Cardinal's Fall during Mass Spurs Questions: O'Connor's Successor, Health Debated

Article excerpt

NEW YORK - Cardinal John O'Connor fell to the floor on the altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral yesterday morning during Mass, an apparent misstep that only stoked the already intense speculation about the prelate's health and future successor.

The crowd of 2,500 worshipers gasped as the 79-year-old cardinal went down just seconds after administering a final blessing to the congregation. The fall came two months after Cardinal O'Connor underwent surgery for removal of a brain tumor and endured seven weeks of radiation treatments.

Leaning on his crozier - the shepherd's crook symbolizing a bishop - the cardinal began to descend from his raised chair on the main altar when he suddenly fell backward to the carpeted platform. A half-dozen aides rushed to his side, helping him to his feet. He waved away their concern and joined the procession of priests at the conclusion of the Mass. Applause broke out in the jammed cathedral.

Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, said later that according to the cardinal, his 15-year-old crozier was "wobbly" and buckled as he leaned on it to descend the steps. The cardinal was not injured, he added.

The cardinal bears the effects of his illness. He has lost his hair, his face appears bloated, his walk is halting and his speech is firm but slow.

The Rev. Paul Keenan of the archdiocese said results of the cardinal's medical tests will be known this week. At no time has the prelate or his office mentioned cancer, although it is widely believed that he is battling a malignancy.

After brain surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in September, the cardinal was hospitalized last month following side effects of radiation therapy and a blood clot in his left leg. Those who witnessed the cardinal's fall read an eerie symbolism into the event, especially since the ailing prelate will be 80 years old on Jan. 15. It is widely expected that Pope John Paul II - who did not accept the cardinal's resignation in 1994 - will grant him retirement by his birthday. The appointment of a New York archbishop - who by tradition is soon elevated to cardinal - is especially important because no cardinal over the age of 80 is allowed to vote in a conclave to select a new pope. The voice of a New York cardinal is considered crucial in such an election.

As a result, experts and oddsmakers have come up with at least a dozen men who are in the running for the post. Although political jockeying remains out of the public eye for the most part, the suspected front-runners include Edwin O'Brien, 60, a native New Yorker and, like the cardinal, a combat chaplain in Vietnam who is stationed in Washington, D.C., as archbishop for the armed forces; Justin Rigali, 64, archbishop of St. …