John Cardinal O’Connor was a man who liked to fix things, and since I had a broken relationship – with my mother – I went to see him.
My mother revered the cardinal, thought he stood for everything that was righteous and true about Catholicism, everything that had led her to convert from Judaism more than 50 years earlier.
I was a different matter. I had let my mother down, grievously. The youngest of eight children, I was her last, best hope for the priesthood. I had taken my altar-boy duties seriously; I tried in every way to believe as my parents believed, which was deeply. My father was also a Jewish convert, and you must believe me when I say that it would be hard to find a more zealous pair of Catholics than these two former Brooklyn Jews.
Not only did I not become a priest, but I became … a Jew. My mother thought this preposterous. To her, Judaism was an outmoded religion whose only contribution had been to preserve monotheism until Christ came along.
We fought, stewed, then stumbled into a prickly silence. That’s when I went to see the cardinal.
This was four years ago, and he was still strong. His desk was immaculate, his in-box empty. On his lapel he wore a small red-rose pin, the same pro-life symbol my mother favored. I told him about our dilemma. “I don’t mean to turn this into a shrink session or a confessional,” I said, “but how would you suggest that we go about resolving that conflict?”
He listened hard; you would have thought he was considering a matter far more momentous than one family’s theological dispute. “I think in two ways,” he finally answered. “First off, I would look at recent declarations of Pope John Paul II about the validity of Judaism. This has radically changed Jewish-Catholic dialogue. Radically.” His second point concerned “the primacy of an informed conscience” – that is, the Vatican’s belief that if someone has duly educated himself in the ways of the Church and the ways of another faith, and feels that God wants him to belong to that other faith, that is where he indeed belongs. The cardinal told me I should go to my mother and tell her “that this is where you think God wants you to be, an informed Jew.”
This was what the cardinal’s friends always said: For all his power and wit, what he loved more than anything was being a priest. Having eyes that see, ears that hear, and a tongue unafraid to deliver the verdict.
I told my mother about our conversation; she sent the cardinal a thank-you note. She also started talking to me differently. Little by little we built a peace – an odd and often delicate peace, but one that we were both grateful for, since her health was fading.
By the time she died, a few months ago, we had reconciled. We were not so much Catholic and Jew as mother and son, and for that I had John Cardinal O’Connor to thank. I wrote to tell him so and he wrote back, promptly as always, even though by now his own health was worsening.
At my mother’s wake, the parish priest, Father Connelly, approached me. “I’ve read all about you and your mother and the cardinal,” he said. “I thought maybe you’d like to recite the mourner’s Kaddish after the mass?”
The following day, at the grave site, Father Connelly distributed photocopies of the mourner’s Kaddish. It is known as the Jewish prayer for the dead but it is essentially an exaltation of God – quite like the Lord’s Prayer, in fact. And I suspect it may be spoken over the cardinal’s tomb as well in years to come.