Pope Francis this week accepted the resignation of Auxiliary Bishop John J. O’Hara, who has served as vicar for pastoral planning and vicar for Staten Island.
The bishop had submitted his resignation on his 75th birthday, Feb. 7, as required by canon law.
Bishop O’Hara’s retirement was to be officially announced April 7.
Cardinal Dolan, speaking to Catholic New York in a phone interview last week, said the word retirement as applied to Bishop O’Hara was an “oxymoron.”
“He oozes love for Jesus and His Church,” the cardinal said, stressing that the retirement applied only to the bishop’s canonical appointment.
“He’ll never retire from his appointment as a priest and a bishop,” Cardinal Dolan added.
The cardinal ordained Bishop O’Hara to the episcopacy on Aug. 4, 2014, along with Auxiliary Bishop Peter Byrne, the episcopal vicar of the Bronx and lower Westchester County, and Auxiliary Bishop John Jenik, who retired in 2018.
The cardinal anticipates that Bishop O’Hara will remain active in administering the sacraments and continuing to make pastoral visits, especially on Staten Island.
Bishop O’Hara currently splits his time between St. Charles parish on Staten Island and St. Agnes parish near Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.
Speaking with CNY last week, he said the borough of Staten Island, where he has served for much of his priestly life and ministry, “is in my blood.”
After his ordination to the priesthood in 1984, he served as a parochial vicar at St. Charles parish there for eight years.
He was then assigned to St. Teresa of the Infant Jesus parish, where he spent the next two decades, first as a parochial vicar and then as pastor, from 2000 to 2012.
He spoke of how Staten Island parishes have helped the faithful to cope during the Covid-19 pandemic, both during last year’s lockdown and since reopening for Masses midway through 2020.
“I’m happy to report…that our Mass attendance numbers are beginning to grow again,” the bishop said. “A lot of that is due to the fine work of the pastors and the priests who are assigned there. They are always available to their people.”
In 2012, Cardinal Dolan appointed then-Father John O’Hara as director of the newly established strategic pastoral planning office.
Working with then-Auxiliary Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan, who was appointed to lead the Diocese of Camden, N.J., the next year, the Making All Things New pastoral planning initiative formed the bulk of their responsibilities.
When asked what made Bishop O’Hara the right person for the pastoral planning job, Cardinal Dolan said he had been looking for a “beloved” parish priest who had “street credibility” with his brother priests.
The cardinal also cited the bishop’s “coaxing way of explaining things to people” in Gospel-centered terms.
While emphasizing that pastoral planning has been an important facet of Church life since the “Acts of the Apostles,” the cardinal said he relied on the bishop’s ability to work calmly through sometimes contentious issues with parishioners and other parish representatives while keeping his cool.
Going through a process that ultimately saw the archdiocese go from nearly 400 parishes to about 300 was not easy. “There was a lot of pain, and a lot of back and forth,” said Cardinal Dolan, who credited Bishop O’Hara for bringing a spiritual context to the discussions.
“He didn’t let me down,” the cardinal said.
The pastoral planning work continues, largely in the capable hands of Eileen Mulcahy, who now serves as director of pastoral planning.
When the occasion warrants, Cardinal Dolan said, he wouldn’t hesitate to tap Bishop O’Hara’s expertise as a “designated hitter.”
For his part, Bishop O’Hara claimed no personal credit for accomplishments, noting that the purpose of “pastoral planning is to meet the needs of our people and our parishes as we move quickly through the 21st century.”
The bishop explained that many of the “structures and systems” that existed in the archdiocese and across many parts of the United States were formulated for the entirely different Catholic landscape of the late 19th and early 20th century.
There needed “to be some review and some re-evaluation, and some updating,” he said. “We’re shifting gears for the purpose of creating a more vibrant and vital Church in the future that meets the needs of the current landscape.”
A native of Jersey City, N.J., the future priest and bishop was a product of Catholic schools there including Salesian-run Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey and Seton Hall University in South Orange, where he majored in English, but spent a lot of time as news director of WSOU, the campus radio station.
Gifted with a broadcaster’s resonant voice, Bishop O’Hara worked professionally for New Jersey radio stations before making the decision to pursue his call to the priesthood at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie.
Speaking about his vocation to the priesthood, Bishop O’Hara gave the ultimate credit to the Lord. “He is a God of surprises. I was surprised when this fell into my lap.”
The bishop said, “I have been flying high since Dec. 1, 1984,” when Cardinal John O’Connor ordained him in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
As the Church and its parishioners recover from the specter of Covid-19, Bishop O’Hara says he has a full schedule planned for the next several months.
“Coming out of Covid, we’re reinventing the wheel on so many different levels,” the bishop said. “People are reassessing their life. I think most people understand that we’re never going back to normal.”
“We have to embrace God in the new realities and see where He’s going to lead us.”
The best way to accomplish that is to live our Catholic faith with joy and enthusiasm and by being open to others around us, the bishop said, especially those who are struggling.
In a 2019 Catholic New York story quoting his advice for new bishops before the episcopal ordination of Auxiliary Bishop Edmund Whalen and Auxiliary Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, Bishop O’Hara offered this acquired wisdom:
“A bishop must be like the needle of a compass that points to Christ in everything he says and in everything he does. He needs to be a servant who gives himself away totally and completely.
“Ours must be an openness to where Christ wants us to be at any given moment, and each day that can be rather exciting because we’re not quite sure…where the call is going to lead us.”