Church's Clout May Be Waning, but N.Y. Is Still the Bulliest Pulpit

Article excerpt

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? …