Cardinal O’Connor Remembered at Cathedral Mass for His 100th Birthday

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At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a Mass was offered in grateful remembrance of Cardinal John O’Connor Jan. 15, the day marking the 100th anniversary of his birth.

“We thank God for the gift of his life. The best way to do that is by continuing to live what he taught us,” said Auxiliary Bishop Edmund Whalen of Cardinal O’Connor in his welcoming remarks.

The bishop also called the cardinal “a wonderful priest and a fearless leader.” Ordained a bishop Dec. 10, Bishop Whalen served as priest secretary to Cardinal O’Connor from 1990 to 1992.

Bishop Whalen, the principal celebrant and homilist of the evening Mass, spoke about Cardinal O’Connor with fondness as he described the small row house where he and his four siblings were raised in southwest Philadelphia, the city of the cardinal’s birth.

“What I would love to hear would be the self-deprecating jokes about being 100 years old,” said Bishop Whalen, alluding to Cardinal O’Connor’s trademark sense of humor.

“This remarkable man, this holy priest, this bishop who has shown all of us what it means to serve in the Church, needs to be not only remembered, but to do the remembering as he would remind us in the true Hebrew sense of memory—not recalling, not looking back, not nostalgic, but living it now.”

Bishop Whalen said the cardinal, “as he heard God’s call, figuring it out in the midst of growing up in those Depression years…He recognized that God was calling him to be the presence of Jesus to others, how humbling that is.”

From the beginning of his priesthood, Cardinal O’Connor lived out his episcopal motto, “There can be no love without justice,” Bishop Whalen said.

The bishop asserted the cardinal’s firm belief in “the dignity of every human life, from the moment of conception to moment of natural death…This eventually resulted in the foundation of the Sisters of Life.”

That firm belief extended to the countless hours the cardinal “spent at hospital beds, particularly in the midst of the AIDS crisis.”

Other concelebrants included Auxiliary Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, who was ordained to the episcopacy along with Bishop Whalen, and Msgr. Joseph LaMorte, the vicar general of the archdiocese. Bishop Colacicco also served Cardinal O’Connor as priest secretary, 1989-1990.

The Sisters of Life organized the special Mass, and many were among the first attendees to arrive and settle into the cathedral’s front pews. Some 60 Sisters of Life were present in their recognizable white and navy blue habits. In all, 250 people attended.

Cardinal O’Connor founded the Sisters of Life in 1991. The cardinal appointed Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., to lead the religious community dedicated to social awareness of culture-of-life missions and causes. Mother Agnes Mary gave a reflection after the Mass.

“Thank you all for joining us to celebrate the life of John Cardinal O’Connor,” said Mother Agnes Mary early in her reflection, noting the cardinal’s “clear, compelling voice of love and truth,” and his “committed, principled defense of the unconditional right to life of every human person.”

Mother Agnes Mary also spoke of Cardinal O’Connor’s profound faith, high intellect, “his humanity of soul,” and how he was deeply saddened by Holocaust sufferings.

She said the cardinal “often expressed his special affection and love with good-natured teasing.” She noted he sometimes called her “Mamma Mia,” and years later as she was crossing Broadway “I looked up and saw a new billboard, with the title of a new show written in enormous letters, ‘Mamma Mia!’ I almost laughed out loud.”

She also spoke of the cardinal’s Funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which attracted scores of Catholic New Yorkers, along with many dignitaries.

Before the Jan. 15 Mass, Catholic New York sought to interview nieces, nephews or other relatives of Cardinal O’Connor, asking Mother Agnes Mary if any were present. “They’re all in Philadelphia,” she replied with a smile, noting that a simultaneous 5:30 p.m. Mass of remembrance honoring the cardinal was to be celebrated in the City of Brotherly Love, Cardinal O’Connor’s hometown. That Mass was offered at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. She reiterated the Philadelphia information during her reflection.

Anne White, a parishioner of St. Michael on West 34th Street in Manhattan, was one of those attending the Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“I did not know the cardinal except by reputation. I moved to New York from the Midwest a few years after his death,” Ms. White told CNY after the liturgy. “Getting to know the sisters, though, I suspect that his outlook and influence had a lot to do with the spirit of joy they radiate so unfailingly in their work.”

The Sisters of Life “bring to life the Easter joy of Catholicism, and it shines through, and is truly a gift that they share all year round,” Ms. White said.

The Sisters of Life invited the faithful to stay after Mass for a Holy Hour of Adoration with music provided by the sisters and an audio recording of Cardinal O’Connor speaking to the Sisters of Life on March 7, 1994. Afterward, they noted the faithful would be treated to hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls outside the cathedral’s Fifth Avenue entrance, “a favorite of our founder.”

Cardinal O’Connor served as Archbishop of New York for 16 years ending on May 3, 2000, when he died at age 80. (He was created a cardinal in 1985.) He earlier served as auxiliary bishop of the Military Vicariate of the United States, and bishop of Scranton, Pa.

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