Came in like a lion, left like a lamb

May 07, 2000|By Geraldine Ferraro

I WILL miss Cardinal John O'Connor.

I haven't always felt that way, of course. Back during my 1984 campaign for vice president, in fact, there were plenty of times when I wished fervently that he would simply go away.

But he didn't, and over the years I took the measure of a man who, now that he has finally left us, leaves a void that will be all but impossible to fill.

Then-Bishop O'Connor of New York burst into my consciousness like a lion pouncing on its prey, and I don't mind admitting that I was outraged by both the suddenness and the seriousness of his attack.

As would be the case so often in years to come, the issue in 1984 was abortion. It was a battle of words, not substance, and it was one that could never be resolved because we had staked out our positions and neither of us was going to be moved.

"The Catholic Church's position opposing abortion is monolithic," Bishop O'Connor asserted.

I agreed entirely, but felt that the Church didn't speak for all Catholics on the issue. Many Catholics, including some lay Catholic theologians, were pro-choice, I pointed out, myself among them.

"The Catholic position regarding abortion is not monolithic," I summarized.

In the end, it was a disaster for all involved. We were talking past each other, neither really trying to convince the other, and the only winners were Ronald Reagan and George Bush, whose campaign milked the argument between us for all it was worth, doing their best to make it seem as if I were running against the bishop, not Vice President Bush.

Needless to say, we didn't win the election.

It was several months before I had a chance to mend fences with Bishop O'Connor. The occasion was his departure for Rome to be invested as a cardinal, a prince of the Church.

I was genuinely happy for him, and wanted to congratulate him -- but I wasn't quite sure how to do it. Finally I decided to trust to humor, and sent him a short note.

"I want to add my congratulations to that of all your friends on your elevation to cardinal," I wrote. "I only wanted to be vice president. You got to be a prince!"

I was a bit worried when I dropped that letter in the mail, however. After all, I wasn't sure if Cardinal O'Connor had a sense of humor in the first place.

I was reassured when, several weeks later, I got a call from the Archdiocese, inviting me to the Chancery for breakfast with the cardinal. We talked for quite a while, but not about abortion -- we both knew that was one of several issues on which we would never agree.

But as we talked, it became clear that we agreed on so many other things. I left the meeting that morning comfortable in the knowledge that I had made a friend.

Over the next several years, on more than one occasion I found my life in turmoil. Invariably, just when I needed it most, the phone would ring and I would hear the cardinal's familiar voice giving comfort, offering a prayer.

The fascinating thing about the man, I soon learned, was that while he may have been a Prince of the Church in name, in spirit he was very much a parish priest, always looking after his flock.

I guess that's what most defined him. He was a man of contradictions, and most of them arose from conflicts between those two roles.

He made headlines condemning abortion, but quietly provided shelter for unwed mothers. He adamantly opposed gays marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade, but funded hospices for people with AIDS.

He never pulled his punches in condemning what he believed to be a sin, but he loved the "sinners" nonetheless, and quietly, effectively, he made a difference in the lives of many of them.

His job required him to be a politician, and like many politicians, he engendered extreme emotional responses. Like no cardinal New York had known before, he seemed to splinter people into opposing camps. People either loved him or hated him -- and some of us did both at different times.

Maybe it was his military background that made him seem so rigid on matters of faith, but maybe that also accounted for the ease he felt with his brothers in arms in the political and business world.

But this soldier was also a television star, keenly aware of the impact of television and deft in using it from the pulpit. His sense of duty to Rome was traditional in the deepest sense, but he was a man of the modern world when it came to using its media to bring that message to his diocese and to the nation beyond.

His will be an extremely tough act to follow -- an activist priest, a defender of dogma, a man of business acumen who was politically knowledgeable and media-savvy, a prince of an ancient church who left his mark on 20th-century New York and the United States as a whole.

He came into my life as a lion and left it as a lamb. And I will miss him.

Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1984. A former member of Congress, she is a political analyst for Fox News and president of G&L Strategies in New York and Arlington, Va., a corporate consultancy on workplace and diversity issues.

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