ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Life of a Leader

We remember our President, John Cardinal O’Connor.

He was a plain-spoken man, a man who “said it like it was,” as the Philadelphia Irish from whom he came are fond of saying. He is remembered as a man committed to the poor and the disabled, the hungry and the sick. He challenged all those in service of the church to do more; the church must not rest on its laurels.

John Cardinal O’Connor led CNEWA into the 21st century. When appointed Archbishop of New York in January 1984, the then Archbishop O’Connor also assumed the presidency of Catholic Near East Welfare Association with related responsibility for its operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

Although for decades these organizations had made a significant impact on the lives of the poor throughout the eastern world, Cardinal O’Connor saw their potential for an even greater future. He challenged the leadership of CNEWA to renew itself.

Under his direction, programs in the Middle East expanded to include such innovative projects as a housing renovation program in the Old City of Jerusalem and a comprehensive village rehabilitation initiative in Lebanon. And, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he committed CNEWA’s support of the church in post-Communist Eastern Europe.

Cardinal O’Connor tirelessly encouraged support of avenues of dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox; Christians, Jews and Muslims; Israelis and Palestinians. On trips to the Middle East he met with religious and political leaders throughout the region to keep open the lines of communication. In 1986, he met with Jordan’s King Hussein to discuss the King’s attendance at a peace conference in Rome.

The Cardinal was no stranger to CNEWA when he assumed its presidency, nor was he unfamiliar with the Pontifical Mission.

From 1979 until 1983 he served as Auxiliary Bishop to the Archdiocese of the Military Services, U.S.A., which was headed by a former National Secretary of CNEWA, Archbishop Joseph T. Ryan. He also shared a warm friendship with Msgr. John G. Nolan, who succeeded Archbishop Ryan as National Secretary in 1965. At Bishop Nolan’s funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in November 1997, after all the tributes were paid and all the prayers said, Cardinal O’Connor fondly reminded the congregation that he “knew the rascal well.”

In November 1984, responding to the Cardinal’s initiative, the CNEWA Board of Trustees voted to commission an independent study of CNEWA’s organization as a first step in renewing this papal agency. The next year, the Cardinal appointed one of his New York archdiocesan priests who had been working in the Hispanic community, Father Robert L. Stern, as Msgr. Nolan’s associate and understudy.

Father Stern’s first responsibility was to join two other new senior staff members, Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M., a photojournalist with considerable fund-raising talents, and Brother David Carroll, F.S.C., a noted computer expert, in evaluating and making recommendations for the implementation of the completed organizational study. They advised grouping CNEWA and Pontifical Mission activities under four categories: administration, development, overseas and programs. This reorganization would help the expansion of CNEWA’s programs.

Msgr. Nolan was just beginning the recommended reorganization of the agency when in December 1987 he was named Auxiliary Bishop for the Military Archdiocese, U.S.A. It fell to Msgr. Stern, now a prelate of honor to His Holiness and named by the Cardinal as Msgr. Nolan’s successor, to implement the Cardinal’s vision for the revitalization of CNEWA.

The Board of Trustees had recently approved a distribution of a large portion of the agency’s financial reserve funds. Msgr. Stern’s first instruction from the Cardinal was to distribute the funds swiftly.

“We had less than three weeks to allocate more than $12 million,” Monsignor re-called in the spring of 1999. “‘How can we responsibly distribute such a tremendous sum of money in such a short period of time?’ I thought.

“‘Where should we start?’”

Despite the time crunch, the Cardinal’s command was carried out. With his support and a reinvigorated administration in New York, CNEWA began to demonstrate anew the Holy Father’s concern for the people of the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe.

As the Cardinal’s vision took shape, extensive public relations and marketing programs, improved accounting, budgeting and finance procedures, agency-wide computerization, comprehensive planning and regularized project assessments were approved and implemented. Lay and religious professionals were recruited for key management positions.

Cardinal O’Connor also demonstrated his involvement with CNEWA in an exhaustive schedule of visits to the people it serves. As early as 1985, although beset by the demands of his new post as Archbishop of New York, CNEWA’s new President traveled to Ethiopia at the height of that country’ devastating famine. His visit helped to call world attention to the plight of the Ethiopian people. Deeply saddened by the suffering he had encountered, the Cardinal promised CNEWA’s support.

At great personal risk he traveled to Lebanon twice during its civil war, in 1986 and 1989, to demonstrate the solidarity of American Catholics with the people of Lebanon.

During his 1986 visit the Cardinal appointed Sister Maureen Grady, C.S.C., as Director of the Pontifical Mission’s Beirut office. Sister Maureen was a providential choice. The civil war in Lebanon was about to intensify. Sister Maureen assembled a staff of young, strong, dedicated professionals to represent Pope John Paul II in war-torn Lebanon and to carry out his mission of mercy and service there.

Following the war, in January 1992, the Cardinal visited Lebanon a third time. During this visit he promised to do whatever he could to help rebuild that shattered nation. He fulfilled this pledge immediately after his return when he invited Lebanese American leaders to his residence on 26 February and challenged them to forget their differences and coordinate their efforts toward rebuilding their homeland. Also, at their request, he led a representative delegation to a White House meeting with President George Bush to seek a change in the United States’ Lebanon policy.

In gratitude for the Cardinal’s efforts on behalf of Lebanon, the Ambassador of Lebanon to the U.S., on behalf of the Lebanese President, presented Cardinal O’Connor with the Order of the Cedar, Lebanon’s highest honor, in January 2000.

On trips to Israel and the Occupied Territories in 1986-87 and in 1991-92 the Cardinal’s interests as CNEWA’s President mirrored his relationship with the Jewish people and his commitment to dialogue.

During his 1986-87 visit, he caused a stir when he scheduled meetings with Israeli officials at their Jerusalem offices but then switched the meetings to their homes lest he jeopardize Holy See protocol of not recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In 1992, however, he broke protocol, meeting Israeli officials in their Jerusalem offices, and subsequently worked behind the scenes to enhance relations between the Holy See and Israel.

During his last Middle East tour, from 30 December 1991 to 7 January 1992, the Cardinal met with Jordan’s King Hussein, the presidents of Egypt, Lebanon and Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in yet another effort to promote peace in the Middle East.

“The Cardinal’s visits to the Palestinians and Israelis and his constant encouragement of dialogue and communication were a great contribution to the development of the peace process,” said Msgr. Stern recently.

Cardinal O’Connor visited the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as President of CNEWA for the first time in December 1986 and again in January 1992, one year after the Gulf War. Responding to the suffering of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, the Cardinal pledged the support of CNEWA.

Cardinal O’Connor played a pivotal role in CNEWA’s programs in Eastern Europe. Following the earthquake that devastated Armenia in 1988, the Cardinal encouraged Msgr. Stern to make a special appeal to aid that land. D. Simon Cardinal Lourdusamy, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, advised using the funds raised from this appeal for long-term assistance following the initial flurry of aid. Cardinal O’Connor recognized the wisdom of this advice. Funds were later used to help build Mater Redemptoris Hospital in northern Armenia.

The Cardinal was always interested in the rebirth of the church in Central and Eastern Europe. In 1993 he traveled to Albania to take part in ceremonies marking the ordination of four new bishops by Pope John Paul II, who thus restored the Catholic hierarchy in a country that once suffered under the most repressive Communist regime. One of the four was Archbishop Rrok Mirdita of Durres-Tirana, an ethnic Albanian who had served New York City’s Albanian community for 20 years.

As recently as last year, Cardinal O’Connor met with the Rector and Vice Rector of Lviv Theological Academy in Lviv, Ukraine. He was very interested in their work and concerned about their extensive needs. The Cardinal assured his visitors of CNEWA’s assistance and Msgr. Stern immediately followed through on the Cardinal’s pledge.

Cardinal O’Connor was a strong advocate of the Middle East Educational Fellowship program, which began at Brandeis University in 1987 and was soon transferred to Harvard University. The program brings Christians, Jews and Muslims from Middle Eastern nations to the United States for one year of graduate study leading to a master’s degree. As the students study together they come to know each other and to understand each other’s problems, views and hopes. Elected Chairman of the program’s Advisory Board, the Cardinal himself committed CNEWA to a $1 million grant for the program, payable over a 10-year period. He was Co-Chairman of the Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East, of which the Middle East Educational Fellowship is a special program.

Cardinal O’Connor was an ardent supporter of interreligious dialogue, with which CNEWA was and still remains much involved. He appointed CNEWA staff to the Archdiocesan Jewish-Catholic and Muslim-Catholic dialogue teams.

On 24 October 1999 – presiding at a Mass in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Mission, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East – the Cardinal praised the Pontifical Mission for its work on behalf of the impoverished, often stateless people of the Middle East, and cited the “great sacrifice” required of its staff. The following day, in a warm personal welcome, the Cardinal greeted a group of benefactors and special guests at a Mass in the cathedral’s Lady Chapel also held to honor the Mission’s 50th anniversary. He said the agency had been engaged in a “dialogue of charity,” assisting people in need regardless of their religion.

The Cardinal also noted that for years Msgr. Stern had “quietly, behind the scenes, been in dialogue with Israelis and Palestinians to further the cause of peace.” Msgr. Stern was keenly aware that his efforts reflected those of the Cardinal himself.

Throughout his tenure, Cardinal O’Connor showed his great concern for the work of the Association he proudly headed as its President. From the outset, he challenged CNEWA to update its methods, expand its programs and increase its assistance to the people CNEWA serves. Truly, John Cardinal O’Connor was a loving and beloved friend.

A writer and editor, Peg Maron is Production Editor of Catholic Near East.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español