The best sermon I have ever heard. Cardinal John J. O’Connor

9/17/98 Catholic New York
Cardinal O’Connor’s Homily
Sunday Homily

Cardinal speaks of presidential scandal, partial-birth abortion vote, poverty and labor

This is the text of Cardinal O’Connor’s homily at Sunday Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral Sept. 13.

Since two years ago I had to make a commitment to be out of New York yesterday, because we had thought that the Labor Day Parade would be last week instead of yesterday, it was my misfortune to be unable to be present at the Labor Day Parade. I am very happy that our auxiliary bishops were able to represent me. I would have preferred to be there myself, but it was impossible.

On Wednesday, the 10th of September in 1998, an historic ecumenical prayer service took place in this cathedral. Representatives of a broad diversity of religious persuasions stood in this sanctuary–Muslim, Jewish, Protestant of various persuasions, Roman Catholic, Orthodox–and prayed, each in his or her own way. Many of you here of the media were gracious enough to be present with the full cathedral joining in those prayers. This was a prayer service designed to raise consciousness on the plight of the hungry, the homeless, the desperately needy. We were attacking no one, public figure or anyone else. I was asked to preach the homily at this prayer service.

Although some of you were here on Wednesday, the majority of you were not. Those who were here, then, I hope will forgive me if I repeat only a few of the things that I said in my reflection on that occasion. These things fit too well to ignore with today’s exquisitely beautiful and particularly meaningful scriptural readings and with the fact that we are celebrating Labor Day. I quoted from Miss Patricia O’Toole, author of what I consider to be a very important book, “Money and Morals in America.” She prefaces her book with a very beautiful quotation from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. I will not take time for it now, but I would commend it to your attention.

I will cite a very few of the shocking figures that Miss O’Toole gives, and equally shocking figures that I have gathered from other sources, but even shocking figures can be completely impersonal and unfortunately fail to move us. We can speak, for example, of a war on poverty, on hunger, on homelessness. To me these are abstractions, completely impersonal. They are the sterile stuff of government reports, leaving many of us unmoved and untouched. It is not our problem and not our business, a bunch of figures over which we have no control and which are too difficult to understand.

What of the middle-aged “bag lady” who may, at this very moment, be sitting on the steps of my residence next door to this cathedral? What of the family evicted by a landlord who is terrified to go to a shelter? These are persons, flesh-and-blood persons, made in God’s image. They are not statistics. They are not abstractions or collective nouns.

I will give just a very few of the figures, for example, taken from an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy a few months ago in March. The article was entitled “Food Banks Can’t Keep Up With Huge Demands, Study Finds.”

“Second Harvest, the country’s largest chain of food banks, fed almost 26 million people last year–nearly 10 percent of America’s population. Even so, it had to turn away an estimated 2.3 million hungry people because of a lack of food.” [This is 26 million plus 2.3 million, 28.3 million hungry people during this economic boom. What is wrong with us!]

In regard to housing in the New York City region, one-third of households are unable to find decent and affordable housing. Sixty-nine percent of poor renters paid more than 50 percent of their income to rent. The picture on homelessness is a disgrace. At the end of the service the other day I remarked–and I should have put it in a more prominent place–that when I first came to New York, I was stunned to look at two video tapes that were produced by newsman Gabe Pressman, one of the real newsmen of the streets. The tapes were on the homelessness of those who had been evicted from institutions, fittingly called “Asylum in the Streets.” It is disgraceful, people unable to take care of themselves, people unable to give themselves medication, if they have medication to give. And some of us think people want to be in the streets. How many want to be in the streets? How many want to live as so many of those people live?

I spent a year, predominantly at St. Clare’s Hospital, but also elsewhere at the very beginning of the AIDs epidemic in this country. I wanted to find out for myself, not just what the textbook said. I wanted to visit a thousand people with AIDs, wash their sores and empty their bedpans and do whatever had to be done and, above all, listen to them. I visited 1,100 patients before I had to come back to my regular duties. What many of them feared was that they had to go back into the streets. They told me they would sleep on rooftops because it was too dangerous to sleep on park benches. This in New York, this in our country!

Fifty-five hundred families are in need of shelter every day, almost 16,000 individuals in families, including 9,350 children homeless every day. The average stay in emergency housing is 293.1 days. I wonder how many of us have visited emergency housing and would want to live in it for 293.1 days?

Miss O’Toole tells why she wrote her book, “Money and Morals in America.”

“In the summer of 1989 I was in Washington on a magazine assignment. I got up early one morning and took a walk through Lafayette Park, which is just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. I was stunned to see two or three dozen people sleeping in the park. Homelessness was a familiar sight by then, of course, but I hadn’t expected to see it on the doorstep of the White House.

“Back in the fancy hotel room, I ordered breakfast, ate well, and had lots left over. I put the food in a hotel laundry bag, walked it over to the park, and gave it to the first two people I saw–two men on a bench. I will always remember the deadness of their eyes. They didn’t look as if they’d lost their joy, they looked as if they’d had it bombed out of them.”

This is in America, a disgrace! It is because of conditions like these, the conditions that were even more abominable and even more widespread years ago, that unions first came into existence to insist on the right to collective bargaining. An awful lot of us enjoy a measure of dignity and decency and certain prosperity because of the union movement. We should not forget that. Were the right to collective bargaining to be abolished tomorrow, in my judgment, it would not be too many years before such conditions would prevail again in many quarters. I am not sure everyone realizes that, as I am not sure everyone realizes that we still have grave economic and social problems in this country.

I am told that because I have supported unionism so strongly for my 14 plus years as archbishop, some parties have been reluctant to contribute to archdiocesan needs. That hit me, for example, when I went over to 42nd Street for a rally for newspaper people on strike. I spoke at that rally, and I was later warned very bluntly, “You are hurting the charities and the educational efforts of the Archdiocese of New York.” Well, obviously I regret the loss to the archdiocese, but I will defend the right to collective bargaining in good faith until the day I die. That is Church teaching. I am supposed to teach Church teaching.

I must confess it has been the exceptional union (because our relationships with most unions have been very good and I appreciate that fact), not the majority of unions, that the archdiocese does business with that has been problematic. Walk through this approximately 185-mile-long archdiocese and see the amount of union work done because of the archdiocese’s respect for the right to collective bargaining. I believe it is a record that can compare favorably with any organization in the United States, contract for contract, decency for decency in bargaining, good faith for good faith. I believe the record of the archdiocese can compare favorably with any organization in the United States, not simply with other Church organizations but with any organization.

It is my sincere hope that nothing forces the archdiocese to reverse its position and that nothing forces me, the son of a union man, at my age, as my tenure as Archbishop of New York is coming at some point to an end, to revise my personal position of a lifetime. But as sacred as is the right to collective bargaining, some things are even more sacred–the right to human life, the truth, good faith on the part of all parties and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to me of inestimable holiness, in no way to be politicized, in no way to be tampered with.

Now let me switch subjects briefly for a moment; in a way it is not to switch subjects. Once again, both the Scripture readings and the honoring of Labor Day suggest that I talk about what I will talk about for just a few moments, given the submission of the Starr report. Permit me to read to you a brief excerpt from my column in Catholic New York written in response to those who have publicly questioned my reasons for silence during the Starr investigation. Some of you have read this in Catholic New York, but the vast majority have not.

“…Apparently such silence has caused perplexity for some, and has provoked others to question my courage, my secret political motives and the quality of my ‘little, gray cells’ as Agatha Christi’s Monsieur Poirot refers to his brainpower. (Yes, at 78 plus I do find mine deteriorating rapidly.) Such criticism is quite a switch. During my 14-plus years as Archbishop of New York, I have been accused more frequently of ‘meddling in politics’ than Al Smith was accused of intending to build a tunnel under the ocean between New York and the Vatican, if he were elected President of the United States. This is the first time I can recall being faulted for silence in an affair with so many political implications over and above the moral issues involved.

“However, while I thoroughly respect the efforts of the media and all others to say what they believe should be said,…is there anyone who knows anything about Church teaching who considers it necessary for me to add my voice to the clamor that has prevailed for weeks in our land? Is there anyone who has any idea of what I have preached from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral or written in this column in Catholic New York for more than 14 years who does not know what I have to say [more importantly what the Church has to say] about the kinds of issues under discussion–from a moral, not a political perspective?” [For example, adultery, by whomever committed.]

Is this to be the Church’s new approach? Is that what is to be demanded, that I point to people in a congregation and say, “I know your sins. You should not be here. Stand up.” I had better start with myself. I know that we are talking about the President of the United States. I know that we are talking about his immense power and the potential impact on the world at large, among children particularly. I know that from this perspective the fallout of alleged presidential sins can be greater in some respects than the fallout of your sins or mine, but they are still sins. I have absolutely no intention of starting such business. I try to teach what the Church teaches. The Church teaches the Ten Commandments, “Let those who want to listen, listen.” I would be surprised if this or any other congregation voted to have us begin a practice in which we must stand up and be publicly accused for our sins by the preacher, particularly by the Cardinal Archbishop of New York.

“Once at an inordinately lengthy speechfest about a particular situation in New York, a weary congressman raised his hand. [It happened to be Congressman Charles Rangel] ‘Everything that should be said has been said,’ he observed plaintively, ‘but not everyone has said it, so I would like my turn for the record.’

“I feel no necessity to say anything for the record about the ‘presidential scandals,’ so my silence will continue. The President of the United States and others are on trial, a trial with immensely grave implications. A duly appointed special prosecutor will submit his findings to the Congress of the United States. The Congress will issue a verdict. Speculation is rampant about what the special prosecutor will report and what the Congress will decree.

“Do I advance the salvation of souls by publicizing my own speculation or by offering my own verdict [particularly if it is a political verdict]? I don’t think so. By my silence do I further damage souls already damaged by scandal? I don’t think so. Silence, after all, is conducive to prayer, and I am, indeed, very, very busy praying: for the President of the United States and his family, for all who are on trial, for all who are conducting the trial, for all who have been victimized, for all who have been scandalized, particularly the young, for our beloved country, which, in my judgment, is more deeply in need of prayer than at any point during my 78 years as a citizen.”

I am not looking for a headline. I am not trying to make news by joining in the public clamor. I am trying to pray and I am trying to preach what the Church preaches. But now I will add something not in the column, with which I will conclude, something I consider absolutely outrageous, something I consider almost unbelievably inconsistent. It is one thing for legislators and other public figures to denounce adultery and the kind of lascivious behavior normally described only in a pornographic novel. What self-respecting member of the clergy or any other decent-minded human being could be anything but repelled by the behavior attributed to the President of the United States? What is alleged is unspeakable, and if true merits the public outrage which has ensued.

But where has the public outrage been when some of those same legislators and public figures who have denounced such behavior on moral grounds, not political grounds, and have given eloquent addresses on the immorality of such behavior, yet have voted to support so-called partial-birth abortion, that is, killing an infant as it is actually leaving its mother’s birth canal to see the light of day? What behavior could be more heinously immoral than infanticide, for that is precisely what it is, all euphemisms aside. I hope you who are passionately committed to the right of collective bargaining will recognize that a child leaving its mother’s womb needs someone to bargain for his or her life. Without us, that child is defenseless–doomed not to inadequate pay or unfair labor practices, but doomed to death in this land of the free and the home of the brave.

There will be another vote on partial-birth abortion, infanticide, on Friday of this week, the 18th of September. Please God every legislator will vote morally as he or she has been speaking, morally and not politically. Or God help America.

About oklahomafed

Greg Guthrie has held positions at the US Department of Commerce, Library of Congress and the World Bank, taught the course ‘Environmental Issues in the Mediterranean” at Georgetown University where he wrote his thesis: “Labor Unions: Champions of Social Justice”, which has been cited, among others, in Labor Law Journal, and in the book ‘ American Labor: A Documentary Collection’ Ed. by Melvyn Dubofsky and Joseph A. McCartin. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Currently, he is with the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) of the US Department of Commerce. He has been a guest on the radio program, Georgetown University Forum, where he has spoken on the virtues of Organized Labor. He is a native Oklahoman.
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