Homily at Funeral of John Cardinal O'Connor

Bernard Cardinal Law
Archbishop of Boston
May 08, 2000

My intent and your expectation is not that I deliver a eulogy. Cardinal O'Connor's often repeated request was that we gather at this time to pray for him. That we do, in the context of the Eucharistic sacrifice which is the source and summit of the Church's life, and was so clearly the source and summit of the life of the brother, the uncle, the friend, the priest, the bishop whom we bury this day. We turn to the Scripture passages just read, and we look to the book of Cardinal O'Connor's life for consolation in our sadness and for inspiration in our lives.

Last Wednesday evening, when it became evident that death would come very soon, his family, his closest collaborators and friends began the Church's prayers for the dying. In the midst of those prayers, there was a moment of profound grief as each of us realized with a sudden clarity what was happening. Just as suddenly, we realized our tears were not for him, but for ourselves. Our hearts were consoled by "that mystery hidden from ages and generations past but now revealed to his holy ones," that mystery which Saint Paul explained to the Colossians as the "'mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory."

The inspired insight of the author of Wisdom spoke of "the hope full of immortality" in the souls of the just. He consoles us as we ponder his words in the light of their fulfillment in the Risen Christ: "The souls of the just are in the hand of God... they are in peace."

Jesus, who suffered, died and rose from the dead, is our peace. Our hope, as was the hope of Cardinal O'Connor, is to drink of the fruit of the vine again in the reign of God. The wondrous Passover meal which Jesus shared with the apostles the night before he died fulfills the deepest longings of every human heart for freedom. "This is my body," he said over the bread. And over the wine he said, "This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out on behalf of many." He instructed us to do this in memory of him. And so we do, in this and in every Mass. The meal is forever linked to the sacrifice in which Christ offered Himself for us, taking upon himself the burden of our sins and our death so that we might have forgiveness and everlasting life.

To have known John Cardinal O'Connor is to have known that what we do at this altar was at the heart of his life each day. Just a few weeks ago in a visit to his home we concelebrated Mass. It was so clearly for him the highlight of that day. The course of his illness had made it impossible for him to read. Already his ability to carry on a sustained conversation was impaired. With strength and conviction he was nonetheless able to recite from memory the Eucharistic Prayer. So much was the Mass a part of his life that when some things began to fade, the Eucharist did not.

He was a man of profound and uncomplicated faith in a good and gracious God who has revealed Himself in Christ Jesus. He believed in the Holy Catholic Church. He was unswerving in his loyalty to the Holy Father as the successor of Saint Peter. The words of Saint Paul found resonance in his life: "I became a minister of this Church through the commission God gave me to preach among you His word in all its fullness."

Certainly he did not shy away from the task of preaching. He made this pulpit unique in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. God gifted him with a keen and subtle intellect, an uncommon rhetorical skill, a knack for the dramatic gesture, a sharp wit, and an outrageous sense of humor, all of which he used in the service of preaching.

No one proclaimed what Pope John Paul II has called the Gospel of Life with greater effectiveness than Cardinal O'Connor. It was in proclaiming that Gospel of Life that he became a national and international public figure. Inevitably there is an effort to categorize public figures as conservative or liberal. Cardinal O'Connor, like the Church herself, defies such categorization. He was eloquent and unremitting in his defense of the life of the unborn as well as his support of the value of human life to the moment of natural death. Perhaps his most lasting testament in support of life will be the work of the Sisters of Life, a religious community he founded and loved so dearly.

As he was dying last Wednesday, as a result of a disease with terrible consequences, he bore witness one last time to the moral evil of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. He denounced capital punishment. He championed the rights of workers. He worked for a just peace in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. Were he in this pulpit today, he would applaud the hope for peace in the IRA's announcement on decommissioning. He preached by his example the necessity of seeing in every human being, particularly the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the image of a God to be loved and to be served. What a great legacy he has left us in his consistent reminder that the Church must always be unambiguously pro-life.

A former Navy chaplain, Bishop John McNamara, recalled for me his first meeting with Cardinal O'Connor. Let me quote from his reminiscence: "Father O'Connor, the division Chaplain of the Marines, came up from Vietnam to interview the new clergy. I remember his first words to me. `I'm John O'Connor, what can I do for you?' I often thought of this meeting because those words, `What can I do for you?' so characterize arid personify the John O'Connor I have known for 35 years."

So many of us have heard him say, "What can I do for you?" There was no burden too heavy, no problem too complex for his genuine compassion and desire to help. To understand this in him is to understand that he was, to the core of his being, a priest. He ministered in the person of Christ. His life was configured to that of Christ as priest and as victim. Again, the words of Saint Paul to the Colossians found expression in the life of Cardinal O'Connor: "Even now," wrote Saint Paul, "I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I will fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church."

John O'Connor lived these words. He entered into the lives of countless thousands by identifying with their sufferings in union with Christ. It was thus that he viewed his final illness. He saw himself in solidarity with other cancer patients, and he offered up the sufferings of his illness with the sufferings of Christ. In all of this, he knew an incredible peace.

What a grace it was for his sister, Mary Ward and other members of the Cardinal's family, for Monsignor Gregory Mustaciuolo, who could not have been a more loyal friend and attentive son in the Lord to the Cardinal, for Eileen White his Special Counsel, for his colleagues and friends to be gathered around his bedside when he breathed his last at 8:05 in the evening of last Wednesday, May 3, 2000. We prayed then, and we pray now: "Saints of God, come to his aid! Come to meet him, angels of the Lord! Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High."

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 • Email: mail@priestsforlife.org