A brutal snowstorm didn’t deter seventh-grader John Joseph O’Hara from his altar boy duties in the late 1950s.
Although school was closed because of blizzard-like conditions, John and nine of his peers were needed at his home parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ridgewood, N.J. to assist with back-to-back Funeral Masses.
“Five of us served the one funeral, while the other five shoveled,” Bishop O’Hara recently recalled. “The snow was coming down so hard—we were shoveling the steps and shoveling the walk, and then we reversed. The shovelers became the servers.”
To thank them, the altar boy moderator and priest invited the boys into the rectory dining room for lunch but had inadvertently failed to alert the Irish-born cook of the 10 hungry guests. “All I can remember was, pots and pans were slamming in the kitchen.” He also recalled telling his mother, “I think Father Hammel is in big trouble with Bridie” the cook. “It was not so much that she resented making the sandwiches but that no one told her.”
Serving at the altar during inclement weather and showing respect to the cook who later served him taught the future auxiliary bishop the importance of being available to the Church and attentive to those who work for it.
“I always had a love of the Church,” Bishop O’Hara said. “When I was a young boy growing up, there was always a sense that I might have a vocation to the priesthood, but I didn’t really feel I was at an age where I could make that kind of a decision.”
Eventually, he did. After working in the field of broadcast journalism for more than a decade, he studied for the priesthood at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, and in 1984, at age 38, was ordained a priest by then-Archbishop John J. O’Connor. It was the future cardinal’s first priestly ordination class as Archbishop of New York.
As director of the archdiocese’s Office of Strategic Pastoral Planning since its founding in July 2012, Bishop O’Hara, 68, has led the Making All Things New parish planning process as the primary part of his responsibilities. In that regard, Bishop O’Hara believes “we have to be on our knees more than we need to be at the desk.”
He currently resides and assists with Masses and confessions at St. Agnes parish on East 43nd Street in Manhattan.
He was pastor of St. Teresa’s parish, Staten Island, from 2000 to 2012, and was parochial vicar there for eight years previously. His first assignment was parochial vicar of St. Charles parish, Staten Island, 1984-1992.
A native of Jersey City, N.J., he attended Catholic elementary school in Ridgewood, staffed by the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, Convent Station, and Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., administered by Salesian priests and brothers. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., with a concentration in English.
Bishop O’Hara chose as his episcopal motto, “Jesus, I Trust in You.”
He has taken the words to heart throughout his three decades in the priesthood.
“I was stunned,” Bishop O’Hara recalled upon learning Pope Francis had appointed him an auxiliary bishop. “At the age of 68, one is not thinking of being an auxiliary bishop. I had always thought that I would go back to a parish because I love parish ministry. I’m still very much in the pews.
“I’m a parish priest,” he continued. “I took this responsibility in the Chancery [as director of strategic pastoral planning] because His Eminence asked me. As a priest, we do what the ordinary of the diocese asks us to do without any resistance. For a priest, the ordinary is Christ. It’s His voice. We’re here through the ordinary. Even if you don’t understand why you’re being asked, you say ‘yes’ because Christ has a plan for you.”
That was precisely what Bishop O’Hara replied when Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States, informed him of his appointment as auxiliary bishop.
That was a lesson John O’Hara and his classmates were taught their first week at St. Joseph’s Seminary by then-rector, Msgr. John Mescall.
Serving as a pastor has been “an extraordinary privilege,” Bishop O’Hara said. “A pastor listens and he learns from his people. Very often, his own ideas might be formed or changed because of what he hears” from his parishioners.
As an auxiliary bishop, “I’ll be a parish priest in yet another way,” he added.
While a student at Don Bosco Prep, “a wise old Salesian Father” gave him sage discernment advice: “‘A vocation to the priesthood or the religious life is not real unless you have to leave people, places and things that you love very much.’
“There’s a total detachment,” Bishop O’Hara said. “I took that seriously.”
In and after college, he thrived in the broadcasting field, but the call to the priesthood never went away.
“I was securely rooted and anchored in what I was doing, and the things I loved,” he said. “Everything was going in the right direction, but yet I felt there was something in my life that was missing, something more that I needed to do. But in order to do that, I had to walk away from a career, from security, from ever going back and walk into a new life at the age of 34, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
His 30 years as a priest have been “a wonderful ride,” although “not without bumps,” Bishop O’Hara conceded.
“It’s gone so very quickly, and there have been so many blessings that have come to me.”
When asked about his greatest priestly influence, “I could talk about ‘Father this one’ or ‘Sister that one,’ but it was my father,” Bishop O’Hara said of the late John J. O’Hara Sr.
“He was a Christian in the sense that it was not a mere matter of observance—it was something that was lived. A man of even temper, with a capacity for gentleness and kindness and fairness—he was just, and could be firm, but there was always that side like the father embracing the Prodigal Son, and I saw that in so many situations.”
The bishop’s mother, the late Helen Quinn O’Hara, was a homemaker, and also a devout Catholic. “We had a happy house,” Bishop O’Hara said.
He has two younger brothers, Terry and Michael. “They’re happy, of course,” that their big brother has been named an auxiliary bishop, “but this is sort of stunning news,” the bishop said.
“We’ve never had anything like this in our family before, and never thought we would.”