By David Curtin
The Interim

Pro-lifers across North America are mourning the death of John Cardinal O’Connor, Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, at 80 years of age May 3.

The cardinal was widely considered the most outstanding pro-life religious leader on the continent. He preached in defense of the sacredness of human life fearlessly and frequently, both in his sermons and through the media. And as much as he recognized the right to life as the crucial issue of our time, he was also an outstanding champion of the poor and of working people.

Writing in the May issue of Crisis magazine, Joe Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League of Chicago, said, “John Cardinal O’Connor has been both a beacon of light and a pillar of marble for pro-life activists. Where too many Church leaders shy away from taking an active role in the pro-life movement and assiduously avoid being seen on the streets in front of abortion clinics, Cardinal O’Connor has been bold in spreading the Gospel of Life and has on many occasions joined the activists on the sidewalks. He has also offered the resources of his archdiocese to help any woman who is contemplating abortion to choose life instead.

“Cardinal O’Connor has experienced the wrathful shouts of abortion proponents as he walked through the streets of New York from church to an abortion clinic to pray,” Scheidler continued. “He has led the March for Life through the streets of Washington, D.C. He has given dozens of pro-life sermons at Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and has been disrupted by abortion rights activists more than once.”

In spite of his record of having opened the first AIDS-only clinic in New York and of having tended personally to AIDS patients, the cardinal was also the object of vicious protests by homosexuals and AIDS activists, due to his upholding of Catholic doctrine on sexual morality. The extremist group ACT-UP once interrupted Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and committed sacrelige against the Holy Eucharist while Cardinal O’Connor was presiding. His response was to lead the congregation in prayer for the intruders, and to vow that such a scene would be repeated only “over my dead body.”

The cardinal was also very respectful of the lay leaders and grassroots members of the pro-life movement, and contributed a great deal to effective cooperation between the Catholic hierarchy and the pro-life movement as a whole.

Scheidler remarked that, “While Cardinal O’Connor was head of the pro-life committee of the National Council of Catholic Bishops, he held several meetings with pro-life leaders. I was honoured to attend. The cardinal sought advice from the grass roots so that he and the other bishops could be more effective in communicating the pro-life message to save more babies. He was genuinely attentive to every comment and concern and respectful of the various approaches to fighting abortion. He is our kind of priest.”

At the same time, Cardinal O’Connor fearlessly challenged Catholic politicians who support abortion. In famous confrontations with pro-abortion former governor Mario Cuomo and former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, he warned that Catholics who support abortion in public life risk excommunication. He also indicated that Catholic voters could not in good conscience support pro-abortion candidates.

Jim Hughes, national president of Campaign Life Coalition Canada, praised such leadership and courage in a press release May 4. “At a time when it’s so difficult to find a member of the hierarchy speaking out clearly and passionately on abortion, we had in Cardinal O’Connor a chip off [Pope] John Paul the Great.”

The cardinal was the featured speaker at the 1992 National Pro-Life Conference in Toronto, “Save the Planet’s People,” organized by Campaign Life Coalition. Hughes paid tribute to the cardinal’s stature when he remarked that “in spite of the fact that we had many well-known pro-life leaders at the 1992 conference, [Cardinal O’Connor] was the reason we got such an overwhelming turnout.”

Fr Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life (International), explained that what the secular world saw as “dichotomies” in the cardinal’s life, such as his opposition to abortion along with his compassion for and service to women in crisis, should actually be seen as flowing from a complete adherence to the Gospel. “What held it all together was the dignity of the human person. That dignity demands that we offer the person the full truth about the meaning of their lives, their freedom, their choices, and that we ourselves respond to that truth by serving their needs.”