Imagine. All creation held its breath. The angels were silent and still, gazing with intent upon the young girl. Every creature hushed in anticipation, awaiting her response. The world’s salvation hung on the reply of a poor, unmarried girl of the insignificant town of Nazareth. Mary had no status, no power, and risked in her consent to the Lord being stoned to death as it was done in that day to women found pregnant out of wedlock. And yet, emptied of herself she was free to be a capacity entirely for God. Through her yes to the Lord, the greatest event of all time occurred. God became man. The Father’s Love took flesh. Jesus Christ entered into human history, and so too, God’s dreams for our salvation.
To most, this would appear a strange way of going about the world’s salvation. And yet, if you trace salvation history, God’s way of redeeming the world has been true ever since – through humble hearts, willing to trust in Him more than themselves, and echo Our Lady’s yes, especially as it calls them to stand in what would appear to the world as only poverty and weakness. This was the great yes of Jesus to the Father as He redeemed the world through the vulnerability and suffering of His Passion. This was the yes of the motley crew of fisherman that formed Christ’s first disciples, and laid the foundation of the Church. And this too was the yes of our founder, John Cardinal O’Connor, who though he stood in the last chapter of his own life still held a heart for God’s dreams – one of a timely grace for the world, a charism of life.
John Cardinal O’Connor’s Story: The boy from Philadelphia
Cardinal O’Connor often described himself as a “boy from a little row house in Philadelphia.” His dream was to be a simple parish priest and work with children with disabilities. He loved hot-dogs and cinnamon rolls, enjoyed playing with the neighborhood kids growing up, and shocked everyone in his family when he announced his desire to enter the seminary. At the time, seminary was strict – “no one was encouraged to believe they would survive.” He persevered, and was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on December 15th, 1945.
After the outbreak of the Korean War, his strong sense of duty and patriotism compelled him to respond to the call for Navy Chaplains, thinking his stay would be but a few years. Twenty-seven years later, after rising to the highest rank possible for a chaplain (Rear Admiral), his requests to return home to his archdiocese were finally granted. His return to his beloved state of Pennsylvania however, was short lived. After serving as the bishop of Scranton for just six months, he was called by Rome to become the shepherd of a parish he never dreamed of – the great archdiocese of New York.
Something new stirring in his heart
Bishop O’Connor took New York by storm. He made the pulpit unique in the history of the Catholic Church in the U.S., proclaiming with tremendous effectiveness, the Gospel closest to his heart – the Gospel of Life. However, after years of laboring for the cause of life, and watching so many around him do the same, he wondered why the efforts to change the culture were not having greater effect, and took the question, as he did all things, to prayer.
He came upon the Gospel story in Mark 9, and through a profound moment of grace, received the great dreams of God’s Heart into his own. He reflected on this moment of “Pentecost” years later with the Sisters saying, “Jesus gave his disciples power to work miracles, to teach, to preach in His name. But someone had been brought to them that was possessed by demons – and the apostles were unable to drive them out. Our Lord said to them, ‘this kind of demon is only cast out by prayer and fasting.’ It finally occurred to me that what the pro-life movement needed was a group of women committed primarily to prayer and fasting on behalf of all human life…giving of themselves that others might live. This is precisely what Christ did. He taught marvelously; He preached eloquently; He worked spectacular miracles. But He did not make possible the salvation of the world until He laid down His own life.”
Cardinal O’Connor’s eyes opened to the reality that at the root of the culture of death was a deep crisis of faith. And it was only through lives steeped in prayer, offered in love, and laid down in imitation of Christ the Redeemer, that the great demon at work undermining the sacred dignity of human life would be cast out. This wasn’t just any grace. God had planted within his heart the seeds of a charism – a wellspring of grace towards the protection of the sacredness of human life. All that was needed to communicate it now, was a community of religious women — ‘The Sisters of Life.’
THE INSPIRATION at 70
At the time of this inspiration, Cardinal O’Connor was seventy years old – a nice age for most, to settle in, not start something new. He was also the Cardinal Archbishop of New York. He had enough responsibilities without the added challenge of deciphering the foundation of a new religious community. And yet, God knew he had in Cardinal O’Connor a heart that could hold this special dream. Why? Before anything else, his heart was a heart of a priest, one whose hero was Jesus Christ, and who wanted nothing more than to imitate His self-giving love and service. His was a soul formed in deep compassion, as he heard decades of confessions and conversations of sailors and military families afflicted by war, loss, and suffering. His was a mind that though seasoned by the world’s wisdom, came to know the only true wisdom was God’s, and through daily contemplation, sought to let it guide him. He was a leader, who though he sat with some of the greatest world powers, learned that the greatest power of all was love, and a life steeped in Christ its only safeguard. He was the senior ranking chaplain of the U.S. Navy responsible for over eight hundred chaplains and all their religious programs on ships, submarines, and bases throughout the world. And in this way, he knew intimately his own weakness, and the truth that whatever the task before him, it could only be met effectively by depending entirely upon God. He was a man, who held titles of Admiral, Bishop, and Cardinal, and yet, would say again and again, the only title he sought after, and cherished most, was father.
The Founding of the Sisters of Life
And so, like Abraham, in the golden years of his life, Cardinal O’Connor stepped out in faith to follow the unlikely inspiration of founding a women’s religious community. Full of unanswered questions and unsure of the way, he shared God’s dream with the world and put an ad in his column of Catholic New York. It read, “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life.” Other papers throughout the country began to pick up the ‘ad’ and reprint it in their own publications. And as the days and months passed, Cardinal O’Connor’s wonder grew, as he began to receive letters in reply. From women, whose hearts, like his, were stirred by a dream greater than themselves. Cardinal O’ Connor set a date for a retreat. Eleven women arrived from all over the country. And though a man of quick wit and Irish humor, the women knew he wasn’t joking when he began the retreat by very honestly telling them, “I want to invite you to consider joining a non-existent religious community that I may or may not attempt to found.” He continued, “I am but a simple priest…if it is of the Holy Spirit, it will work. If it isn’t, it won’t.”
Four years after the foundation of the community he reflected with the Sisters about these first days, reasserting, “I did not know what I was doing. What did I know about founding a community of religious women? I was depending on the Holy Spirit. But the one thing I told the Sisters then and I have tried to be faithful to ever since: that though I tell you I do not know what I am doing, I ask for your trust. I ask that we muddle through together to do the will of God, as God wants it to be done, and because He wants it to be done.”
To the Cardinal’s surprise, and much to their own, eight women left their jobs, said goodbye to their families and friends, and entered the ‘non-existent community’ of the Sisters of Life on June 1st, 1991, ready to “muddle through” with him in pure faith. Like the Cardinal, they couldn’t see one step in front of them. And yet forward in trust they went – among them an editor, a nutritionist, a professor — all without a day of experience in religious life. And though there were more questions than answers, they clung to the mystery of grace filling their hearts, leaned on the strength of God, and together strived to realize God’s dream for the world of a charism, and a community, of life.
Days have passed into months, which have now passed into twenty-nine years. One convent has now grown to twelve. And the fledgling community of eight, now numbers over one hundred. It is a marvel to see the wonders God has wrought throughout these years and the miracles of His Providence that continue to guide the community in bringing the charism of life to the culture. And as for the Sisters, gratitude alone fills their hearts, for the grace of following in the steps of a Cardinal whose yes to God’s dreams paved a way for their own – to answer God’s call to love, that others might have life.
*John Cardinal O’Connor entered into eternal life on May 3, 2000.
Originally printed in IMPRINT Magazine Spring 2016.