On Saturday, March 27, St. Joseph Seminary hosted the annual Archdiocese of New York Family Life Conference, honoring in 2010 the legacy of Cardinal O'Connor as we approach the 10th anniversary of his death on May 3rd.
The conference began with this beautiful prayer, composed by Sister Lucy Marie Vasile, S.V.:
Lord Jesus Christ, desire of every human heart, make us instruments of Your grace and effective messengers of the Gospel of Life to all those whom we come in contact with. We pray that You pour out Your Holy spirit upon us, and bless our efforts this day, so that they may bear fruit in the lives and hearts of many, in order to bring about a culture of life and a civilization of love in our land.
We pray especially this day to learn from and be inspired by the life, example, and legacy of Cardinal O'Connor - like him, may we work and pray tirelessly until our dying breath so that all human life might be revered as a sacred gift from Almighty God.
May we be mindful of what he taught us, that we are not simply pro-life, we are pro the mystery of life, pro the wonder of life, pro the joy of life. May we be courageous, as he was, in bringing this Gospel of Life to the heart of every man and woman and to make it penetrate every part of society. We entrust all families and the cause of life to the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, our merciful Mother. We ask all of this in the name of Jesus our Lord. Amen.
The crowd of over 500 required holding the conference in the Seminary gym for the first time in several years.
Speakers included New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan; Mrs. Helen Alvare, the past spokesperson for the American Catholic bishops and currently a professor at George Mason University; Fr. Charles P. Connor, Ph.D., historian for the Diocese of Scranton, noted author and co-producer of several series on EWTN; and Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., Superior General of the Sisters of Life.
All four speakers were outstanding!
Archbishop Dolan addressed the Conference for 20 minutes, starting at 10 a.m.
He affectionately spoke of Cardinal O'Connor as an outstanding "priest, bishop, and churchman" who was responsible for a revival of the "spirit of Catholic pride, confidence, and moral clarity" in the Church in New York and beyond. He spoke of two prophets: Pope John Paul II, a prophet for the Universal Church who called the faithful to be "counter-cultural", as he personally and charismatically "reinvigorated and recreated" the pro-life movement. Cardinal O'Connor was the second, a prophet of the Church in the U.S. who championed the respect life cause as a "heroic apostle for life," one of whose crowning accomplishments was the founding of the religious order of the Sisters of Life.
Helen Alvare then shared personal memories of her time working as the point woman in the nineties for the Bishops on pro-life issues, and she observed that John Paul II and Cardinal O'Connor were given as gifts during a most negative legislative and cultural period. They both saw themselves as servants, a role where leadership is seen as gift, not possession.
Commenting on the current legislative and cultural scene, Helen said the fact is that "we're here stronger than ever despite hurdles". Other points: abortion advocacy is still not mainstream, with groups not as "out there" to promote abortion; abortion is not a story of freedom and progress but unhappy tales with "old 60s feminism" seen today as a negative. We, on the other hand, take the "body" seriously - the body means something, which is why we fight for traditional marriage while not advocating discrimination against homosexuals. We are consistent with regard to capital punishment; science gives us a window into the womb that we cannot ignore, with celebrity Moms and babies the latest fashion. On the current healthcare continuing debate: tell the truth; she quoted Cardinal George's letter, "we want everyone to have good healthcare and no one killed by the system".
She also expressed an opinion that Speaker Pelosi misled Bart Stupak to get him on board for healthcare, telling him she had the votes and he could either settle for an executive order, or come away with nothing. Helen's point: be pro-life to the end - not almost.
Fr. Charles P. Connor addressed the "transforming element" that was Cardinal O'Connor. He spoke about his receiving the Congressional Gold Medal and about Mary O'Connor Ward (the Cardinal's sister) who wrote how "clearly and unambiguously" he would teach Catholic doctrine and on pro-life matters. He defied labels like "liberal or conservative". When questioned about the rose lapel pin he wore, the Cardinal said it represented "all the roses not allowed to grow." On personhood, the decision to be made is "who shall live or die?" He was accused of being a one-issue bishop, despite his remarkable record across the board. As Bishop of Scranton, John O'Connor would say on life there is "no compromise".
Fr. Connor spoke about Pope Leo the XIII's letter in 1885 regarding public and private conscience and to be morally consistent, as opposed to the familiar statement today on abortion "personally opposed, but...". Fr. Connor quoted the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus who spoke to a Vanity Fair article quote, "O'Connor is a fanatic...the most effective...most dangerous...for the masses."
Fr. Connor called the crowd to contemplation and activity for a culture of life.
Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., the Superior General of the Sisters of Life reflected on the spirituality of Cardinal O'Connor and his establishment of the Sisters of Life. They began with only 8 young women and now have 69 sisters.
Sister spoke of the spirituality of Cardinal O'Connor, touching on three elements. Eucharistic - he was intimately connected to the person and privilege of Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist. Marian - he was unselfconsciously connected in prayer to God's mother. Ecclesial - "I am a churchman" he would say as he connected all he did to the Mystical Body of Christ and to the heart of the Church. He saw the Mass as the great act of contemplation.
Mother Agnes quoted from his writings about his experiences as a US Navy chaplain in Okinawa and told us how a personal experience visiting Dachau shaped his adult life and his determination to promote the sacredness of all life, from the womb until natural death. This experience became his inspiration for the new religious order and his charism of life reflected in the Sisters of Life. Mother told us that he possessed the gifts of preaching, teaching, counsel, spiritual vision, prophesy, fearless love, and Christian personalism. He saw every person as a unique and specific reflection of God: "He made you because he loves you."
Mother Agnes says farewell to Archbishop Dolan as he leaves the Conference.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth and Sr. Lucy Marie Vasile's smiles say it all! Thanks for a great day!