When Bishop Austin Vaughan was arrested at a Manhattan abortion clinic in 1988, the archbishop of New York suggested he might one day join the bishop in a jail cell. But his people didn’t need a photo of Cardinal John J. O’Connor in handcuffs to understand his love for the unborn, his fearlessness in defending them, and his pastor’s understanding of their mother’s struggles.
In a major address he gave shortly after becoming archbishop, he told “anyone who is within the sound of my voice and is pregnant and considering abortion, come to me and we will provide you with what you need.” That kind of practical care and the willingness to make it happen marked his life as our bishop.
When a mentally imbalanced man shot several people in an abortion clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1994, the Cardinal responded publicly, “If anyone is thinking about shooting an abortionist, let him shoot me first.” And when asked if he was going to put a moratorium on abortion clinic protests as a result of the shooting, as had been done in Massachusetts, he declared, “I too would be willing to call for a moratorium on clinic protests, as soon as the clinics impose a moratorium on abortions.”
My class was the first to go through all our years at the diocesan seminary with him as archbishop, and he was a model for us as a priest, and not only in his pro-life work. He came often to St. Joseph’s seminary and made a deliberate effort to know every one of his seminarians. He told us that “before I lay hands on you, I want to know who I’m giving this awesome responsibility to.” Once a month he brought the seminarians to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in cassock and surplice, and he would say “this is so you can see the people and they can see you.” Afterward he would take us to his residence for coffee and cookies. It was one of the ways he got to know us.
Raised in a Catholic family, the cardinal was naturally pro-life. “It was just a normal part of our lives growing up,” recalled Mary Ward, the cardinal’s younger sister in a conversation with me, but he became radically pro-life after a visit to Auschwitz. When he put his hand in an oven where the bodies of Jews and other Nazi victims were burned, “he found it quite unreal that anyone could think about doing that to another human being. He considered abortion to be just that unthinkable.”
His work for the unborn was not just pastoral but institutional. As chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-life Activities, he helped invigorate the Catholic Church’s public witness to the sanctity of life. When he began his tenure, evangelical Protestants and Catholics were fighting abortion from separate places. Understanding that the movement should grow in unity rather than division, he brought these pro-life leaders together for meetings in his residence. The unified pro-life movement we have today is partly his creation.
In 1991, Cardinal O’Connor founded the Sisters of Life, a joyful community of sisters who, in addition to their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, take a fourth vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life. After Father Lee Kaylor’s widowed mother became one the first Sisters of Life, he envisioned a ministry that would equip priests to be stalwart advocates for the unborn. He went to the cardinal for guidance and with this blessing began Priests for Life on the West Coast.
Two years later, Father Kaylor asked me to take over Priests for Life. I went to the cardinal seeking his guidance, and his permission - in the midst of the much-heralded priest shortage. Always eager not to do all he could to help not only the unborn but their mothers, he encouraged including post-abortion healing in the ministry.
Not long after, I received a call from the priest personnel director: the cardinal had given me his blessing, and a three-year window to build the ministry. He urged me to headquarter Priests for Life anywhere in the archdiocese. We set up our first office in Holy Rosary Church in Port Chester. He let me develop the work on my own, but his support opened many doors.
The cardinal fought for life until the day he died. At his funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, attended by 3,500 mourners, the crowd stood for a thunderous ovation when the homilist, Cardinal Bernard Law, declared, "What a great legacy he has left us in his consistent reminder that the church must always be unambiguously pro-life." Even pro-choice President Bill Clinton and his wife, now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were pulled to their feet.
This summer, as we launch pro-life Freedom Rides in the South to call attention to abortion as the greatest civil rights tragedy since slavery, we will save a seat on the bus for Cardinal John J. O’Connor. We know he will be riding with us.
Father Frank Pavone is national director of Priests for Life.