From ONE Magazine

John Cardinal O’Connor: A Hands-on President

When John Cardinal O’Connor was appointed Archbishop of New York in 1984, he also assumed the presidency of Catholic Near East Welfare Association. He soon realized that the organization had a great past but could have an even greater future.

Since its foundation in 1926 by Pope Pius XI and under such eminent church leaders as John Cardinal Hayes, Francis Cardinal Spellman and Terence Cardinal Cooke, the Association has distinguished itself in providing humanitarian support for those in need, no matter what their religious beliefs. “Need, not creed” has been more than a slogan. Also, pastorally, the Association has been for years the lifeblood of Christian communities in the Near East.

Inheriting the presidency of such a respected organization, Cardinal O’Connor might have been tempted to play it safe and follow the rule, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Instead, he understood that the people depend on the agency as a life support system and their needs today are more critical and more numerous.

Therefore, according to the Cardinal, the organization must ask itself if it is doing all it can to respond quickly and efficiently to those needs.

In spite of his grueling schedule as Archbishop of New York, the Cardinal has been a hands-on president. He called upon the agency’s administration to evaluate its internal structures. Management consultants were brought in to work with the staff to see how the Association could better serve the needs of those in the mission regions. As the professional staff was expanded, religious from various communities and dedicated lay persons were recruited for key management positions.

Eventually, the agency’s operational structure was reorganized into three divisions – administration, overseas and communications. Plans for the future were initiated.

Consequently, the office space was restructured to accommodate the new working patterns and, as an added bonus, gained 25 percent more working space without renting another foot. Computer systems were upgraded to provide agency-wide utilization. Largely as a result of the cardinal’s initiative, the agency is perceived at home and overseas as a no-nonsense organization: creative, flexible and effective.

Motivated by the Gospel imperative to serve the poor, he asked the board of trustees to make as many of the agency’s reserves available as quickly as possible, and on a regular basis. He also brought new members onto the board. He urged the Association to maintain and expand its close working relationship with the Congregation for Eastern Churches in the Vatican and its prefect, D. Simon Cardinal Lourdusamy. Also, he encouraged the agency to review its mission statement and canonical statutes in light of the documents of Vatican II.

As committed as he is to the goals of the organization he heads, he leaves its day-to-day operation to the secretary general and his staff. He has been a tireless advocate on behalf of the needs of those Catholic Near East Welfare Association serves. He has alerted the U.S. church and his brother bishops to those suffering from war, famine and natural disasters. He has traveled to Lebanon, in 1986 and 1989, to convey the Holy Father’s personal concern for the plight of those caught in the middle of civil war.

Wherever he goes, he listens. He also brings hope. Upon his return to this country, he speaks eloquently about what he has heard. In late January 1985, he flew to Ethiopia to draw attention to the plight of the Ethiopian people who were victims of famine. In 1986, he visited the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Sheik Hassan Khaled, with whom he shared the similarities rather than the differences between Christianity and Islam. (Tragically, the Sheik was assassinated this past spring in Beirut.) In December 1986, he met with King Hussein of Jordan, Shimon Peres, then Israeli Foreign Minister, and representatives of the Palestinian people in the occupied West Bank.

At home, he fosters awareness of the needs of those at the far corners of the world and encourages ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Overseas, he is an ambassador of peace and sower of seeds of hope. Such vigorous leadership challenges everyone connected with Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

The “greater future” has begun.

Rev. Gary Seibert, S.J. is editor of Catholic Near East magazine and the new publications coordinator of the Association.