Cardinal John J. O’Connor died five years ago, but I frequently remember the times we worked together on the critical issues faced by our two communities. Our friendship was a result of the Second Vatican Council. In October 1965, 2,200 Catholic bishops adopted Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religious, which repudiated the idea that all Jews were guilty of the death of Jesus and deplored all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time from any source against the Jews.
The declaration also urged Catholics to develop mutual respect and knowledge about Jews and Judaism. But it took dedicated leaders like O’Connor to make Nostra Aetate come alive as a dynamic force within Catholicism.
O’Connor’s leadership in Catholic-Jewish relations was surprising and unexpected. Born and educated in Philadelphia during the heyday of Catholic immigrant pride and isolation, O’Connor transcended his background. As a U.S. Navy chaplain for 25 years, he personally experienced religious diversity and pluralism. But it was as cardinal-archbishop of New York (1984-2000) that O’Connor exhibited the head and heart that made him a global leader in Christian-Jewish relations. O’Connor’s commitment to the survival and security of the State of Israel and his understanding of the evil of the Holocaust were dominant in his life. Anti-Semitism, hatred of Jews and Judaism, was not a theoretical construct, but an insult to his Catholic faith. O’Connor often told me of the hate mail he received whenever he denounced anti-Semitism from the pulpit. His is the benchmark by which all Christian clergy must be judged vis-à-vis Jews and Judaism.
When O’Connor became archbishop, he quickly used the electronic and print media to become a refreshing new personality in a celebrity-crazed city. He conducted news conferences at St. Patrick’s Cathedral every Sunday following Mass, a practice he continued until 1990. Because O’Connor was witty and articulate, he and the sophisticated New York City media were made for each other. His off-the-cuff style contrasted with that of his predecessor, Cardinal Terence Cooke, who shunned the public spotlight as much as O’Connor reveled in the center ring of New York’s media circus.
Abortion and the Holocaust
The O’Connor era started well, but when he publicly equated abortion with the 6,000,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust, a firestorm of criticism erupted. He compounded his public relations problems during the 1984 election campaign when he vigorously criticized two pro-choice Catholic political leaders, New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential candidate. At first, I dismissed O’Connor’s Holocaust analogy as hyperbole. While the incorrect analogy was painful to hear, I believed it would soon disappear from O’Connor’s rhetorical arsenal. But I was wrong.
The cardinal repeated the analogy, and the intense criticism culminated with a critical editorial in The New York Times. Because O’Connor was America’s premier Catholic leader, his linkage of abortion with the Holocaust especially angered the Jewish community. Even Orthodox rabbis who frequently agreed with O’Connor’s anti-abortion stance were offended. Holocaust survivors sensed something ominous behind the buoyant O’Connor persona: an Americanized version of the anti-Semitic bishops they had encountered in Europe prior to and during World War II.
I myself was concerned about the abortion-Holocaust link not only because it was inaccurate, but because it negatively affected Catholic-Jewish relations. The archbishop of the city with the world’s largest Jewish population was arousing tensions. Something had to be done to prevent permanent damage to those relations.
The opportunity came in early 1984 during a private dinner at which O’Connor was introduced to some Protestant clergy and rabbis active in interreligious relations. The otherwise friendly evening turned tense when the topic of the link between abortion and the Holocaust was raised. A sharp exchange arose between O’Connor and some of the guests.
Several Christians and Jews at the dinner believed the linkage between abortion and the murder of 6,000,000 Jews overloaded the compassion circuits, causing anger and confusion. One Protestant minister urged O’Connor to focus solely on abortion and not link it to the Holocaust: You are blurring two important issues. The cardinal himself replied that such an analogy helped draw attention to the increasing number of abortions in the nation, a trend he abhorred.
At dinner’s end, I had a private conversation with O’Connor. I mentioned my service as a United States Air Force chaplain in Japan and Korea. A highlight of that experience had been the mutual respect that existed among chaplains of various religions. Because we worked in close quarters, collegiality, consultation and shared goals were imperative. O’Connor replied that Navy chaplains serving at sea also depended upon one another for cooperation and friendship. I suggested that New York City was similar to a military base with many religious, ethnic and racial groups. Mutual respect and understanding were necessary if New York was to survive as a world-class city, a positive symbol of the American experience.
The cardinal nodded his head in approval, and then he spoke about the Holocaust with emotion. He had been traumatized by a visit to the concentration camp in Dachau, near Munich. That confrontation with radical evil changed my life forever, he told me. It was a theme he came back to many times. O’Connor was obsessed with the Holocaust.
During our conversation, I told O’Connor his analogy linking abortion with the Holocaust was particularly hurtful to Holocaust survivors. Abortion is a matter of choice, however painful or regrettable. The murdered Jewish victims during the Holocaust had no choice. They were killed solely because they were Jews. I remember O’Connor’s immediate response: I would never want to harm the survivors in any way! I urged O’Connor to detach his concerns and focus on abortion without attaching it to the Holocaust, and I used a military phrase we both understood: Fight a two- front war.
O’Connor thanked me for the advice and counsel. I thought he was merely being polite, but as later events proved, that dinner encounter was the start of a beautiful friendship. Over the next 17 years we often sought out one another for advice and counsel on many issues involving Catholics and Jews.
Shortly after that dinner, O’Connor abandoned the Holocaust-abortion equation. His criticsthey were always numerousbelieved he was simply being expedient. Perhaps. But I believe our one-on-one conversation helped shape O’Connor’s private thinking and public advocacy. He never weakened his anti-abortion position, and he became a passionate champion of Holocaust education and remembrance. He did fight a two-front war.
Cardinal O’Connor accepted my invitation to speak at the annual meeting in 1984 of the American Jewish Committee in Manhattan, his first public appearance before a major Jewish organization since becoming New York’s Catholic archbishop earlier that year. In his address he denounced anti-Semitism and expressed his personal pain about the Holocaust.
In October 1985, O’Connor and I were keynote speakers at an interreligious convocation in New York City’s Temple Emanu-El marking the 20th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. O’Connor began his remarks by reading a prepared text a staff member had written. After 10 minutes of reading the unimaginative speech, O’Connor literally tossed away his text and announced, Enough of that. Now I want to really talk from my heart about Catholics and Jews. O’Connor’s ad-lib remarks stirred the audience of nearly 3,000 as he spoke of the immense debt Christians owe to Jews and Judaism. He declared one cannot be a faithful Christian and an anti-Semite. They are incompatible, because anti-Semitism is a sin.
The Waldheim Affair
In June 1987 our friendship was again tested when Pope John Paul II received Kurt Waldheim, the president of Austria, at the Vatican with full diplomatic honors. At the time, the Austrian leader and former United Nations secretary general was living in the shadow of his ugly World War II record as a German officer in the Balkans. He was charged with being involved in the mass murder of Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
Because Waldheim had lied about his record for decades, the American government had placed him on its watch list and barred him from entry into the United States. The warm Vatican welcome for Waldheim displeased many Jewish and Catholic leaders, including O’Connor. Ironically, the controversy strengthened our personal relationship. At the time of the Waldheim visit, I was in Germany participating in a Lutheran-Jewish conference. One night, while I was sound asleep in my hotel room, the phone rang. Thinking the caller was someone from the front desk, I lifted the receiver and in a groggy voice mumbled, Hullo.
Sorry if I woke you, said the familiar voice with the distinct Philadelphia accent. Jim, I really wish you were in New York. You could be of big help to me with the problems created by the Waldheim visit. You know, the Holy Father is planning to come to the United States in three months and plans to meet with Jewish leaders in Miami. The fallout from Waldheim’s visit is all bad. It might even cancel the pope’s meeting. When are you coming back? We need you here.
He expressed pleasure when I replied: In two days. He continued the surprising trans-Atlantic conversation, telling me he did not understand the lavish Vatican reception for Waldheim. With some laughter, he said: I intend to take it up with my friends at the Vatican. Whenever O’Connor said those words, everyone knew he meant only one friend in Rome, Pope John Paul II.
O’Connor told me the pope was planning to visit Austria in the near future. I joked: It’s like a home and home sports event. First Waldheim comes to the Vatican, and then the pope flies to Austria. I offered one specific suggestion: I know the pope will visit the Mauthausen death camp near Vienna, where Jews were murdered. When he goes there, Waldheim must not accompany him, even if he is the president. The images of the two men walking together would be a disaster. When the pope goes, he should visit the camp alone.
Cardinal O’Connor liked the suggestion and said he would mention it to his friends in Rome. Apparently that is what he did. Waldheim did not escort John Paul II to the death camp. The solo visit to Mauthausen and the pope’s meeting at Castel Gandolfo with Jewish leaders that summer eased the tensions created by the Waldheim visit. In September 1987 John Paul II had a successful meeting in Miami with American Jewish representatives, including myself.
In 1988 the cardinal spoke at a New York City synagogue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the murderous pogrom in Germany and Austria on Kristallnacht. O’Connor acknowledged that centuries of systematic anti-Jewish Christian teachings helped provide the poisonous seedbed for Nazism.
In late December 1993, 45 years after Israeli independence, the Jewish State and the Holy See finally established full diplomatic relations. To celebrate the occasion, O’Connor invited Jewish and Catholic leaders to his Madison Avenue residence. His home was an appropriate venue because the cardinal had spent many hours in private, off-the-record meetings in his living room in an attempt to link diplomatically Rome, the Eternal City, with Jerusalem, the Holy City. It was widely known that O’Connor pressed this issue with his Vatican friend each time he traveled to Rome.
The cardinal asked me to offer a New Year’s toast. Raising a glass of champagne, I called O’Connor the chief architect of establishing Vatican-Israel diplomatic relations, but he quickly demurred from such praise. With a sly smile, the cardinal said: No, no, Jim. The pope deserves the credit. Of course, we were both right.
Behind the humorous, jovial O’Connor, there was also a spiritual leader with a keen understanding of religious pluralism and dialogue. Each time I was with the cardinal I asked how things were going, and he always replied, Every day’s a holiday! It was his way of saying how much he relished his role as one of the world’s major religious figures.
We last spoke in January 2000 at his residence. Cardinal O’Connor’s face was bloated from the chemotherapy he had received in his fight against brain cancer. He was forced to sit in a chair as he greeted me. His once forceful handshake was no more; and when we embraced, we both knew he was terminally ill, with little time left. When O’Connor repeated his cheerful mantra about every day being a holiday, I turned away in tears.
A few months later he was dead.