Archives of Rudolph W. Giuliani

Remarks on the Passing of Cardinal O'Connor

Thursday, May 4th, 2000

As Delivered


New York City will always be very, very much in the debt of John Cardinal O'Connor. He exercised tremendous leadership during the time that he was with us as the head of the Archdiocese of New York, as an Archbishop and as a Cardinal. I remember to this day when he was selected. I remember being there when he was installed first as the Archbishop - I was the United States Attorney at the time - and I had the rare, good fortune of knowing him personally. He was always an extraordinary source of strength for the City. He was always someone who was willing to help, to assist, and to go out of his way to help the people in the City of New York, the people who work for the City of New York. He exercised a great deal of moral leadership for everyone: Catholics, non-Catholics, people that are religious, people that aren't. I think they saw in him someone who was willing to stand up for what he believed in. And I believe that even people who disagreed with certain things that he preached, or certain things that he stood for, understood that this came from his commitment and his honest opinion of what he thought the right answer was in his role as a priest as a person who was interpreting, as best he could, the word of God.

There are certain things that people wouldn't know about him. I don't know that they would know the quiet and confidential things he did to help the people who were in need. Occasionally, it was written here or there, but this is absolutely true, that he would go and take care of people in the Catholic hospitals at night, just unannounced. Bathe them. Help them. Talk to them. Like the Chaplain in the hospital, but it was the Cardinal.

I remember when Firefighter Wiley was fighting for his life. I went to the hospital, I had returned from a trip to California and visited the hospital, and Firefighter Wiley's family was there. And his wife Randy asked me if I could get the Pope to pray for her husband, for his recovery, and I said I would try. And I couldn't figure how I could get the Pope to do it. The I just said to myself, "Cardinal O'Connor, I'll call Cardinal O'Connor."

He was on a retreat at the time. I reached him and I explained the situation. And, yes, he called the Pope and he got the Pope to say Mass. And then he came to the hospital immediately, within a very short period of time. He spent several hours with the family helping them in ways that probably help them to this day. And then said Mass himself the next morning for Firefighter Wiley and conveyed to them several times, the prayers of the Pope. That's just one example of the things he would do to reach out to people.

Every time I called upon him for advice he was always kind and generous and thoughtful. And we're going to miss him tremendously - everyone in this city. And we want to say thank you to his family because they had a lot to do with producing this exceptionally gifted, talented, moral, and decent man.

Questions from Reporters:

Q: What might be your fondest memories of the Cardinal?

A: Oh, I don't know, there are so many… The thing I remember the most is how happy he was to be the Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Having grown up as a Catholic, and having grown up in an Irish and Italian Catholic tradition, I have some idea of what it meant to him to be the Grand Marshal of that parade. He came from a working class family in Pennsylvania. His father was a labor organizer - very, very proud of his Irish heritage, very proud of his Catholicism. And to be the Grand Marshal of the parade I think meant a great deal to him.

And he always had so much humility about being the Cardinal and Archbishop of New York. You could see that he was constantly saying to himself, "Am I worthy of this position?" And you would look at him and say that this is one of the most talented men you ever met. He spoke many languages. He was a brilliant man. Brilliant powers of analysis. Just commanding.

Yet there was still that humilty, and a sense of humor. He was a funny guy. He could always make you laugh, including the last conversation I had with him, when I went to visit him. He was obviously very ill, but he was more than willing to joke around and never let things get too serious.

I wanted to have that meeting with him because I wanted to say to him directly what I just said to you. Sometimes you say those things about someone after they die and they don't get to hear them. I wanted him to know how much the people of New York City respected him, even the people that disagreed with him at time still respected him, I'm sure. They respected him because they realized that what he was saying came out of his conviction. He wasn't making it up. He wasn't posturing in some way. These are the things that John O'Connor really believed. And he believed that these are the things he had to teach to create a better society.

Q: Did you get a chance to speak with him during his final days?

A: I didn't. I got several communications from the Archdiocese last week that he was praying for me. I got several communications from them that I was in his prayers, and that he had offered a Mass for me, and I was very, very honored by that. I always would feel strange when I would say to him "We're praying for you." I would say to him that it always seems strange, because it works better if you pray for us.

Q: What was it like when someone had a difference of opinion with him politically?

A: It was OK. He would do it in a very respectful way, respecting your difference of opinion, and understanding that there were lots of other areas where there was absolute agreement or at least areas of working together. I think that whatever the views are on abortion or gay rights, you have to look at the Catholic Archdiocese in New York as one of the most substantial providers of charitable services to people who are poor. Not just one of the most substantial, but one of the most effective in terms of the generosity in the way they carry out those services, and the love that goes into it. If you just go in to one of the Catholic Hospitals, it doesn't have some of the technical feeling that other hospitals have. It has a feeling of love.

I remember going to St. Vincent's Hospital when Ari Halberstam was shot and the young men who were all shot on the bus - I was just the Mayor a few months - and they were shot on the Brooklyn Bridge. And they were taken to St. Vincent's Hospital, which is a Catholic hospital. And as I walked in to greet the families and talk to them, the two pictures that I saw behind the Hasidic Jewish group that was there were a picture of the Pope and a picture of John O'Connor.

The administrator of the Hospital had asked them beforehand if they were uncomfortable with the two pictures of the religious leaders and the crucifix also, and they said "No, no," and that they were comforted by it because they knew who Cardinal O'Connor was. And one of them said to me that in many ways, "He is just like us." And I thought that this is a man who really reaches out beyond his own religion. People of other religions, who maybe have a different view of the relationship with God, understand that they share that in common. He had an exceptional ability to communicate with people, particularly people who were religious - even of a different religion - because they could understand where he was coming from.

When he talked about gay rights, he was not talking about it from a political point of view. He was talking about it from a moral point, from a point of view of love and caring. I understood that. And even though I might come to a different political view than he did, I understood what he was trying to say. What he was communicating was about the view of morality. He wasn't judging anyone. He was trying to let us all understand that everyone, from the pointof view of theology - which I understand very well having gone to Catholic school and having thought about becoming a priest - all of us are sinners. All of us need a helping hand. All of us need to be loved and all of us need to improve ourselves as much as we can. That's where his view came from, not from some political viewpoint. On the ultimate outcome I come to a different conclusion as to what the law should be. But I can understand where he was coming from. And his position never stopped him from being one of the most substantial providers of help for people with AIDS, which is a message that maybe should get across more. You should understand that his hospitals, and he personally, has put a tremendous effort into helping people with AIDS because he loved them very much, he probably loved them even more than the people who weren't suffering as much.

Q: Is there anything the City will do to honor the Cardinal?

A: Yes, but it's too early to say. Right now our focus is to help the Catholic Church make sure all of the crowds and ceremonies take place properly, and that the family has the degree of privacy they want for the next day, two days, whatever. And I want to thank Richard Sheirer, who just took over the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. He helped to direct a lot of the activities last night to try and arrange some of the logistics and make it easier. I think that's the way the City can help, right now.

In the future, in consultation with the archdiocese and with the family, there is no question that John O'Connor deserves a substantial memorial. They should develop the idea. There will be many, I'm sure, but one of them should be from the City of New York. He contributed to the City of New York more than most great religious leaders. He contributed to our hospital system, our health care. I haven't mentioned what he has done for education, which again gets you into a controversy, but I understand what he was talking about.

I remember a few years ago, I heard him say the he wanted to take 1,000 youngster from the public schools who were not doing well, who were having academic difficulties or other difficulties. He wanted to take them into Catholic schools and see if he could improve their education as a way to help, as a way to relieve some of the burden. And maybe, if it worked, set up some of the criteria for how you can take children at risk and do a better job of educating them.

It was a kind offer. It was a generous offer. It was meant purely from love of these children. I heard it. I called him up the next morning and said, "Cardinal, I want to help you do this. This is a good thing to do and maybe we can push the system to reform itself."

Immediately, it became an enormous controversy. Eventually, we did it. We raised the money privately. And it was very, very hard to get the school system to cooperate, even in helping to identify the students that would get this help. But I understood what he was trying to do, he was trying to help 1,000 kids.
The answer was, well, you can't help all the kids.

Well, maybe you're never going to be able to help all the kids, but that doesn't mean you don't help 1,000. He saw that they had the capacity to help 1,000 kids and said, "OK, I'll help 1,000 kids" Eventually I think we ended up with 2,300 scholarships, not just 1,000. So we helped a lot more that 1,000 kids.

I always felt bad that the school system, including Rudy Crew, didn't react to that more in the spirit that it was offered, which was a spirit of "We want to help. We don't want to show you up. We don't want to embarrass you. We want to help these kids and we want help you to be able to figure out within your own system how you can accomplish the same the things that we are accomplishing in our system."

Which again, not to create more controversy, is much, much better. The kids do better. I went to a parochial school in Brooklyn, Bishop Loughlin High School, that is now 95 percent minority and the kids are doing better, a lot better, than they would in most equivalent public high schools.

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