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Church’s clout may be waning, but N.Y. is still the bulliest pulpit

NCR Staff
New York

NEW YORK -- Fourteen years ago John O’Connor stood on the altar steps in St. Patrick’s Cathedral after his installation as New York’s archbishop. He stuck his miter on the head of a startled 10-year-old altar boy -- also named John O’Connor -- jammed a N.Y. Yankees baseball cap on his own head and mimicked the mayor, Ed Koch, by saying, “How’m I doin’?”

So how is the former chief of naval chaplains doing? More than that, what will it be like in the not-too-distant future for someone to try to fill the size 9-1/2 shoes of this former Philadelphia priest?

To get some answers to both questions, NCR interviewed people from the archdiocese’s rural villages to the Lower East Side, from the suburbs to Harlem; talking to priests and pols, women religious and writers.

Although O’Connor submitted his resignation to Pope John Paul II three years ago, the 78-year-old cardinal is doing everything he can to delay the inevitable.

Just as the pope wants to open St. Peter’s doors to the new millennium in 2000, O’Connor, who became the eighth archbishop of New York in 1984, would love to do the same at St. Patrick’s. And the pope seems to be leaving elderly archbishops where they are.

All that’s been said officially is that the pope has told O’Connor to continue “until other provisions are made.”

However much longer he might have in his position, O’Connor has carved out a distinctive era as leader of arguably the most prestigious archdiocese in the country.

During this era, the New York media has followed his comings and goings to a degree not experienced by any other U.S. religious figure. O’Connor has handled life at center stage during a period when the politics and religion of the country have been bitterly divided over such issues as abortion and the rights of homosexuals.

Through it all, O’Connor has sometimes declared boldly on topics and, at other times, humbly and self-deprecatingly apologized, sometimes over the same issue.

He has certainly made mistakes, but he is not afraid to admit them. As he told NCR (see accompanying interview), if he had it to do over again, he would handle quite differently his celebrated clash with then-vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. At the time, some found him courageous; others found him foolish.

His successor will have to continue handling difficult and complex questions as put by the overheated New York media with its insatiable appetite for the sound byte.

O’Connor, with his resolute refusal to close parishes and schools despite the advice of business experts, has avoided some of the controversies that have torn other dioceses. But even some who have benefited from his determination to keep Catholic institutions open believe his successor will face inevitable, difficult and even expensive choices in that area.

O’Connor, meanwhile, says he still has work to do. If anyone needs a testament to his physical fitness, watch him as he hops and skips up and down St. Patrick’s sanctuary steps. So many around him have warned O’Connor that he’s going to trip and break a hip that the cardinal finally wrote a lighthearted column about it in Catholic New York, the archdiocesan weekly.

Again, almost as if to prove to the pope -- and himself -- that he is still physically on top of his job, O’Connor in October took a grueling round trip to Melbourne, Australia. Then, in January, along with his pal the pope, he was out in Cuba’s noonday sun. In depicting New York, nearly every person NCR interviewed used the same two words, diversity and complexity. In describing O’Connor, many said, “tireless.”

O’Connor “tries to be hands-on in most places. His visibility is enormous,” said Msgr. Wallace Harris of Harlem’s St. Charles Borromeo Parish. “We call Catholic New York the cardinal’s weekly agenda, but when you take a step back to look at it you say, ‘My God, he did all this this week?’ “

Stamina essential

There is a feeling in some quarters that he tries to micro-manage. Nonetheless, if nothing else, New York’s newcomer will have to have stamina.

Energy is a quality New Yorkers admire, and New Yorkers doesn’t just mean Manhattanites. The New York archdiocese is a 10-county, 4,683-square-mile region. It changes its character rapidly. In Manhattan it’s a bustling, coldhearted/warmhearted, overcrowded city with plenty of examples of extremes, rich and poor. Staten Island is working class/middle class; the Bronx is poor and working class. Then, almost next door, come the comfortable suburbs of Westchester County, where the better-off middle class and the wealthy of Wall Street and the corporate suite rest their busy heads. Beyond that are rural Sullivan and Ulster counties.

In growing but rural Orange County, for example, New York City firemen live and commute into the city for their live-in-the-station shifts. Far out though they may dwell, for New Yorkers Manhattan ultimately is the lodestone.

“New York is the world,” says one of its Catholics, Bill Baker, president of Channel 13-WNET, the public television station on West 58th St. And New Yorkers are “people from all corners of it. They create it,” he says. “As New Yorkers, they’re smart -- in the sense of sophistication, of intellectualism and of the street.” Street smart.

Some outsiders, of course, may be inclined to describe New Yorkers as pushy, aggressive, aloof and rude. Where others might see aggression, Baker sees passion. “New Yorkers are committed -- and passionate about those commitments. New Yorkers are inquiring, critical, creative. New York is about creating and re-creating, interpreting and defining.”

Catholic New Yorkers, in Baker’s view, are “perceived as mainline, conservative, established. They are at once the remnant of the European white immigrant church and American to the core. They embody American values in their Catholic tradition. The new immigrant Catholics in New York are diverse -- Asian, Latin American, Caribbean, African and European. They, too, are traditional. But in a different way from the historic European groups.”

Decades ago, G.K. Chesterton’s take was that “New York is a cosmopolitan city, but it is not a city of cosmopolitans. Most of the masses in New York have a nation, whether or not it be the nation in which New York belongs. They are exiles or they are citizens; there is no moment when they are cosmopolitans. But very often exiles bring with them not only rooted traditions but rooted truths.”

One rooted truth is that in New York City any newcomer archbishop will have to risk being burned by the media, bashed by the politicians and wooed -- or spurned --by the money.

Where, in today’s larger public realm, does a Catholic archbishop fit?

Less prominently than previously, in the view of Columbia University history professor Alan Brinkley, a New Yorker but not a Catholic. He sees O’Connor -- and by extension any future Catholic archbishop of New York -- playing “an increasingly less important role in the life of the city, as the traditionally Irish Catholic population of New York declines, as the church itself becomes less central to the lives of its own members.”

While Brinkley acknowledges that “Cardinal O’Connor is still a considerable presence,” he adds, “I don’t think anything like his predecessors were.” Brinkley would remind a newcomer that “Manhattan is not New York and that Manhattan in particular is not Catholic New York.” (Manhattan is actually 39.4 percent Catholic.)

Brinkley would also caution any new archbishop against being drawn into the maelstrom of New York society and politics. Brinkley doesn’t think O’Connor -- with whom he sometimes agrees and sometimes doesn’t -- “has been careful enough in that regard.”

“Once you start to try to exert political influence and prove to have none, then you’re diminishing your spiritual influence as well,” he said.

In 1984, shortly after O’Connor arrived, columnist Jimmy Breslin touched on the same topic in a different way. He referred to him as “Yesterday O’Connor.”

Gone are the days, said Breslin in the New York Daily News, when a New York cardinal’s residence at 452 Madison Avenue could be called “the powerhouse.”Gone the time when “the man at that switch controlled political offices, government careers, money, real estate” and peoples’ social standing. Wrote Breslin, that was “yesterday.”

“Yesterday,” he continued, was “when a phone call from ‘the powerhouse’ could kill a front page story. The way O’Connor has acted in this city so far, he doesn’t seem to realize that yesterday has passed.”

Paul Crotty is well-known on the New York political scene. Until recently he was New York City’s corporate counsel; he’s now a Bell Atlantic senior vice-president.

Speaking of the man who will one day succeed O’Connor, Crotty said an incoming archbishop “has got to respect the diversity -- that’s the key thing, those different cultures and civilizations that populate New York.”

The new man also needs to know, said Crotty, that New York politics can be “very, very tough and fractious. Cardinal O’Connor, looking back on it, thought he could communicate with people over the heads of everyone simply by going directly to the press. I think the press took advantage of him.”

In his later years, said Crotty, the cardinal has been saying less and accomplishing more.

“When you enter into the public relations fray in New York City, there’s no respect,” said Crotty, “You’ve got to be above it to command respect. And I think the cardinal is held in far higher regard now.”

As Newsday columnist Bill Reel, a Catholic to the conservative side of center, sees it, “New York is the media capital of the world. The financial capital of the world. Any new archbishop has to be conscious that everything he says will be heard, analyzed and commented on.”

For any major figure New York City, with four high-circulation daily newspapers, dozens of television stations and hundreds of corner kiosks filled with Manhattan-fixated magazines, is a very public place.

“In New York’s liberal media, abortion is a religion,” Reel said. “They will not tolerate any attack on what they regard as a priceless human right.”

A new archbishop strong on the life issues should not expect to be well-received editorially by The New York Times, Newsday or Daily News, said Reel, though he’ll find The New York Post sympathetic.

The Daily News’ Bill Bell, a writer who has traveled overseas with O’Connor and has been on 14 papal global journeys, said that a new archbishop needs to understand that the city’s media is fickle, has a short attention span, “but during that short period, the scrutiny is intense and in some cases partisan.”

Bell, not an uncritical observer (his version of O’Connor in Beirut is hilarious), sees O’Connor as an effective communicator -- though “he doesn’t talk to the press anymore. He’s gotten burned many times by his talk-first, think-later style.” At one time O’Connor’s episcopal motto was said to be: “Shoot, Aim, Ready.”

The Daily News’ writer regards the cardinal as “a pretty good writer -- something nobody gives him credit for.”

O’Connor’s weekly column in the archdiocesan newspaper, said Bell, is “interesting and readable. It keeps him in touch with his flock and also enables him to kind of set the record straight. He believes the press simplifies and abbreviates his thoughts -- and that’s true. So he uses the column to amplify and clarify.”

The new guy will need to do the same. And, said Bell, “he’ll find himself defending Vatican teaching so often on things that are not very popular, he’ll begin to sound like a broken record -- but that’s what his job is. Plus,” concluded Bell, getting in a plug, the next archbishop needs to understand “the needs of the electronic media and print media are very different.”

Says Newsday’s Reel, “What I admire about O’Connor is he stands up and says what he thinks. An archbishop of New York has to keep on saying what he believes even if nobody’s agreeing with him.”

It can pay off: “There’s a lot of Catholic money in Wall Street, the corporations, the city and the suburbs, and I think a willingness to assert the truth of Catholicism plays well with those people,” said Reel.

One fundraiser who has watched O’Connor and prefers to remain unidentified said, “Any New York archbishop’s got to schmooze if he wants the money. You know, tell the rich they can be better wealthy people if they’ll give some of the wealth away.”

O’Connor as fundraiser, said the source, is “not bad, but not as good as he thinks he is. Some of these corporate leaders are tough -- that’s how they got where they are. They run big conglomerates. They’re forceful. Demanding. Maybe some of them kind of put him off. But people who give want to meet the king. They want to put the money themselves in the king’s hand. And if you want the money, you’ve got to be available.”


Six years ago a major archdiocesan campaign pulled in $100 million. Right now things are financially tight, though just about on an even keel -- the half-billion-dollar budget ran a recent $3 million deficit; 108 parishes received funds from the interparish finance commission.

Schmoozing with politicians is not an archiepiscopal essential. On abortion, O’Connor has disagreed with New York’s biggest Catholic names, including Mario Cuomo when he was governor, Geraldine Ferraro when she was a vice presidential candidate (now a U.S. Senate candidate), and perennial Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

O’Connor’s eventual successor -- ensconced on the top floor of his chancery skyscraper, the 20-story Catholic Center at 1011 First Avenue (between 55th and 56th streets) -- will find that New York is not just church, but layers of church.

There’s the institutional layer, the work that goes on inside and emanates from his building. Church also is the parish layer, each parish with its own personality, pressures and problems. Then there’s New York Catholicism’s activist layer, many gradations from urban streets to migrant ministry. Some agencies, like Catholic Charities, are diocesan, others are not.

A new archbishop “needs to know what women religious are doing,” said Congregation de Notre Dame Sr. Mavie Coakley, who knows she’ll get a laugh when she says she operates “a Manhattan escort service.”

If the new archbishop “tracked women religious,” she said, “he’d really have a feel for the city. They’re on every block. Turn the corner, and there’s another group.”

(Coakley does operate a kind of escort service, accompanying the elderly to doctors, the bank and the stores.)

Then there’s New York Catholicism’s intellectual layer -- the purveyors of theological, media and academic talk, the social and literary scuttlebutt, the jests and the jousting.

O’Connor tried early to have an impact there. In the early 1980s he hosted monthly sessions, a couple of dozen people at his residence for drinks and fellowship, in an attempt to develop a place for Catholic dialogue and consensus across the Catholic spectrum.

These were sessions where Bishop Patrick V. Ahern, retired New York auxiliary, might close the evening singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” to the late Helen Hayes, or Richard John Neuhaus might be found ridiculing Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach to life issues.

O’Connor more than a decade ago, in effect, was attempting his own “common ground” project. The evenings gradually petered out.

On the institutional front, the new archbishop will face problems O’Connor has deliberately ignored (the need to close and consolidate parishes) and tackled (the need for vocations). He’ll be bound by tighter budgetary constraints than O’Connor inherited and, if he’s a youngish appointee, severe clerical shortages before his term expires. Fifty years ago the New York archdiocese had 2,097 priests for 1.2 million Catholics. Today New York has slightly fewer priests than 50 years ago -- 1,911 (895 diocesan, 1,021 religious) -- for twice as many (2.3 million) Catholics. And that number goes to three million, insists O’Connor, when the undocumented are included.

‘We call him cardinal’

O’Connor generally has the priests’ admiration, if not their affection. O’Connor goes out of his way, said one, to make himself available to the priests. Even so, he said, “we called Spellman ‘Spelly,’ and Cooke ‘Cookie,’ but we call the cardinal, ‘the cardinal.’ “

There are 100 diocesan minor seminarians (45 in major seminary) compared to a total 616 a half century ago when there were also a further 426 studying in religious order seminaries, a certain percentage of which would be likely to serve in the archdiocese.

There are no religious order seminaries in the archdiocese today. Even so, by national standards, O’Connor has been doing reasonably well in recruiting future priests -- though not all seminarians stay the course.

Said Harlem’s Msgr. Harris, “the new fellow will have some interesting things to face. Cardinal O’Connor has adamantly kept every school open, adamantly kept every church open. The new fellow may have to take a different view of that. He will have to look at the redistribution of religious and clergy to be most effective -- whether or not we have a resurgence right now of small numbers in seminary.”

Msgr. William J. Belford, pastor of St. Catharine’s in suburban Blauvelt, said, “You have to give the cardinal credit for the number of schools that have remained open when conventional wisdom would have said they should have been closed years ago.

“It’s been a real effort but a successful effort, I think, to find patrons for some schools that would never otherwise be able to pay the bills.” The new archbishop, Belford said, similarly will have to find patrons “and keep them giving” if those schools are to survive.

Everybody agrees, said Belford, that -- especially in the poor neighborhoods -- these schools “are absolutely the only hope for children. The public schools are disastrous. But I would also point out that in Staten Island, where the public schools are good, the island Catholic schools are packed.”

The new man coming in “has to be a planner,” said Msgr. Neil Connolly, pastor at St. Mary’s on the Lower East Side. “I hear others saying the same thing. Look at how many parishes we have and why they were constructed. I’m not talking about destroying a community, but just looking at the physical buildings.”

Is there a need to combine some of them?

Connolly thinks so. And he thinks the archdiocese will need someone “who will promote leadership and cooperation on an area basis. Like a vicariate basis. I think that’s really important.”

“One parish doesn’t have all the resources,” said Connolly, “and if we had a cooperative-type ministry, much more cooperative, I think we would do a lot better than we presently do.”

Many of the administrative chores -- from boiler permits to financial record-keeping -- could be done on a multi-parish basis, contended Connolly.

Another tack for the new man to take, in Connolly’s view, is building up the linkages between the inner-city parishes and the suburbs. He mentioned the Cleveland diocesan approach pushed by Bishop Anthony Pilla.

“New York’s a lot different from Cleveland,” said Connolly, “but we’ve begun talking about these things here.” It’s important “not just for resources, but for all of us as Catholics that celebrating church unity begin at home,” he said.

Some New York priests worry that the seminarians these days often are conservative or hyper-orthodox. Harris takes a broad view: “The wealth of New York vocations for years came from its immigrants’ children,” said Harris, “and we’re not seeing that right now. Even if we’re bringing in Catholic immigrants, seminary isn’t a priority in many families’ lives anymore.”

So, continued Harris, the young men who are entering the seminary are located in a different place geographically or culturally or financially from earlier generations of seminarians. Harris said the earlier generations understood the city and were not overwhelmed by its myths.

One of those myths is that inner-city churches are empty. He said he’s brought seminarians to St. Charles for the 9:30 a.m. Mass and they’re “astounded at the people standing in the aisles and all down the street.”

The question of conservative or liberal, said Harris, ebbs and flows. Hyper-orthodoxy, he said, is a sign of insecurity. “There is a legitimate orthodoxy,” said Harris, “but hyper-orthodoxy is the easy way out -- you don’t have to think much. But the trend everywhere is that the pendulum is swinging to the right right now.”

Depending on who the new appointee is and who is likely to be appointing him, that pendulum’s swing might suit the next archbishop just fine.

There are some 50,000 working women religious in the United States. Almost 8 percent of those -- 3,849 -- are in the New York archdiocese, where significant numbers hold together much of the social service fabric.

Among them, on a personal level, reaction toward O’Connor’s tenure varies. One commented that as an archdiocese, New York was “pretty dead” for women, particularly liturgically. What saves it, she said, is that because of the archdiocese’s variety, “you can find something to satisfy your needs.”

Society of the Sacred Heart Sr. Judy Garson and Congregation de Notre Dame Sr. Mary Nearny represent two of the thousands of separate and intertwined New York stories among the city’s women religious. Garson works with the Little Sisters of the Assumption family health service in East Harlem; Nearny with abused and incarcerated women.

The Little Sisters, 40 years in the area, do not operate health clinics or hospitals, explained Garson, but provide a visiting nursing service in the home. They also provide social services and some lay advocacy.

While the health service is involved with “crisis and immediate service,” said Garson, “the long-term work is with families and individuals on education, ESL [English as a Second Language] and support programs to help them take their own lives in hand.”

Aware of their own declining numbers, the Little Sisters service has recruited laity so that the service is now one-third women religious and two-thirds lay people.

Champion of the poor

What would Garson tell a new archbishop?

“I’d presume to tell him that understanding the diversity and complexity is a large part of his education; that part of the excitement of this city comes from the fact that the population is always somewhat in motion,” Garson said.

How does O’Connor look from East Harlem?

“He’s enormously in tune with needs of the immigrant population,” said Garson, “at a time when many people pay lip service to it. The cardinal is a champion of the poor. We’ve watched him in all the convulsions of the health care system. Immigrants. Housing. Rent control. He speaks out and is very clear on those issues.

“The place of the church in a city like this is unique,” said Garson, “and not everybody in New York loves the Catholic church’s institutional face. But it also represents an enormous power. And it uses that power for the sake of the poorest and the most vulnerable.”

Sr. Nearny has a close-up view of the harshest lives women live -- battered and incarcerated. Over the years she’s founded two programs, Steps To End Family Violence and the Incarcerated Mothers Program.

The work began when Nearny -- who earlier had started a halfway house for women offenders -- was part of a group attending a hearing inside a state prison, the first such hearing ever. Twelve women testified about abuse they’d experienced in their lives and how it was not taken into consideration in their court cases.

“Steps” advocates for abused women, works with pro bono and assigned attorneys and is involved in counseling and support groups. The Incarcerated Mothers Program attempts to keep mothers and children connected so the bond is maintained and so she doesn’t loose her legal rights as a parent.

“My other life,” says Nearny, is fundraising. She has to find almost $800,000 annually to support the two projects. For three years the archdiocese has helped out with an $8,000 local Campaign for Human Development grant.

What, from her perspective, does Nearny believe a new archbishop needs to understand?

That abuse is a serious situation that needs to be brought to the pulpit, into churches, she said. And churches in turn -- like one Episcopal parish in Manhattan and a Catholic parish in Harlem -- need to become places where services to abused and abusers are developed.

Nearny’s other message is that alternatives to incarceration make a lot of sense for women, “and they’re a lot safer.”

What else? “The archdiocesan office for women’s concerns is one person -- Maria Guarracino -- just this one marvelous woman handling both a home situation -- her husband is ill -- and the entire archdiocese. But that’s an impossible situation. She needs more people there.” (See profile on page 17 of the paper issue.)

Another element of New York church that contains both the Catholic and the political has to do with archdiocesan relations with the gay community.

Jeff Stone, New York-based Dignity national director, said informal talks continue with the cardinal. “We keep publicity off [the talks] and hope progress can be made, especially in areas where we think there could be agreement.”

Stone was talking about civil, not theological, matters, such as a pending New York state nondiscrimination bill, and the state’s first hate crimes bill, both of which would extend protection to gays.

“It would be very gratifying to see the cardinal either support those bills or not oppose them and make it clear he he was not opposing them -- make it clear because often there is a lot of misperception surrounding these issues,” he said. Stone said gay Catholics were “gratified” by last fall’s pastoral letter from the U.S. bishops “Always Our Children,” which deals with the relationships of homosexual children and their parents.

Stone said Dignity was hoping O’Connor would publicly support the document and speak out about it as many other bishops had, but he did not.

On an entirely different front, the next archbishop is certainly going to cost New York Catholics more than O’Connor does. The cardinal gives his annual Social Security income to a scholarship fund for black students, gives $18,000 of his Navy pension to charities, keeps $12,000 and draws no archdiocesan salary.

The cardinal began his New York era by mimicking Ed Koch on the altar steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The two of them later wrote a book, His Eminence and Hizzoner, setting out their views. For now, Koch gets the last word.

“The cardinal’s been a magnificent friend, not only to Jewish people but to minorities. There’s been no greater spokesman for the poor. I’ve berated those who would attack him,” said Koch, those who “liked it when he spoke out against poverty and on behalf of the poor, hated it when he spoke out on the issue of abortion. I said, even though I disagree with him on that issue, why is it OK to speak on things you like but on matters of conscience you’d deprive him?”

The former mayor, who says he’s spent more time in St. Patrick’s than most Catholics, was there the day Act-Up invaded. “I told him I’d be there with the cops,” said Koch, who was “outraged” when the protesters were released without “even being fined at least $100 to $200.”

Koch is convinced that O’Connor was primarily responsible -- “through his personal relationship and credibility with the Holy Father” -- for the change in Vatican policy that resulted in the Vatican diplomatic recognition of Israel. “The cardinal told me early on, at a breakfast when I was mayor, that his greatest goal was to achieve that recognition,” said Koch. “And he did.”

(O’Connor may have had a supporting role, but the key person responsible was the pope’s childhood Jewish friend, Jerzy Kluger (see The Hidden Pope by Darcy O’Brien, reviewed in NCR’s May 15 issue [not posted on this site])

What would the mayor tell the next archbishop? “That he’s going to be pelted with verbal rocks, treated in a way different than in some American cities where nobody questions what a cardinal says. Here there’s a lot of give and take,” said Koch. “You have to be willing to stand up and give a lot in terms of admonitions and compassion, to extend the hand of friendship to people you disagree with. What a great city!”

What Koch was saying is that in New York, if you give it, you’ve also got to be able to take it.

National Catholic Reporter, May 29, 1998