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Cardinal John O'Connor Dies at Age of 80

Aired May 3, 2000 - 10:00 p.m. ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Judy Woodruff in Washington.

This word just in from New York, the Catholic cardinal, New York City, Cardinal John O'Connor is dead. We have just learned that he passed away at 8:05 this evening Eastern Time.

Let's go now to a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese in New York.


JOE ZWILLING, ARCHDIOCESE SPOKESMAN: ... his residence on Madison Avenue. The cardinal died very peacefully with his sister, Mary Ward, and other family members, clergy and co-workers at his side. The cardinal's health took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse early in the morning of May 3. He was kept comfortable and did not experience any pain. The cardinal received the sacrament of the sick last Saturday and on several other occasions during his illness.

Cardinal O'Connor had been experiencing a growing weakness over the past month and a half. This weakness caused the cardinal to limit his public activities and appearances in early March and to cease other official archdiocesan activities in late March. One of the cardinal's most passionate beliefs was that by uniting our suffering with the suffering of Christ on the cross we can be instruments of enormous good in the world. As the cardinal often said, Christ did not make possible the salvation of the world through his teaching, his preaching, his miracles, but by his suffering and death on the cross.

When he appeared to be utterly powerless, he was radiating the greatest power every unleashed in the world. The cardinal united his own illness and suffering of these past eight months with the suffering of Christ, and always accepted the changes in his condition with great faith in God and in his mercy and gentle goodness. In all things, the cardinal followed the advice given to him on the day he became a bishop by Mother Teresa, give God permission. May the Lord grant eternal peace to the soul of our loving and faithful archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor.

And before any questions, I would like to say special a word of thanks to the two doctors who have been caring for Cardinal O'Connor during these past months, Dr. Jeffrey Rasor (ph) and Dr. Wen Jen Fu (ph), both of Memorial Sloan Kettering. They have been outstanding in their dedication and care of Cardinal O'Connor, and on behalf of the cardinals family and the archdiocese I would like to publicly express my thanks to them.

And now I have time for a few questions.


ZWILLING: Since his surgery, the cardinal has did what he could to maintain a normal schedule as archbishop of New York. He was determined to determined to serve as archbishop of New York throughout his -- as long as he was physically able to do so, and he tried to maintain as normal a schedule as archbishop of New York serving the people of this archdiocese for as long as he possibly could.

Over the last few weeks, when he could no longer celebrate mass in Saint Patrick's Cathedral publicly, he continued to celebrate mass privately in his chapel, continued to pray, continued to work as much as he was able until late March when even that became too much for him.

But the entire time, I think he accepted everything that happened to him with a great sense of uniting his suffering with Christ. He preached that so often throughout his time as archbishop of New York to so many people and I know that he considered this time of his life a great gift, because he was able to now live out what he had so often urged others to do.

QUESTION: Joe, can you tell us (OFF-MIKE) was he unconscious (OFF-MIKE)

ZWILLING: I think at least for part of the day early on he knew that people were with him, but over the last several hours, he did not. He was not -- he was at least not able to communicate with us, and so I'm not sure. He knew physically that we were there, but I'm sure that he knew that we were praying for him.


ZWILLING: No, he was -- yesterday he was speaking to the people that were with him in his residence. I don't know if he made any final statement.


ZWILLING: That's a good question. I'm not sure who administered it to him last Saturday. The sacrament of the sick is a sacrament that can be receive many times for people with chronic conditions, people facing surgery, or for people who have serious illness and after passage of time, and so he did receive the sacrament several times and it was a great source of comfort to him to receive that sacrament.



ZWILLING: No, there was no -- he did not make any statement. No. I don't think he will have any statement, no.



ZWILLING: Well, it's still tentative, but it looks like now that the funeral mass will be held on Monday at 2:00 in Saint Patrick's Cathedral. There will be other masses scheduled throughout the weekend in Saint Patrick's Cathedral with opportunities for people who wish to come and pay their respects to the cardinal, will have that opportunity, and there will be, again, a series of masses, some for special groups that the cardinal had worked with or a special attachment to, but we hope will provide an opportunity for a great number of people who wish to come and pay their respects to the cardinal to do so.


ZWILLING: There will be, the body will be brought to Saint Patrick's Cathedral where it will be able to be viewed. I'm not sure what day that will be, or whether that will be tomorrow or Friday or what time. Those details still will be worked out and will be announced. They will be, yes.


ZWILLING: I have no idea when a successor will be chosen and named. At this point, I simply can't address that. I don't know.


ZWILLING: The anuncio (ph) has been told, the apostolic anuncio in Washington has been told and I would presume he has informed the Holy See by this time. I -- actually, yesterday was my eighteenth anniversary with the archdiocese, so I actually started under Cardinal Cook, went through this in 1983 with Cardinal Cook. I've been with Cardinal O'Connor for 16 years, his entire tenure as archbishop of New York. He was a great man, I know that myself, and many others who were privileged enough to know him, to love him, are going to miss him a great deal.

Obviously, on a personal level it's very difficult to think that he will no longer be with us, no longer be able to speak to him to, to learn from him, to be guided by him. He was unique. He was a man of great faith and a man of great strength. He was an inspiration to, I think anybody who was close enough to work closely with him to get to know him and to get to love him.


ZWILLING: I really do not want to go into anything like that. I'm sorry.


ZWILLING: The official cause of death on the death certificate was cardiopulmonary arrest, but it was a result of the tumor and the cancer that he was suffering from.


ZWILLING: Yes, it was.

QUESTION: Joe, what did the cardinal want his legacy to be?

ZWILLING: There's so much that the cardinal did as archbishop of New York that I think that the -- among the things that he will be remembered for, of course, his absolute commitment to the pro-life cause, the sacredness and dignity of every human life, unborn life, the elderly, the retarded, he defended their -- the dignity of their lives. He had a great love for the handicapped and the disabled that extended throughout his entire priesthood.

He was a priest for nearly 55 years and everywhere he worked as a priest, as a chaplain, as a bishop, and as cardinal archbishop of New York, he had a special devotion to the handicapped. I think he will also be remembered for his tremendous commitment to the Catholic schools, and the fighting to keep Catholic education available and affordable throughout the archdiocese and in particular in the inner city.


ZWILLING: No, he -- the final days were spent in prayer. The final days were spent at peace. But other than that, I think the final days were spent with great trust in God and whatever lay ahead in the last days of his life. He accepted it all very calmly.


ZWILLING: I'm not sure at what point it will be removed. It will be removed at some point this evening.


ZWILLING: He will eventually be interred in a crypt in Saint Patrick's Cathedral, yes.


ZWILLING: I'm sorry?


ZWILLING: He has a brother and two sisters, and I'm not even sure how many nieces and nephews, and grand nieces and nephews, but three siblings survive him.


ZWILLING: No. His sister, Mary, was with him and some other family members were with him, nieces. The others are, I think, on their way to New York.


ZWILLING: Oh, in memory? I presume something like that will be done. That's a decision that the vicar for education and the superintendent of schools will make, but I think there will be some public recognition in the morning.


ZWILLING: The cardinal went to Rome in February to see the Holy Father. It was a tremendous trip for him and very good.




ZWILLING: We don't have the full schedule yet. That will be worked out. Again, the body will be brought to Saint Patrick's Cathedral. It could well be tomorrow afternoon, although they -- that has not been formally established. But once it is there, there will be periods for public viewing, and there will also be specially scheduled masses in Saint Patrick's Cathedral.

WOODRUFF: We're sorry, we've apparently lost the signal from New York.

But again, to repeat, Cardinal John O'Connor, the archbishop, the cardinal of New York has died this evening at 8:00 Eastern Time. I think we do have the signal back now where we can hear from Joe Zwilling, who is the spokesman for the archdiocese.

ZWILLING: Yes. His sister and his nieces were present, also present were Cardinals Baum (ph) and Law (ph). Cardinal Law is the archbishop of Boston. Cardinal Baum is the former archbishop of Washington and a very close friend of Cardinal O'Connor's, he currently serves in Rome, he's the senior American cardinal -- and other priests and clergy of his household, Bishop James McCarthy (ph), who was his secretary for many years and who is now an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese, was also present.

QUESTION: Joe, did the mayor have a chance to see or speak to the cardinal?

ZWILLING: No, the mayor did not come.

QUESTION: Was the cardinal ever aware of Mayor Giuliani's diagnosis of cancer?

ZWILLING: I never discussed that.

QUESTION: Do you know if there was any conversation?

ZWILLING: Not about that, no. They have not spoken. I know the mayor had asked if it would be possible to visit, but the cardinal was simply not up for visitors and so that was not possible. But the mayor did ask if it would be possible to come by and see the cardinal, yes.


ZWILLING: The cardinal was never really in any pain throughout these months. He was a man of tremendous vigor and I think it was -- his suffering came in the form of not being able to do the things that he had done all his life. But he was never in any physical pain. Early this morning, early Wednesday morning, the cardinal did take a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse and it was then that the doctor said that the end would be near.

He spent the day, again, not in any pain, but surrounded by family, surrounded by friends, surrounded by loved ones. He has a rather small bedroom where he was, so there were people sort of taking turns spending some time with him. But it was a very peaceful day for him. A lot of prayers said for him, the rosary said, and a lot of time for people who were close to him to have a few final moments with him.


ZWILLING: I'm not a doctor, but I don't believe so, no.


ZWILLING: That is still to be determined. There are various options and that discussion is also underway.

QUESTION: Did the cardinal -- was he confined to his bed prior to this (OFF-MIKE)

ZWILLING: No, he was not. He had been able to be up and around. He was able to talk, he was able to go to his chapel. He was not confined to his bed prior to this morning. Of course, throughout particularly the last several weeks he had some days that were better than others and days where he could do more than others, but on the whole he was not confined to bed and he was able to get up, talk, pray, celebrate mass some days or attend mass on others.

QUESTION: Joe, I know you were with the communications office for the last 16 years at least while the cardinal was here, is there any one moment during his time here that will really stick out in your mind?

ZWILLING: I think one moment that will always remain with me was the moment after his surgery, and he had been away from the cathedral for a few weeks and he came back into the cathedral. He was not going to celebrate mass. He was going to preside.

He was dressed in his robes and of course his appearance was greatly altered, but I just happened to be standing there the moment he walked into the cathedral again for the first time from his residence and the look on his face that clearly said how much he loved being there with the people, how much being able to be at the holy sacrifice of the mass meant to him, the joy was so self-evident. I think that's an image of him even though he did not at that moment look like he had for the majority of his time as archbishop of New York, I think that is in particular one moment that I'll always remember of him as archbishop of New York, because I think it really crystallized for me something I knew but really brought home how much he loved being a priest, how much he loved being with the people and how much he loved to be at the holy sacrifice of the mass with the people and that he was truly at home there, that when he walked back into the cathedral that's when he was truly at home.

QUESTION: And did it ever bother him, Joe, when so many of us, so many reporters asked about a successor?

ZWILLING: No, I have to say -- and I'm not saying this just to flatter you or anybody else -- but the cardinal was genuinely touched and expressed to me on several occasions -- and I've tried to express that to some of you throughout that how much he appreciated, especially in these last months, the way he was treated by the media. I think he always had a good relationship.

Some of you had a personal relationship, but I think on the whole he had a very good relationship with many of the -- with all the people in the media, but it really touched him these last few months and one of the last times I spoke to him I had the opportunity to tell him and bring to him the good wishes that so many people in the media had asked me to express on their behalf to him, and he was very genuinely touched by that. It meant a great deal to him. So, you know, he recognized...

WOODRUFF: Spokesman Joe Zwilling of the Archdiocese of New York talking of the last months of the life of Cardinal John O'Connor, who died tonight a little after 8:00 Eastern Time. He had suffered with a brain tumor in the summer of last year in 1999.

There was surgery to remove the tumor last August, but ever since that time the cardinal has suffered complications, and as we just heard Mr. Zwilling say, in the last few weeks he had grown increasingly weaker. This morning he took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse early this morning, and did die tonight. The official cause, cardiopulmonary arrest, but clearly a result of the brain tumor that was diagnosed last year.

Again, Cardinal John O'Connor at age 80 dead this evening in New York City.

CNN's Deborah Feyerick now takes a look back at the life of this extraordinary and massive figure in the Catholic Church in the United States.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As a child, John Cardinal O'Connor said he dreamed of being a garbage man, a doctor, or a journalist. Instead, he became the spiritual leader for more than 2 million Roman Catholics in the New York archdiocese. Cardinal O'Connor was a national figure sought out by presidential candidates and world leaders. He was considered Pope John Paul II's most important American ally.

A man of strong convictions and deep faith, Cardinal O'Connor held tightly to the teachings of the Catholic Church, marching against abortion and criticizing Catholic politicians like Geraldine Ferraro, who supported it, no matter what office they were running for. Though he drew fire from abortion advocates and others who disagreed with his positions, he defended his convictions in a spirit of peace.


CARDINAL JOHN O'CONNOR, ARCHDIOCESE OF NEW YORK: But we do not pray today in protest, we pray in love and in hope.


FEYERICK: He vigorously denounced violence at abortion clinics, even going online in 1995 to field questions about clinic bombings.


O'CONNOR: If anyone has an urge to kill anybody at an abortion clinic, please kill me instead.


FEYERICK: He was against homosexuality, objecting to gay Catholics marching in the Saint Patrick's Day parade. They fought back, targeting him at numerous protests.


O'CONNOR: To those who may not agree with the teachings of the church, you are still in our hearts, you are still in our love.


FEYERICK: John Cardinal O'Connor was born in Philadelphia on January 15, 1920. At the age of 16, he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1945, the year World War II ended.

O'Connor spent nearly three decade as a U.S. Navy and Marine Corps chaplain, serving American troops during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He retired from military service as a rear admiral in 1979. He rose quickly through the church hierarchy from bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1983 to archbishop of New York in 1984, then cardinal a year later.

Cardinal O'Connor became as much a part of New York City as the Yankees and Mets, frequently going to bat or lending a hand with city issues. In the early '90s, O'Connor met with labor leaders to end the newspaper strikes.


O'CONNOR: I've been worrying and praying a great deal about the potential loss of two newspapers in this city. (END VIDEO CLIP)

FEYERICK: He used his pulpit at Saint Patrick's Cathedral to preach on issues from rent control to health care, and he comforted families of the victims of TWA Flight 800. Cardinal O'Connor became a bridge builder. When police opened fire on an unarmed West African immigrant, the cardinal held an interfaith service to ease race relations. And in a moving letter during the Jewish holidays, he expressed his abject sorrow for any harm done to Jews by Catholics.

As O'Connor followed his conscience, controversy and the media often followed him. He traveled to war-torn Beirut in 1989, ignoring a State Department warning that Americans were being target as hostages. The cardinal, with a smile in his eye and his ever present humor, was never at a loss for words.


O'CONNOR: I don't think I'd be worth much as a captive.


FEYERICK: When he turned 75, he submitted his resignation as required by church law. The pope reportedly wrote back, "Keep doing what you're doing, we'll call you."

O'Connor had a growth surgically removed from his nose, then in August, suffering from persistent nausea, he was admitted to Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, where he was diagnosed with brain cancer.

Reflecting on his life from his hospital bed, the cardinal wrote, "I find myself in unutterable peace, a peace borne of the grace of God and the goodness of God's people." John Cardinal O'Connor, New Yorker, Catholic leader and teacher, humanitarian.

Deborah Feyerick, CNN, New York.


WOODRUFF: John Cardinal O'Connor passed away in New York City in his residence, just behind Saint Patrick's Cathedral this evening, Wednesday evening, May 3, in the year 2000, just after 8:00 Eastern Time.

CNN's Deborah Feyerick has been standing watch for several hours in New York ever since the word came from the spokesman for the archdiocese that the cardinal was near death.

Deborah, it has been a time of watching and waiting, and yet they made it clear that the end was year near, didn't they?

FEYERICK: They did. For several days now, there have been rumors. Those rumors kind of that picked up steam earlier this afternoon, and then when the spokesperson, Joe Zwilling, confirmed the cardinal had taken a turn for the worse, everybody sort of got moving to find out what was going on.

Just to let you know, in his last hours, Saint Patrick's Cathedral was filled with people praying for the cardinal, and not just Catholics; we spoke to many a of other denominations. The cardinal was very much a bridge builder in that way, and one woman who leaving the church said Cardinal O'Connor's gift was that he was able to reach out to the little person, that he was able to make each one feel special as if they were a child of God, and several people we saw inside visibly shaking, wiping away tears from their face.

The funeral mass, as you've heard, is scheduled for Monday at 2:00. The cardinal's body, it may be lying so that the people can see it perhaps even as early as tomorrow afternoon according to his spokesperson, but of course all that being arranged now -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Deborah, from the peace that you just reported on his life, it's so clear that not only was he an enormous figure in the church, he was also a very influential figure in politics in the United States as well, and in the Northeast.

FEYERICK: Absolutely. Many people came to seek out his opinion. Even though New York's archdiocese is the third largest in the United States, it's very important because of its location, and the media really treated John Cardinal O'Connor as a spokesperson, not only on Catholic issues, but on all general kinds of issues. So he was very much a part of New York City, very much a spokesperson for the Catholic Church, but also for what New Yorkers were thinking as well.

WOODRUFF: We might say by way of background, and I think you pointed this out in your report just now, Deborah, he was elevated to cardinal in May, 1985, exactly 15 years ago, and has been since then the spiritual leader for something like two and a half million Catholics in Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx, and then seven upstate counties, and as you said, this is one of the largest archdiocese in the United States.

FEYERICK: Absolutely, and what was so interesting -- there were many interesting things about the cardinal. But really, I think what enabled him to reach people was that, when you met him, he seemed like an ordinary guy. He was very funny, extremely witty, was able to field questions on every single subject. His father was a union man, and so he became a tireless fighter for unions. He a big supporter of health care, really a fighter for children with down syndrome. That was a cause that was particularly close to his hear. But he fought for the homeless. He fought for the working class, the people who are being shut out. He also fought for the poor. So people felt a big connection.

Now not everyone agreed with him, not everybody agreed with his policies, but there was a general level of respect for this man.

WOODRUFF: All right, Deborah Feyerick in New York, there at Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Once again, just about a little over two hours ago, two and a half hours ago, John Cardinal O'Connor died at his residence some months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died, we're told, peacefully. He was not in pain. I think that one of the things that came out in Deborah's report about the fact that the cardinal spent almost three decades serving in the military as a chaplain, a part of his life that not many people may be aware of. The cardinal once said, "I love being a priest, and being a bishop ain't bad either." He was right at home when it came to dealing with the media, with the news media, and taking tough questions from reporters, and there was this exchange with CNN's Robert Novak on the topic of abortion.


ROWLAND EVANS, "EVANS & NOVAK": It seems that many Democratic politicians who are Catholics are not hearing you and the church on that and other issues involving pro-life and pro-choice and the abortion question. Why is that?

CARDINAL JOHN O'CONNOR: Well, I think they're hearing, if you will forgive me -- I think they all have a pretty good idea what the church teaches and what some of the cardinals and bishops are enunciating very, very frequently. They've made their choice, they've made their a decisions. They have decided, apparently, that they can still function as Catholics and receive the sacraments, and yet support of pro-choice position. I don't read the papal and cyclical on human life that way myself, but I'm not inside their consciences, and I don't hesitate to express to them what the church teaches.

EVANS: Cardinal O'Connor, is there a dangerous decline in the moral conduct of Americans today, due partly to television and the easy access by all ages to computer chatter boxes?

CARDINAL JOHN O'CONNOR: I don't think there can be much question that there is a decline, but I think at the same time, there is ascendancy, that I think the winds of the spirit are blowing. I see a lot of signs of new life, tremendous goodness on the part of many, many people. Otherwise, we wouldn't even notice the decline.

EVANS: Would you say that the allegations of sexual misconduct in the White House are part of what you call this ascendancy?

CARDINAL JOHN O'CONNOR: I think perhaps the fact that it makes so much news again reflects that the titillating power of it means that we have a taste of these things, and yet it is news, thank God it is news that the president of the United States is being accused, correctly or incorrectly, of such things. When it's no longer news, then maybe we will have completely declined.

EVANS: Let me follow that, sir, by asking you this. You clearly indicate by your answer that this disturbed you. How do you account for the fact that the American voter appears to be totally untroubled by these allegations?

CARDINAL JOHN O'CONNOR: I wonder if that's true really. Both of you would know a lot more than I about such matters. You're essentially political analysts. I am academically politically educated, but not in the real word. I don't know how true that is, and we all know that the political winds shift so quickly that -- the stock answer given in the newspapers is, of course, is that the economy is so magnificent, or apparently so, that really nobody cares much about anything else. Whether that's true, I think is...

EVANS: Does that bother you, if it's true?

CARDINAL O'CONNOR: Yes. I don't think it's true, but of course it would bother me.


WOODRUFF: That's an interview Cardinal John O'Connor gave in the spring of 1998, a little over two years. And a slight correction there. Robert Novak was a part of the interview, but as you could see, his partner Rowland Evans was also asking questions of the cardinal.

Just to recap, the cardinal died tonight a little after 8:00 Eastern time, peacefully at his home in New York City. Services are scheduled for Monday at 2:00 at Saint Patrick's Cathedral.

CNN will have more coverage throughout this evening and of course into tomorrow of the death of this towering figure in the Catholic Church.

We will take a break now. When we come back, an abbreviated version of "NEWSSTAND."



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