Cardinal John O’Connor, a navy chaplain-become-archbishop of New York, paid a visit to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, where thousands of people had been tortured and killed during the Second World War. As he placed his hands into the semicircular red brick ovens, he said he had a profound spiritual experience in which he felt the intermingled ashes of Christian and Jew, rabbi and priest. Pierced to the heart, he cried out: “My God! How can human beings do this to other human beings?” In that moment, he made a promise: to do everything in his power to protect human life.
So he did.
But years of preaching, advocating, and laboring with others to restore a sense of the dignity of human life yielded only a discouraging lack of results. Cardinal O’Connor wondered at this, and brought it, as he did all things, to prayer. And, finally, it came to him: a different kind of response was needed. Reflecting on the life of Christ, the Cardinal would say, “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.” To counter what he understood to be a “culture of death” pervading the fibers of society, at the root of which was a deep crisis of faith – a spiritual response was needed. This spirit of contempt for human life was a demon that could “only be cast out by prayer and fasting.” (cf. Mk 9:29)
An idea began to slowly percolate in the Cardinal’s mind and heart. After years of prayer, he penned an unadorned headline in a local Catholic New York paper: “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life.” He proceeded to describe his vision for a religious community of women who would give them themselves fully to the protection and enhancement of the sacredness of every human life, beginning with the most vulnerable.