Dolan channels O’Connor

I was and remain a big fan of Cardinal John O’Connor, who was archbishop of New York from 1984 to his death in May 2000. There was a time when I put a lot of work into writing a biography of O’Connor, including conducting dozens of interviews with his family, friends, and co-workers throughout his lifetime. (Unfortunately, I put the project on hold when I had difficulty finding a publisher and have never gotten back to it.)

One of the beautiful and inspiring things about his personality and ministry was the striking indignation he felt at instances of disregard for human dignity. He was not afraid to express this indignation plainly and oftentimes poetically (for the man was a great writer and speaker).

One of my favorite examples of this was a time when he had announced that he would donate all of his social security income as a retired U.S. Navy admiral to a fund for the education of black youths. He apparently received some strong objections to this from at least a few outspoken conservatives (whom, one might say, represented the “base” of those who most often supported a lot of what he did).

From the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral one Sunday morning, O’Connor read a bit from one letter he had received on it. The writer threatened to stop making his weekly contributions to St. Patrick’s and, in a sort of protest, throw black buttons into the collection basket instead. The Cardinal then commented, basically saying that he was sorry the writer felt that way, but that if his support for the education of young black people is what caused the black buttons to come in the collection basket, then he would wear those buttons on his cassock with pride.

Anyway, I thought of this yesterday when I came across (thanks to a link from Michael Sean Winters) a recent blog post by O’Connor’s successor, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. In it, Dolan commented on the negative reaction of some Americans to recent flood of tens of thousands of refugee children from Central and South America. He specifically cited an angry mob that turned back a busload of children in southern California, yelling “get out!” while shaking their fists.

Dolan writes:

It was un-American; it was un-biblical; it was inhumane. It worked, as the scared drivers turned the buses around and sought sanctuary elsewhere.

The incendiary scene reminded me of Nativist mobs in the 1840’s, Know-Nothing gangs in the 1850’s, and KKK thugs in the 1920’s, who hounded and harassed scared immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and Blacks.

I think of this sad incident today, the feast of New York’s own Kateri Tekakwitha, a native-American (a Mohawk) canonized a saint just three years ago. Unless we are Native Americans, like Saint Kateri, our ancestors all came here as homesick, hungry, hopeful immigrants. I don’t think there were any Mohawks among that mob attacking the buses of refugee women and children.

He then compared the mob to the crowd of folks in McAndrews, Texas, who recently welcomed a similar busload of refugees, in this case offering the kids “a meal, a cold drink, a shower and fresh clothes, toys for the kids, and a cot as they helped government officials try to process them and figure out the next step.”

I loved reading the post and admire Cardinal Dolan’s intention to remind us of what we’re supposed to be about, not just as Catholics, but as human beings. His strident indignance at the failure of some to recognize the human dignity of those around them is inspiring and calls out the best in us — in me, anyway. His words are a welcome reminder to me of the wise leadership of his great predecessor, Cardinal O’Connor.

Regarding these young refugees, by the way, Minnesota Public Radio offered a fine report yesterday, explaining “Who are the kids of the refugee crisis?”



2 thoughts on “Dolan channels O’Connor

  1. Oh Cardinal O’Connor – when I made my (then reluctant) return to church in 1990, I attended daily mass at the Cathedral, a mere two blocks from my office. Each day at 7:30, unless he was traveling, he presided. At the time I so wanted to dislike him and be angry with him, which was not possible once I began my daily visits. My heart softened to him, to things like this, and to so many other ways in which he embodied some truly important elements of CST.

    Thanks for this post and the echo of Cardinal Dolan’s words as well. I am reminded of the words of Matthew 25 as I consider all of this.

    • Thanks, Fran. Nice to hear your memories of him. An imperfect person, like all of us, to be sure, and in his position of such great authority, his imperfections were magnified, as ours would be. But his role also allowed his skills and gifts and love also to be magnified, and it was, to me, quite beautiful.

      I am reminded in typing this now of something about the experience of doing that biographical research that I mentioned in the post. I made of point of interviewing people who opposed him in significant ways, people who would not be inclined to paint a rosy picture — for example, activists from within the gay rights community, which often vilified O’Connor for some of his positions. But of those I spoke to who had direct interaction with him, almost to a person, they spoke of him with respect, knowing he meant well and respected them as well, despite their deep disagreement with some of his moral and political convictions.

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