The Life of a Leader

John Cardinal O’Connor was zealous in his commitment to the people CNEWA serves.

by Peg Maron

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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.

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Tags: CNEWA Christian-Muslim relations Msgr. Stern Jewish-Catholic relations John Cardinal O'Connor