To Be Made Cardinal : O'Connor: Setting Fire to New York

Times Staff Writer

Archbishop John J. O'Connor strode briskly out of the home team dugout at Yankee Stadium and crossed the infield near the pitcher's mound to an altar on the site of second base. A giant television screen magnified the prelate's presence for 40,000 cheering parochial school students, while an electronic scoreboard spelled out his name and title in huge lights.

As he faced the stands hung with hand-painted posters reading "Christ Fever, Catch It" or "Yea God," the archbishop, who will be installed Saturday in elaborate Vatican ceremonies as New York's new cardinal, was in fine form.

"At least this is better than school," he joked to the students, who had assembled for a recent archdiocese youth rally. "I hope you remember me as the archbishop who got you out of school. You are absolutely terrific. I need you because I love you. I need you very, very much and I love you very much. New York needs you and the whole world needs you."

"A-OK," the scoreboard read.

Priest Invents Slogan

O'Connor told the crowd that he had invited top advertising executives to a meeting to discuss ways the Roman Catholic Church could spread its message to change the world. But it was a priest in the room who finally came up with the slogan.

With evangelical fervor, the archbishop shouted the slogan so that it reverberated off the bleachers:

"Christ Is Alive in 1985!"

"Louder," O'Connor implored as the students yelled the words back at him again and again while the message flashed on the scoreboard:

"CHRIST IS ALIVE IN 1985!"

"Christ is alive in you, in every one of you," the archbishop proclaimed. "Stand up and let me hear it!"

Clearly, it was hardball religiosity in the house that Babe Ruth built.

Bostonian's Presence

On Saturday, O'Connor, with 27 others, including Nicaragua's anti-Sandinista Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, will receive the cardinal's red hat in Rome. The only other American among them will be Boston's Archbishop Bernard Law, a prelate who, like O'Connor, shares Pope John Paul II's vision of a well-ordered church and the pontiff's desire to steer American Catholicism to more traditional positions.

Some half-jokingly have dubbed the new American cardinals "Law and Order," a stereotype that could prove difficult to shake because it contains a grain of truth.

"I think the idea that Rome wants a great deal of institutional discipline in terms of doctrine and chains of command is an accurate interpretation," said Peter Steinfels, editor of Commonweal, the well-respected biweekly magazine published by Roman Catholic lay people. "Nobody will get a major see unless they are thought of as reliable and have the notion of the church as well ordered and having lines of authority.

"There are two interpretations of Vatican II (the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII) that are at issue. One of the interpretations sees the changes in terms of updating and more of an adjustment to effective communication in the modern world.

"The other interpretation sees the change as much more thoroughgoing, and there was much more that needed to be altered in the church before Vatican II to be true to the faith. In this second view, much of the turmoil that followed the council is recognized as a more natural outcome of trying to come to terms with serious problems.

Emphasizes Continuity

"I would say that O'Connor tends to be in the first camp. He tends to emphasize the continuity of the church before the council and see much of the post-council conflict as due to a misunderstanding of the council.

"But both he and Law are liberal on some social issues. The real distinction is not on social and economic issues that often make the headlines, but really in ecclesiastical issues in questions about the nature of the church. Someone can be very liberal on social and economic issues and yet be very conservative in terms of the internal organization of the church. This is true of the Pope too."

During his 14 months as head of the New York archdiocese, O'Connor has been a jolt of electricity in the "Powerhouse," the three-story pseudo-Gothic chancery on Madison Avenue that has been the home of New York's cardinals since the turn of the century.

He even has managed to rival Mayor Edward I. Koch, who is in Rome for the installation, as a major media figure--no mean feat. O'Connor has worn Yankee and Mets caps, visited parishes, synagogues and senior citizens homes and started his own radio program and column in the weekly newspaper Catholic New York. He has celebrated 8 a.m. Mass regularly under the soaring arches and impressive stained glass windows of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Whirlwind of Activities

O'Connor, who, like the Pope, is 65, has conducted such a whirlwind of activities that he threatens to wear out much younger aides.

The former rear admiral and Navy chief of chaplains has also held serious listening sessions with nuns and priests and has stressed that he wants a comprehensive archdiocesan plan for the homeless. He has shown deep concern for the poor and successfully resisted using scabs to break a bitter strike at three Catholic hospitals. He has announced a synod of priests, to be held in 1986 or 1987, to study every aspect of life in the archdiocese.

In large measure, his personal style as archbishop is a carbon copy of his actions as bishop of Scranton, Pa., where he served for less than a year.

"He is a very zealous priest," said Msgr. John Dougherty, chancellor of the Scranton diocese. "He had a great concern for the poor, the needy, the sick. He worked endlessly to ensure that they would be served, and served well."

"O'Connor took this community by storm. He was conscious of the media, and used it to increase his ability to go out among the people," said James B. McNulty, Scranton's mayor.

Previously Incommunicado

"Traditionally, our bishops have been incommunicado. Right away, the bishop held a press conference. The former bishop didn't have a press conference the whole time he was in office.

"We welcomed him (O'Connor) with fireworks, spelled out his name. He came out and worked the crowd better than anyone I've ever seen. He has an uncanny ability to remember names, faces and details. . . . Scranton was always a tough vaudeville town. He was good in Scranton and he's been good in New York. Broadway had to be the next stop."

In New York, O'Connor has also set off fireworks--but of a different sort. In the midst of last year's presidential campaign, he became the focus of national attention by attacking Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro for her stand on abortion.

He also criticized Gov. Mario M. Cuomo on abortion, sparking rebuttals from Cuomo, who insisted that while Roman Catholics in public office are bound personally by the church's moral dogma, they are free to decide the application of these teachings to civil law.

The scars of these battles remain.

'Way Out of Order'

"It was upsetting what he did to Gerry Ferraro. O'Connor was way out of order in going after her so specifically," said a church official who asked not to be identified. "Over the years, people had spoken to the issue and not the personality. A lot of people feel this is counterproductive and dangerous.

"O'Connor's rhetoric can have a chilling effect on future candidates, especially Catholics, who show independence of the hierarchy. Politicians fear they will be clobbered by the O'Connors. A lot of damage has been done to the political acceptance of Catholics for nominations. But abortion is not the only issue."

For Ferraro, who is testing the waters for a race against Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato next year, the O'Connor factor certainly will be important in her decision whether to run. Whether the cardinal would tangle with her publicly again is uncertain. Whether O'Connor would serve as an obstacle to Cuomo, whose ambitions could include the White House, also remains unanswered. There has been a public rapprochement between the politician and the prelate, and Cuomo's wife, Matilda, is in Rome for the installation.

Recently, O'Connor has gone to court in an effort to block the Koch administration from implementing an order requiring the archdiocese not to discriminate against homosexuals in employment practices. By a 3-1 ruling, the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court found the mayor had the authority to prevent private agencies receiving city funds from discriminating. The decision is being appealed.

Programs Affect Thousands

The archdiocese runs programs affecting thousands of New Yorkers, including adoption services, day care centers and job training facilities. O'Connor has said he is prepared to operate social programs without government money if the state's highest court eventually rules against him. He said the archdiocese is prepared to begin giving up annual payments of $72 million in public funds, if those funds provide the legal rationale for government intrusion.

His position brought a sharp rejoinder and some advice to the archbishop in a New York Times editorial. "(The) Catholic diocese, embracing Brooklyn and Queens, has affirmed that there is no conflict between its faith and a promise not to discriminate against homosexual job applicants," the Times said. "That is noteworthy because Archbishop John O'Connor of the neighboring New York archdiocese has so aggressively taken the opposite view.

"That means Archbishop O'Connor is in court because he chooses to be, not because church doctrine compels his demurral. Civic harmony would be advanced if the archbishop would direct his energies to more substantial urban problems."

The dialogue was continued during a private dinner and question-and-answer session just before Christmas at the Princeton Club in mid-Manhattan, where O'Connor was introduced to a group of prominent New Yorkers, including Max Frankel, the New York Times' editorial page editor.

Frankel said pointedly that many people had thought that the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 had finally laid to rest the issue of whether Catholics understand the rules by which things are done in society. But he added that since O'Connor arrived in New York, the question has been raised again.

Criticizes Coverage

According to several guests at the dinner, O'Connor grew quiet, then criticized the Times' coverage of him, stressing that the church doesn't discriminate against homosexuals but won't be required to hire them. He said his real concern wasn't the gay rights question itself, but interference by the government in church-state relations.

The furor over homosexuality and abortion--O'Connor compared abortion to the Holocaust until some Jewish leaders quietly told him that they resented the comparison--has drawn attention away from the new cardinal's primary mission as head of the New York archdiocese--a diverse institution with problems.

The 4,717-square-mile archdiocese, with 1.8 million Catholics, not only includes Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, but also seven counties to the north of New York City. Latinos (now 17%) are the largest Catholic ethnic group, and one of O'Connor's first acts after coming to New York was to take Spanish lessons.

A tale of two parishes quickly outlines the prelate's problems and opportunities:

At St. Augustine's Church in Larchmont, an affluent bedroom community in Westchester County, the rectory has a three-car garage. Azaleas are now in bloom and the church's spacious lawns are well tended. St. Augustine's was founded in 1892 so that Irish maids in summer mansions wouldn't have to spend too much time away from their employers, a common complaint when the maids traveled to Mamaroneck to worship.

Built by Irish Workers

At St. Brigid's Church on Avenue B on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, graffiti is sprayed on the front stoop; the brown metal front doors need painting. St. Brigid's was founded in 1848 and built by Irish laborers, who toiled 12 hours a day in their regular jobs, then worked on the church in their spare time.

The parishioners are overwhelmingly Latino--and poor. Sixty percent of worshipers at St. Brigid's are on welfare. Nevertheless, many manage to bring food to Sunday services to be distributed to the more destitute. Until massive police sweeps, the church stood amid a huge drug-selling operation. Pushers, doing perhaps 50 deals an hour, waited openly on street corners.

At times, nine out of 10 funerals at the church have been for victims of violent death. Nevertheless, St. Brigid's operates a thriving elementary school, turning out many excellent students. For most parents, the $550 yearly tuition is saved at great sacrifice. It is a sacrifice for the church also: It costs $1,300 a year to educate each child.

Many Professionals

"It is hard to keep the school open, but many professionals have come from our school," said Msgr. Joaquin Beaumont as he sat on the front steps of St. Brigid's. "They otherwise would have been dropouts."

When O'Connor visited St. Brigid's, Beaumont showed him the neighborhood, and the archbishop pledged to keep the school open.

"He told me if you have a good education and good quality Catholic education, I will support you all the way."

Parish School Closed

At St. Augustine's, declining enrollment and competition from Larchmont's excellent public school system finally resulted in the parish school being closed. But it wasn't a total loss. The building is now rented by the church to three private schools.

Seven percent of St. Augustine's income goes to a fund for needy parishes like St. Brigid's. The inter-parish fund, through which wealthy churches help poorer ones, was set up by O'Connor's predecessor, Cardinal Terence Cooke. Unlike St. Brigid's, social life for most parishioners doesn't center on the church, but on local beach clubs or the Larchmont Yacht Club.

Parishioners at St. Augustine's are well educated, successful and highly upscale. There are all the problems of the affluent suburbs: over-indulged children, drugs, alcoholism, divorce, materialism. But under Father William V. Reynolds, there is new unity in the parish; attendance and contributions at Masses are up. The church has well-run programs of religious instruction, cultural events, communion for shut-ins and help for the elderly and alcoholics.

"I practically never have a funeral for someone I really don't know," said Reynolds as he sat in a front room of his rectory decorated with paintings done by his parishioners. "There is that personal thing. We have an excellent organist and singer. I stand out in front of church for every Mass. I know 40% to 50% of the people on a first-name basis."

Leading such diverse parishes as St. Augustine's and St. Brigid's--plus the less dramatically different churches in between--will be a major challenge for New York's new cardinal.

Difference in Style

The difference in style between O'Connor and Cooke is dramatic. "It's like night and day," said a priest who has worked with both cardinals. "Cooke was very low key and understated. He was criticized as not being outspoken on some issues."

Friends and associates say that criticism certainly won't be aimed at O'Connor. They say he is tenacious, methodical and innovative in maintaining established doctrine. He can be a forceful but charming opponent who knows the value of compromise. As a member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' ad hoc committee on war and peace, which produced a historic pastoral letter on nuclear warfare, O'Connor was regarded as a conservative who submitted long, written amendments. But in the end, he joined his voice with the other bishops.

Friends say he is very much the pastor, with a genuine liking for people. Among his degrees is an M.A. in clinical psychology. As a churchman, he recognizes order and loyalties. O'Connor once told a friend that when he goes to bed at night, the first thing he asks himself is whether he is at peace with Jesus, the Holy Father, the bishops in the United States and the people in his own archdiocese.

Despite his folksy style, he is complex. To a degree, he is still the admiral, although a toned-down admiral for the New York archdiocese. He is unabashedly patriotic and has a strong sense of Catholic pride. O'Connor is interested in ideas and sees their connections very quickly. He wants very much to participate in his time and make his mark. But he can be thin-skinned, especially when he regards something in the press as unfair to him.

Associates say the new cardinal has an excellent sense of humor, and uses it to defuse difficult situations and as a shield while he is pondering something serious to say. At times, when subordinates don't meet his high standards, O'Connor's humor can be barbed.

Moving Speaker

O'Connor is not a ringing orator, but his sincerity and idealism can make him a profoundly moving speaker. Before leaving for Rome, he spoke at the Sutton Place Synagogue in New York to an audience that could have been skeptical but ended up applauding warmly.

"I want you to remember this," he said. "What I say in public, I say because I believe it intensely. We have a great debt to Jews and Judaism. I want to work with you. . . . Together, we can truly change the world."

Friends say that while at times he yearns for the simpler life in Scranton, he likes the excitement of being a New Yorker. He likes being archbishop. At the same time, associates say, he is a bit uneasy about enjoying it too much.

In private moments, O'Connor compares himself a bit whimsically to New York's 19th-Century Archbishop John Hughes who, when violent anti-Catholic riots erupted, warned city officials that he was prepared to surround the churches with a force of 1,000 men prepared to fight to the death. Friends say O'Connor has hung a portrait of Hughes in his dining room.

O'Connor also knows the value of understatement. Before departing for Rome, he was asked about being New York's cardinal.

"I doubt I'm going to become invisible," he said.

Times researcher Siobhan Flynn also contributed to this story.

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