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?'"
There is a feeling in some quarters that he tries to micro-manage. Nonetheless, if nothing else, New York's newcomer will have to have stamina.
Energy is a quality New Yorkers admire, and New Yorkers doesn't just mean Manhattanites. The New York archdiocese is a 10-county, 4,683-square-mile region. It changes its character rapidly. In Manhattan it's a bustling, cold-hearted/warmhearted, overcrowded city with plenty of examples of extremes, rich and poor. Staten Island is working class/middle class the Bronx is poor and working class. Then, almost next door, come the comfortable suburbs of Westchester County, where the better-off middle class and the wealthy of Wall Street and the corporate suite rest their busy heads. Beyond that are rural Sullivan and Ulster counties.
In growing but rural Orange County, for example, New York City firemen live and commute into the city for their live-in-the-station shifts. Far out though they may dwell, for New Yorkers Manhattan ultimately is the lodestone.
"New York is the world," says one of its Catholics, Bill Baker, president of Channel 13-WNET, the public television station on West 58th St. And New Yorkers are "people from …