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With cardinal's death, a great champion is lost

Because of strict security concerns and a lengthy processional, Cardinal John O'Connor's recent funeral in Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral lasted nearly four hours. But my late lamented friend of over 16 years merited every minute of it.

My wife, Marcia, and I were seated in the front of the huge sanctuary, a location providing an extraordinary view of the ceremony. The liturgically rich religious service was impressive and comforting, and its length provided some welcome time to recall my personal encounters with Cardinal O'Connor.

In 1985, a year after his arrival in New York City, O'Connor and I were the keynote speakers at an interreligious convocation marking the 20th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council's breakthrough document on Catholic-Jewish relations. We were seated together on a high platform, and O'Connor began his remarks by slowly reading from a prepared text a staff member had ghostwritten for him. The "ghost" was seated directly below me in the audience.

After 10 minutes of reading an unimaginative speech, the cardinal literally tossed away his text and announced, "Enough of that. Now I want to really talk from my heart about Catholics and Jews." The ghostwriter was crestfallen, but O'Connor's ad lib remarks stirred the audience of nearly 3,000 and clearly revealed the cardinal's intense passion as he described the immense debt that Christians owed to Jews and Judaism.

That was the first time I heard O'Connor declare that one "cannot be a faithful Christian and an anti-Semite. They are totally incompatible because anti-Semitism is a sin." Those powerful words became one of the cardinal's signature teachings.

In December 1993, Israel and the Vatican formally established diplomatic relations, and O'Connor invited many Jewish and Catholic leaders to his Madison Avenue residence to celebrate that historic event. It was an appropriate venue because the cardinal had long worked on formally linking Rome and Jerusalem.

In my champagne toast I called O'Connor "a chief architect" of Vatican-Israel relations, but he demurred from such praise. "No, no, Jim," he said. "The pope deserves the credit." Of course, we were both right because O'Connor was indefatigable in his public and private efforts that finally achieved the important goal John Paul II desired as well.

In June 1987, the pope in a lavish diplomatic ceremony received Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. Waldheim, then as now, was living in the dark and irreversible shadows of his ugly World War II record as a German officer in the Balkans, a wretched part of his life the Austrian leader had lied about when he was the U.N. secretary general. The scale of the Vatican welcome for Waldheim displeased many Jewish and Catholic leaders, including O'Connor.

He publicly said he did not understand the Waldheim reception and added, "I intend to take it up with my friends at the Vatican." Whenever he said those words, I always knew he really meant only one "friend" in Rome, and everyone knew exactly who that was. Indeed, O'Connor had an exceptionally close friendship with the pope, who was born in Poland just four months after the cardinal's birth in Philadelphia.

O'Connor spoke often about the shattering impact the Holocaust had on him both personally and theologically. His 1988 address commemorating the 50th anniversary of the murderous Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria is a classic because he acknowledged that centuries of anti-Jewish Christian teachings had helped prepare the poisonous seedbed of Nazism.

But behind all the admirable positions and teachings, there was the humorous and highly personable John O'Connor who always remembered the trade union roots of his father and the profound understanding of religious pluralism he acquired during his 27 years as a U.S. Navy chaplain.

Each time I was with the cardinal, I would ask how things were going, and he invariably replied, "Rabbi Jim, every day's a holiday!" It was his ebullient way of saying how much he enjoyed life as one of the world's major religious leaders.

I last saw him alive in late January at his residence. We both knew he was critically ill with cancer, and when he smilingly repeated his upbeat mantra, I turned away in tears.

The Jewish people have lost a great champion, and I have lost a good friend.

_ Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.

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