Legacy for Life

On the 10th anniversary of the death of Cardinal John O’Connor, a National Prayer for Life Campaign was launched in tribute to the cardinal’s strong pro-life legacy as archbishop of New York for 16 years.

NEW YORK — On the 10th anniversary of the death of Cardinal John O’Connor, a National Prayer for Life Campaign was launched in tribute to the cardinal’s strong pro-life legacy as archbishop of New York for 16 years.

The prayer campaign was announced by current New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan at a memorial Mass for Cardinal O’Connor offered May 3 in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“It is very fitting that we begin on this, the 10th anniversary of the cardinal’s death,” said Archbishop Dolan before leading the congregation in reciting the newly composed prayer near the end of Mass. The prayer campaign is sponsored by the Sisters of Life, the religious community founded by Cardinal O’Connor in 1991, and the Knights of Columbus.

Dozens of Sisters of Life attended the Mass, including Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general of the order. Also present were members of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, another New York religious community that was founded during Cardinal O’Connor’s tenure, and other religious congregations from the archdiocese.

Members of the cardinal’s extended family also attended, including his youngest sister, Mary Ward, who delivered a brief but moving tribute to her brother’s qualities of compassion and courage during a conference before the Mass.

Paying tribute to Cardinal O’Connor’s 27 years of service as a chaplain was a U.S. Navy color guard, which posted the flags of the United States, the U.S. Navy and the Holy See by a portrait of the cardinal at the beginning of Mass. He retired as Navy chief of chaplains with the rank of rear admiral.

Before and after the Mass, the crypt beneath the sanctuary of the cathedral was open to the public, where the remains of Cardinal O’Connor and other past leaders of the New York Archdiocese are entombed.

For Sister Josemaria DiMaggio, a Sister of Life, seeing the cathedral filled with a host of pro-life advocates brought to mind the cardinal’s funeral Mass 10 years ago: A spontaneous standing ovation broke out during the eulogy, in the presence of President Bill Clinton and other prominent pro-abortion politicians who had come to honor the cardinal as a national religious leader.

“Some say it was the Sisters of Life who started the ovation, but I saw a Little Sister of the Poor in front of me stand up first,” Sister Josemaria said.

In his homily at the memorial Mass, Archbishop Dolan said that in his 12 months as head of the archdiocese, he has heard many stories about Cardinal O’Connor, not only from the clergy and lay faithful, but from cab drivers, police officers, firefighters, non-Catholics and those of no religious faith. He touched so many lives because he was first and foremost a priest, Archbishop Dolan said.

His identity as a priest “was pre-eminently a man of sacrifice. He had the oblative concept of priesthood, a giving of the self,” he explained. “He would say, ‘The Mass for me is everything.’”

Cardinal O’Connor also saw the priest as a spiritual father, who brought forth new life in the souls of his spiritual children, the archbishop said: “Like a father, he had a solicitude for souls.”

‘Set the Foundation’

The memorial Mass was preceded by a 90-minute conference in the cathedral, featuring talks by Church leaders, a rabbi and former New York Mayor Edward Koch, who maintained a close friendship with Cardinal O’Connor, despite occasional disagreements over city policies that affected the archdiocese’s social services.

After recounting a number of personal kindnesses that Cardinal O’Connor showed him during tough times and illness, Koch concluded, “I loved John Cardinal O’Connor as my own brother.” He said that he keeps a prayer card from the cardinal’s funeral Mass on his desk and looks at the picture when he is feeling down. “It re-energizes me,” said the Jewish former mayor.

Also speaking were Cardinal Edward Egan, Cardinal O’Connor’s immediate successor, who retired as archbishop in 2009; Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore, who was rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary during Cardinal O’Connor’s tenure; the cardinal’s sister, Mary Ward; Rabbi Moses Birnbaum, who worked with the cardinal on interfaith relations; and Helen Alvare, whom Cardinal O’Connor helped to recruit as the first spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops’ Pro-Life Activities Committee. She is now a professor of family law at George Mason University.

Speaking about Cardinal O’Connor’s Navy years, Archbishop O’Brien, the former head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, said, “He never evidenced a reluctance to speak out when there was an issue of justice involved. … He won the respect of senior officers, but he said that, please God, he was a priest before he was an officer. ‘I always carry my Mass kit,’ he said.”

Alvare, who worked closely with the cardinal for years at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that he “set the pace” for the pro-life movement. “He kept us alive and kicking through some pretty dark days. He set the foundation for the modern movement for life.”

In his consistent and reasoned opposition to abortion, euthanasia and other attacks on innocent human life, she explained, “Cardinal O’Connor understood that it was the human-rights issue of our time.” From his prominent pulpit in New York, he repeatedly raised the issue and appealed to the conscience of all people of good will. “Is it a good thing or a bad thing, he would ask, that we [allow] killing at the earliest and most vulnerable stages of a human being?” Alvare said.

Mother Agnes underscored the cardinal’s reliance on prayer and his deep conviction that every person, even those who opposed him, was made in the image and likeness of God and worthy of respect. His belief that the “demon” of abortion would only be cast out by prayer and fasting was most clearly evidenced “in the founding of our religious community, the Sisters of Life,” she said. Since the community was founded, they have reached out to thousands of women in the United States and have even expanded to Canada.

“Ninety-five percent of the women we have worked with have given birth to their children,” Mother Agnes said.

The force of Cardinal O’Connor’s convictions and compassion continues to live through the Sisters of Life and through all those who were moved by his witness and wish to continue his work, she concluded.

The National Prayer for Life Campaign is another manifestation of the cardinal’s continuing legacy of life, she said in an interview after Mass.

Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.