Cardinal John O’Connor and the ‘Power of One’


Cardinal John O’Connor was a powerhouse of faith during his 16 years as Archbishop of New York and 54 years of priesthood. His legacy is keenly felt in many arenas, but nowhere more so than the pro-life movement and ministry he lived to his core.

Cardinal Dolan delivered the keynote address at the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Jan. 19, the day after the annual March for Life. The conference was held four days after the late cardinal’s 99th birthday.

Cardinal Dolan regaled his listeners at the sold-out conference with stories about Cardinal O’Connor, one of his predecessors as Archbishop of New York. He shared quick comments from ordinary New Yorkers, who have told him over and over during the past decade about their personal exchanges with Cardinal O’Connor.

One was a 22-year-old senior at Fordham University, who introduced himself as “John Joseph.” He told Cardinal Dolan “his mom was considering aborting him until she heard (Cardinal O’Connor) speak so tenderly and compellingly about the sanctity of pre-born life at a Sunday sermon.” So, she had the baby and named him after Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor.

Cardinal Dolan went on to quote J.R.R. Tolkien, writing in “The Fellowship of the Ring”: “Even the smallest person can change the course of history.”

The cardinal said conference attendees were gathered to salute “the power of one.”

“One baby in the womb of His mother, born at Bethlehem; and the civil rights of the tiniest today, the baby in the womb, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“I look out in admiration at a hall of ‘ones’ who have become one, inspired by one who believed the one true God had lifted her up to give a human nature to one who would be called the Son of God. The power of one.”

Cardinal Dolan lamented he had not focused more on philosophy instead of “practical” courses during his student days. The cardinal said he has since tried to compensate by reading the classics of philosophy.

He said he wished he were better versed in the wisdom of Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas, and even the empiricism of Comte, the utilitarianism of Bentham and the pragmatism of Mill and James.

“Those philosophers we thought irrelevant, both those who had given us the moral, political, economic and spiritual coherence we call civilization, and those who were dismantling it, were expounding ideas that would shape what we today think of the true nature of the human person.”

Catholic author and CNY columnist George Weigel, who has written extensively on St. Pope John Paul II, said that the late pontiff believed every problem we currently face comes from a faulty understanding of the human person, which he called a “flawed anthropology.”

“Is it any wonder St. John Paul, himself a philosopher, would commence the project to reclaim the truth of the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of human life, as revealed by God, evident in our nature, discoverable by enlightened reason, a project advanced by his successors, Benedict XVI and Francis, a project of which we are part, as this flawed understanding of the human person reached a tragic but logical outcome in Roe v. Wade?”

Cardinal Dolan said that if truth is reduced to what can be scientifically verified, or what is useful and productive, or what we want or need, then “the Divine is no longer ‘Thee’ but me.”

If that is the case, the cardinal said it is no surprise “an innocent baby in the womb could be deemed useless and inconvenient, that grandma dying slowly yet naturally would be thought a burden and annoyance, that a refugee would be caricatured as a rapist and terrorist.”

As a prime example of the “power of one,” Cardinal Dolan cited the example of Detective Steven McDonald, who was paralyzed by the bullet of a teenage assailant in Central Park in 1986. He was never again able to breathe, eat, drink or move without assistance. After three months in the ICU, his first public words, proclaimed by his wife Patti Ann, were addressed to his assailant: “I forgive you!”

Those words set the tone for Det. McDonald’s 29-year journey of peace and reconciliation, which brought him across the world. To fellow officers, he was a true “officer of the peace,” accompanying wounded fellow cops, encouraging the families of officers killed in the line of duty and holding reconciliation sessions between victims and perpetrators.

The actions of Det. McDonald, who died two years ago this month, were grounded in a living faith “which he insisted only came from a soul in daily union with Jesus, nurtured by prayer, the Eucharist, confession, devotion to the Mother of Jesus and the fortification of his Catholic faith,” the cardinal said.

“Behold the ‘power of one,’” said Cardinal Dolan, pointing to Det. McDonald. “Behold the consequences of ideas translated to beliefs, grounded in faith. Behold a life many today would consider a waste, an inconvenience, a burden, transformed into an icon of reconciliation and love.”

Quoting Det. McDonald’s own words, the cardinal said, “The value of life depends not on what you have or what you can do, but on who you are: A child of God, made in His image, destined for eternity, put here for a purpose, an identity made the stronger the more it is tested.”

Cardinal O’Connor, in the first years after Det. McDonald was shot, became like a family priest for the McDonalds and their then-young son, Conor.

The following words of Cardinal O’Connor resound now as much as they did when he spoke them two decades ago.

“If all the marches, all the prayers, all the vigils, the lectures, articles, debates and encyclicals saved but one tiny, fragile life, would not the Lord of Life say to us, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. For you not only fed me and clothed, encouraged and consoled, visited me in prison and welcomed me a stranger. You saved my life.’”

From a pro-life perspective, the passage of the Reproductive Health Act makes this a very discouraging time in New York state. It’s important for Catholics and other people of faith to remember for whom we fight. Also, it must be learned that the ultimate power is not in Albany or even Washington, D.C. It comes from good people who believe in “the power of one” uniting to make their voices heard.