O’Connor’s Last Mass Defies Stereotypes

After the earthly remains of Cardinal John O’Connor were placed in a crypt containing the bones of his predecessors, the choir and congregation in St. Patrick’s Cathedral sang a hymn called “Salve Regina.” In the first row, the President of the United States, a Baptist from a state with more chickens than Roman Catholics, sang the words with surprising confidence:

Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae;

vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve.

Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Evae,

Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes

in hac lacrimarum valle.

This curious and, in a place designed to reaffirm faith, even unbelievable image was visible, fleetingly, to those congregants whose needs for spiritual comfort were addressed not by hymns and prayer but by the soothing presence of television screens in the great Gothic cathedral. Somebody hidden in a control room ordered another view of this startling image, and before long the monitors flashed another picture, this one taken from behind the President, showing his hands grasping a program with the words for the hymn printed in Latin. He was not, it turned out, singing “Salve Regina” from memory, but his fluency in the traditional language of the deceased’s faith and his own profession was mightily impressive, and shamed practicing Catholics like myself for whom the words were a jumble. As an affirmation of Catholicism’s place in American society, it surely was a poignant image. In the lifetime of many of the white-haired men on the altar, Catholic Al Smith was dismissed as unfit for the presidency because of his affection for Latin hymns, and another, John F. Kennedy, was forced to remind skeptics that he regarded the U.S. Constitution and canon law as entirely separate entities.

Many American Catholics regard themselves as members of an institution about which the most dreadful things may be said without fear of expulsion from polite society. There is, surely, some anecdotal evidence to support such a view, and, indeed, while the press dutifully reported the presence of political power in the cathedral on May 8, the absence of many cultural and media icons–the image-makers and opinion-enforcers–was painfully evident. (Iconic status would exempt the formidable presence of Catholics among the working press, who could be identified by their inability to resist murmuring prayers or crossing themselves when prompted. This breach of professional protocol may be the equivalent of cheering in the press box; then again, it surely is preferable to the conduct of those who chatted into cell phones while the faithful prayed for the deceased’s soul.)

It is from those whom Father Joseph O’Hare, president of Fordham University, once described as “our social betters”–the city’s cultural and media elite–that Catholics feel the sting of condescension, if not outright hostility. The gathering together of so much political power in tribute to an American cardinal may well be described as a milestone, but to conclude then that Catholicism has triumphed over its skeptics in America would be too hasty a judgment. Bill Clinton may have studied under the Jesuits at Georgetown University, the only president to earn a degree from a Catholic institution, but among some of his future dinner companions in New York, Catholic education remains a sign of primitive intellect and, ironically enough, evidence of sexual repression.

The demonstrations of grief over Cardinal O’Connor suggested that for all his defiance of the times, he had earned a place in the hearts of ordinary New Yorkers. The ceremony that celebrated his life and commended his soul to eternity should have demonstrated to critics the complexity of the American Catholic Church. In the front pews, listening as Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston declared that the Church always would be “unambiguously pro-life,” were the pro-choice Catholic Governor of New York, George Pataki, and the pro-choice, Catholic-educated Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, whose reputed flouting of the seventh commandment have been the subject of some commentary in recent days. Somewhere behind the Mayor sat Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a pious man and a daily communicant who embraced abortion rights during his failed campaign for Governor in 1998. An observer trained only in cultural stereotypes of Catholicism might well have wondered that they dared show their faces at such an event, or that the rolling thunder of some dissent-quashing bishop did not shame them into a strategic retreat. Instead, they were greeted as everyone else was: as sinners requiring redemption.

It was not the display of earthly power, but the demonstration of human complexity, that made Cardinal O’Connor’s funeral Mass a New York event. Unambiguous as the Church has every right to be on moral issues, its glorious multiculturalism, its tensions and contradictions, its majesty and its failings, all were evident to discerning eyes. In his life, John O’Connor was a man who defied conventional labels. At his funeral, the Archdiocese he led showed that it, too, will never fit easily into the preconceptions of others.