The day after Cardinal O’Connor’s death I received a package delivered by U.P.S. It was from Alba House (Society of St. Paul) and contained a copy of their newest publication, The Life and Times of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. The author, Myles P. Murphy, is a New York archdiocesan priest. Whether this was a coincidence or serendipity, I’m not sure. But I had been thinking of Sheen upon hearing that His Eminence’s funeral was set for May 8. That is Fulton Sheen’s birthday; he would have been 105.
Upon flipping the book open, I saw that O’Connor had written a brief Foreword. It was dated Dec. 28, 1999. Another coincidence. That date marks my (deceased) father’s birthday, the man responsible, in effect, for introducing me to Sheen many decades ago by way of the bishop’s popular television series, Life Is Worth Living. Every Tuesday evening, without coaxing and without obligation, I (the youngest of four) joined my parents and siblings for the ritual shot in the soul. Of course I couldn’t comprehend much of what I heard preached, but I was fascinated by the self-erasingactually angel-erasedblackboard. And mesmerized by a voice, a presence and a set of piercing eyes I would some day come to know off-camera, in the flesh.
Although Doubleday (where I was working at the time) had published many of Sheen’s books over the years, it was not until he decided finally to do his autobiography that I got to meet himat my office, not over a cup of tea, as I had suggested. He didn’t really like tea. The next couple of years, though, were marked by further decline in his already precarious health, ultimately confining him to his residence (usually in bed). And so I found myself trekking uptown at least once a week to visit and receive the latest installment of the book. How? Why, read to me, of course! Treasure in Clay was published posthumously. Though it (deliberately) omitted some of the juice or scandal that certain segments look for in life stories, it is a ringing affirmation of the centrality of priesthood for Sheenand living the Gospel message.
In remembering and reflecting on the life and service of Cardinal O’Connor, I couldn’t help draw mental parallels between him and Fulton Sheen. Several years ago I asked His Eminence to think seriously of doing his memoir; I would repeat that invitation many times. Finally, on one of the mornings when I was privileged to share breakfast with him, he said that were he to write an autobiography it would be about John J. O’Connor the priest. Anyone needing proof or validation for that observation need look no further than the media coverage of the services during the days his body lay in state and the outpouring of affection, the public demonstration of faith. The funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was the ultimate testament to his priestliness. One of the real revelations for me was that he often heard confessions at the cathedral. It all comes down to people: being with people, loving people and celebrating Christ with peoplea quality in equal evidence with Fulton Sheen.
There are other qualities, too, threads that weave through the lives of both prelates: first and foremost, the priesthood and sacramental life. But beyond that, these giants of the American church shared concern for the poor, oppressed and those disciminated against; both were men of deep conviction; both realized the power and influence of the media (like Sheen decades earlier, Cardinal O’Connor wrote a weekly newspaper column); both promoted harmony among/within opposing groups; both preached eloquently from the same mighty marble pulpit; both caught the eye of Pope John Paul II (who can forget the emotional embrace the Holy Father extended to Sheen in the sanctuary of the cathedral in 1979?).
And now, both are buried in the crypt beneath St. Patrick’s high altar. ’Bye now, Fathers John and Fulton, and God love you forever.