterday would've marked John Cardinal O'Connor's 88th birthday... and it's hard to believe it's almost eight years since he left our midst.

He only ever wanted to be remembered for being a "good priest," but in the process he became the nation's priest. It was the ministry he was born for, one that won him a lot of scorn in life -- both ad intra and outside -- but one whose grit and greatness stands even taller now than it did when a brief bout with brain cancer claimed the "happy warrior" who, eight years on, remains the last great leader we've known.

I was blessed to know him well enough to know that hagiography would drive him up a wall. So, in fairness, he wasn't perfect. His distaste for administration's more painful responsibilities left an archdiocese awash in red ink, and his occasional penchant for Old Testament-style rivalries kept several of his nemeses stalled as long as he had breath. But even for this, the goldleafer's son's qualities of conviction, courage, candor, compassion, integrity, wit and witness won more ears and souls than it lost, and a public presence and credibility whose value has only become truly known by its absence.

Much has changed since he left us. One thing that hasn't, however, is that, so far as the mind goes, the archbishopric of New York remains the de facto messenger-in-chief of American Catholicism -- and, arguably, the church in the English-speaking world. His successor's chosen a lower profile, and others have tried to fill the vacuum opened at dusk on 3 May 2000, but even for all their admirable efforts, they've lacked one thing: the key to 452 Madison.

Through his writings, his presence and my encounters with him, he was an icon and hero of my boyhood. I loved him much, miss him even more and count still on his prayers (and even still the occasional assist). I could go on for days about my many memories and his many kindnesses... but it might just be better to say that in finding and knowing that it had a friend in John O'Connor, the world found and knew it had a friend in the church.

Amazingly enough, for all his stream of broadcast work -- including a weekly TV show -- the bulk of the cardinal's public interventions on the web remain confined to print (a treasure gratefully preserved online in a special section of the archives of Catholic New York).

One rare exception, however, is the 1994 video of a half-hour conversation in 452's parlor with Charlie Rose -- the PBS interviewer not known for pulling his punches. (NB: Chuck Daly was the program's second half.)

At O'Connor's death, Rose led a half-hour tribute, joined by two priests, a rabbi and an atheist.