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To Be Made Cardinal : O'Connor: Setting Fire to New York

May 24, 1985|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Archbishop John J. O'Connor strode briskly out of the home team dugout at Yankee Stadium and crossed the infield near the pitcher's mound to an altar on the site of second base. A giant television screen magnified the prelate's presence for 40,000 cheering parochial school students, while an electronic scoreboard spelled out his name and title in huge lights.

As he faced the stands hung with hand-painted posters reading "Christ Fever, Catch It" or "Yea God," the archbishop, who will be installed Saturday in elaborate Vatican ceremonies as New York's new cardinal, was in fine form.

"At least this is better than school," he joked to the students, who had assembled for a recent archdiocese youth rally. "I hope you remember me as the archbishop who got you out of school. You are absolutely terrific. I need you because I love you. I need you very, very much and I love you very much. New York needs you and the whole world needs you."

"A-OK," the scoreboard read.

Priest Invents Slogan

O'Connor told the crowd that he had invited top advertising executives to a meeting to discuss ways the Roman Catholic Church could spread its message to change the world. But it was a priest in the room who finally came up with the slogan.

With evangelical fervor, the archbishop shouted the slogan so that it reverberated off the bleachers:

"Christ Is Alive in 1985!"

"Louder," O'Connor implored as the students yelled the words back at him again and again while the message flashed on the scoreboard:


"Christ is alive in you, in every one of you," the archbishop proclaimed. "Stand up and let me hear it!"

Clearly, it was hardball religiosity in the house that Babe Ruth built.

Bostonian's Presence

On Saturday, O'Connor, with 27 others, including Nicaragua's anti-Sandinista Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, will receive the cardinal's red hat in Rome. The only other American among them will be Boston's Archbishop Bernard Law, a prelate who, like O'Connor, shares Pope John Paul II's vision of a well-ordered church and the pontiff's desire to steer American Catholicism to more traditional positions.

Some half-jokingly have dubbed the new American cardinals "Law and Order," a stereotype that could prove difficult to shake because it contains a grain of truth.

"I think the idea that Rome wants a great deal of institutional discipline in terms of doctrine and chains of command is an accurate interpretation," said Peter Steinfels, editor of Commonweal, the well-respected biweekly magazine published by Roman Catholic lay people. "Nobody will get a major see unless they are thought of as reliable and have the notion of the church as well ordered and having lines of authority.

"There are two interpretations of Vatican II (the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII) that are at issue. One of the interpretations sees the changes in terms of updating and more of an adjustment to effective communication in the modern world.

"The other interpretation sees the change as much more thoroughgoing, and there was much more that needed to be altered in the church before Vatican II to be true to the faith. In this second view, much of the turmoil that followed the council is recognized as a more natural outcome of trying to come to terms with serious problems.

Emphasizes Continuity

"I would say that O'Connor tends to be in the first camp. He tends to emphasize the continuity of the church before the council and see much of the post-council conflict as due to a misunderstanding of the council.

"But both he and Law are liberal on some social issues. The real distinction is not on social and economic issues that often make the headlines, but really in ecclesiastical issues in questions about the nature of the church. Someone can be very liberal on social and economic issues and yet be very conservative in terms of the internal organization of the church. This is true of the Pope too."

During his 14 months as head of the New York archdiocese, O'Connor has been a jolt of electricity in the "Powerhouse," the three-story pseudo-Gothic chancery on Madison Avenue that has been the home of New York's cardinals since the turn of the century.

He even has managed to rival Mayor Edward I. Koch, who is in Rome for the installation, as a major media figure--no mean feat. O'Connor has worn Yankee and Mets caps, visited parishes, synagogues and senior citizens homes and started his own radio program and column in the weekly newspaper Catholic New York. He has celebrated 8 a.m. Mass regularly under the soaring arches and impressive stained glass windows of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Whirlwind of Activities

O'Connor, who, like the Pope, is 65, has conducted such a whirlwind of activities that he threatens to wear out much younger aides.

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