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Inside NCR

O’Connor legacy, women’s manifesto, art saga

There are nine fat envelopes of clippings in the NCR clip file about Cardinal John O’Connor, as well as extensive electronic archives, hundreds of items long and short, complete with pictures of the young, feisty bishop, down the years to the young bishop grown old and finally bloated by medication used in the battle against the cancer that killed him.

No amount of paper can sum up a life. But the sheer volume hints that O’Connor was important and influential and walked the U.S. Catholic stage -- one is tempted to say strutted -- happy under the spotlight’s glare.

He had been bishop of Scranton, Pa. NCR dispatched one Tom Roberts, years before he became a staff member, to check O’Connor out. Roberts reported the new New York appointee was popular in Scranton and gracious in person. Ever since, the cardinal has managed to make waves, big and small, on almost a weekly basis. On several occasions NCR did wider, deeper digs. In 1985, we sent Arthur Jones, Joseph Feuerherd and Vincent Golphin to interview him in depth.

Editor-at-large Jones returned for another extensive interview in 1998. It was a mixed review, but the NCR cover conceded, “O’Connor refused to abandon the inner city, leaving difficult choices for his successor.”

There will be days of mourning and eulogies, and then attention will turn to a successor. But the O’Connor legacy, for better or worse, will not dissipate in a hurry. He was a big Catholic leader on a rather lackluster U.S. Catholic stage, and there are not many big ones left. He traveled to Rome eight or nine times a year. Rome listened to him, and he listened to Rome and toed its line with fierce loyalty. Some will say this was good for the church, others that it weakened the U.S. bishops’ conference, and in so doing damaged the collegial structure the Vatican Council had tried so ardently to build on.

But O’Connor had a sense of humor, which he frequently turned on himself, and the church could sure benefit from a little more of that.

In the movies they call them outtakes, gems or less that don’t make it into the final production. It happens in writing, too. Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration and frequent contributor to NCR, as cartoonist and writer, attended what turned out to be a very important meeting in Indiana. He came back all fired up and with typical eloquence penned a bunch of lines that might shiver church timbers. But there was not enough room for all the words he wrote, so I salvaged a few from the cutting room floor. They begin as follows:

The term convergence is often reserved for important stellar events or planetary alignments. The convening of 15 distinguished churchwomen at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., April 28-30, to address the state of women in today’s church may claim only small immediate attention, but its eventual gravitational pull on the debate between the official church and its women as loyal opposition is now in motion with a new intensity. Something important has taken place, an act of resistance we may one day record as a turning point. A metaphorical nova now burns whose light will soon reach us.

Any article that can afford to shed even one such eloquent paragraph must be a humdinger indeed.

Heaven knows, layout gurus Toni Ortiz and Toby Becker gave me plenty of prime space to have my say about the Jesus 2000 saga. Still, I wanted to mention one further entry that sums up the amazing spirit of the venture, which often brought out the best in what art and history and Christianity mean.

“I want to share with you why I entered this contest,” wrote June Snell of Auburn, Ill., back in the fall. “As I have been sitting on our couch resting from leukemia, my husband handed me the article about your contest. That was a miracle in itself, for he never acts like he is interested in my art! The prize money means nothing to me. I just want you to know that you have given me something else to think about and a reason to ‘get going.’ ”

She didn’t win the big prize, but perhaps something bigger.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000