Cardinal O'Connor's Homily

Praise of Police

They do the tough job of protecting lives in a 'culture of death,' cardinal says at Mass

This is the text of Cardinal O'Connor's homily at Sunday Mass for the Holy Name Society of the New York Police Department in St. Patrick's Cathedral March 29.


There are two reasons why I am not celebrating this Mass. One, I hate to see a grown man cry. Our vicar general, Bishop Patrick Sheridan, always tells me that from the day he was born he wanted to be a police officer "and at least I should be the principal celebrant of this Mass." He has been crying year after year so I gave in. There is a second reason, if you will forgive me and if I start hacking during these words. Those of you who served as I did in Vietnam will recall a mysterious illness which bore the inelegant name "the crud," a kind of a combination of the flu and pneumonia with a fever to go with it. So, afflicted with such, I thought it better simply to have this homily and ask the bishop to celebrate the Mass.

I am grateful to all of you for being here, grateful to Msgr. Joseph Zammit, Police Chaplain, although I have a face card which very specifically says that John Cardinal O'Connor is the chaplain of the Police Department. We welcome Commissioner Patrick Kelleher and Chief Patrick Brennan. Bishop Sheridan has already been kind enough to mention your son who underwent brain surgery. I will offer a special Mass for him. Also with us is Mr. Lee Rousson, who will be the speaker at the Communion breakfast that I will not be privileged to attend.

After the Mass, I will meet with Mr. and Mrs. Peter Seaver. You might remember them in this Mass because a few years ago they lost a son. I will also meet with the St. Eugene's parish altar servers and their families who are here.

Before getting to the Gospel or to the affairs of the Police Department, a lady handed us a letter immediately before this Mass. It is such a touching letter that will warm your heart. She asked that I read it and I am happy to do so.

"Dear Cardinal O'Connor,

"I wanted to thank you for this wonderful opportunity for our son Robert Vlad to serve with you today. Our son Robert is going to be the book bearer. Robert has been in God's hands since the day he was born. You see, Robert was born with a birth defect that left him blind in his left eye and partially sighted in his right eye. He has four major problems in his one good eye. He has amazed us totally and he has struggled willingly in school all these years. He has to tilt his head to the side and lean over his schoolwork causing him to be only two or three inches from his book or paper in order to see.

"God has carried 'Bobby,' as we call him, to this point in his life happy and healthy. We are very grateful for all of his ability and that he was spared some sight. He is a very happy boy and has only pleased us since the day he was born...

"God gives us our eyes. In Salesian High School Bobby has continued to surprise us. He has ranked number two in this year's freshman class and this was a surprise to him also. Bobby is proud to be here with you today and proud to continue to be an altar boy for St. Eugene's. Thank you so much for this wonderful continuation of the serendipity in our lives with our son Robert. Thank you sincerely. The Robert Vlad Family."

This is a very touching letter that makes all of us feel immensely proud and grateful. I think we should ask the Vlad family and Bobby if they would stand. You truly have reason to be proud!

I would like to thank Commissioner Kelleher in a special way. I owe so much to police officers. But this year I am able to thank you in a special way for the police officer, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, who stands on the corner right outside the front door of my residence and protects me from jaywalkers. In "The Pirates of Penzance" Gilbert and Sullivan said, "A policeman's lot is not a happy one."

Seriously, we are particularly grateful for the protection given to this magnificent cathedral. Its protection is, unfortunately, critically needed. We have some 17,000 people or more per day coming to this cathedral. Ash Wednesday we had 50,000 people come to receive ashes. You never know what is going to happen here.

I usually celebrate the 7:30 Mass each morning in the cathedral. I come down to where those gates are open to give Communion to anyone who comes up. A number of years ago a huge man came up, a veritable giant, stood in front of me with his hands hanging at his side and his eyes literally rolling. I knew he had to be on drugs, so I reached out and patted him on his shoulder and gently turned him around and sent him back down the aisle. He could have bitten my head off, but the man went peacefully.

That night I was coming back from a wake with our vicar general. We came to the front door of the cathedral and we saw huge numbers of police officers. I asked what was going on. They said, "Go in and see." Here was this poor man, the same man, who had come back into the cathedral and terrorized a lot of people who ran out. With his mighty strength he had pulled a lectern right out of the concrete floor and bashed an usher to death right inside the sanctuary. A policeman came and the man bashed him almost to death. Another policeman came in the front door and told him to stop. He did not stop so the policeman fired and killed the man. This was very difficult on the young policeman. I talked to the policeman afterward and reminded him that he was doing his job to protect a lot of people. That is the kind of thing the police officers do almost routinely here, and many do not know it. We are always grateful for that kind of thing. The next morning I had to go through the ceremony of purifying the cathedral.

Today's Gospel is one of the most beautiful and poignant of all Gospels. [Jn. 8:1-11] St. Augustine says that there were two forces at work--"miseria," which in Latin is misery, and "misericordia," which is mercy. The scene was a setup of course. They were trying to trap Christ. Christ was supposed to be merciful and yet He was supposed to obey the law. What was the law? That the woman should be stoned to death. It was a very harsh law, but that was it.

Throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament adultery is considered a very grave sin. But really they were not interested in the woman's offense. They were interested in trying to trap Christ. And Christ would not be trapped. What did he say? To the accusers Christ said, "Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone." So they all had to go away, we are told, from the oldest to the youngest. Then he said to the woman, "Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. So go and sin no more."

The Gospel is a poignant story of a woman taken in sin. But it is much more than that. We do not want to oversimplify it. Why adultery was considered in the Old Testament and in the time of Christ such a heinous crime was that it was symbolic of many other things. It is fascinating that in the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God, the Fifth Commandment is Thou shalt not steal, the Sixth Commandment, Thou shalt not commit adultery and the Seventh Commandment, Thou shalt not kill. In other words, adultery is deliberately put between theft and murder because that is the way it was perceived, someone was stealing another individual's spouse. In a true marriage the husband belongs exclusively to the wife and the wife exclusively to the husband, so adultery was theft. Adultery was considered to be a form of murder because it could destroy a marriage. A man was actually supposed to dismiss his wife if she was guilty of adultery. Remember when Joseph saw that Mary was pregnant? We are told that "he was minded to put her away." That was the law. Mary could have been stoned because she was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, as was later revealed to Joseph.

Further, adultery was a symbol of the occasions on which the Israelites would divorce themselves from God. They would build a golden calf in the desert and idolize it, and in this sense divorce themselves from God. This divorce between God and his chosen people they considered to be symbolized by abortion. Corruption in general was symbolized by divorce. Disloyalty, betrayal, a loss of integrity, a loss of holiness. This is why this story is so very important far beyond the illustration of Christ's mercy to a woman in misery.

Sadly, we so frequently today have a flagrant flaunting of God's law by many famous people, television and movie stars who go through one husband after another and publicly talk about their various dalliances, about the children they have without benefit of getting married, and so on. What does that do to our culture? The President of the United States purportedly said, at least I think it is what I heard on the radio, that now we have to try to study why kids such as the 13-year-old and the 11-year-old in Jonesboro, Ark., would commit the killings that they committed. I do not want to disrespect the proposal of the President of the United States, but I do not think we have to go very far to find the answer because our whole culture contributes to this.

Look at the example of violence in movies and in television. The police have to put up with this. Look at the huge number of handguns floating around. These kids were taught to use guns from the time they were little kids, maybe at the time licitly for hunting purposes. But when you see what you see and you see the contempt for human life what should we expect? Our laws not only permit a woman to put a baby to death but pay to put a baby to death. Now we have so-called "partial-birth abortion" where the baby is practically out of the mother's womb with only the head inside. The doctor has to hold the head in place to keep the baby from slipping to the floor because if then the baby is killed it would be murder. But as long as the head is still partially in the womb it is "partial-birth abortion," and it is permitted by the law of the land. Kids grow up with this kind of thing. Sen. Daniel Moynihan got it right when he said, "We have defined deviancy downward."

I would like to read something that a famous author, John Cogley, had to say in "Natural Law and Modern Society."

"The basic problem, it would appear, is not that we often behave badly but that we may be losing our sense of ethics; the American consensus about what is good and bad, what is to be done and what avoided, may be breaking down. We often mean well enough but we do not quite know what we mean. We want to do the right thing but we do not know what is right. We muddle along, making uncertain choices, and finally when the uncertainty becomes pervasive, aimlessness sets in."

There is so much wonderful good. There are so many wonderful people, overwhelmingly more wonderful people than those who aren't. But there is so much aimlessness in our society. The culture eats into us, it is a cancer in our very beings. This is the culture within which police officers are asked to do their job. They do not create the culture. They are asked to keep order. They are asked to protect lives in what Pope John Paul II has called "a culture of death." That is a very tough job.

Consequently, I get disgusted with the one-sided screams of police brutality before there is any investigation or any hearing. The press may be filled with charges of police brutality because this person has said so, or that person has said so. That is a terrible thing that we ask of our police. Of course there are instances of police brutality, tragically, but given some 37,000 or more police officers that we have, it is outrageous to think that it is endemic in the Police Department.

There is a parish in "Fort Apache," in the Bronx. Within one year, within the confines of that tiny little parish of St. Simon Stock, there were 65 murders, many, of course, drug related. What are the police going to do? A man, allegedly a drug pusher in Washington Heights and allegedly about to shoot a police officer, was instead shot by a police officer. Unfortunately I said some things that hurt the police officer. I said them in part to try to help restrain riots. But we have to be very careful, extremely careful about that. From this perspective, I think, today's Gospel has a very special meaning and application. We have to listen to the words of our Lord, "Let the one who is without sin amongst you cast the first stone" at police officers.

There was a marvelous article in the Op-Ed page of The Daily News back in 1997. I will read just portions of this article by a police officer named George Mole, a police sergeant, at least he was at that time.

"I still remember why I became a cop: I wanted to walk down a dark street and make everyone feel safe. I wanted to see the kids crowd around, and the girls smile, and the hoodlums slink off the corners, and the old people unlock their doors and come outside on a summer night. All because I was there.

"Every good cop starts with that enthusiasm, that heroic vision of police work--but it's not always easy to hold on to. The maddening bureaucracy of the job, the lack of support from the public and courts and politicians, and the distorted view of the police often presented by the media can disillusion the most idealistic cop.

"And the great, tragic scandals that at long intervals roil the department--like the ongoing horror at Brooklyn's 70th Precinct--can shake a cop's sense of pride, the confidence of being respected by law-abiding people.

"But I have worn an NYPD shield for seven years, and every day makes me more, not less, proud to be a New York City police officer. Because every day I see my co-workers doing the world's hardest job with skill and humor and extraordinary grace...

"Here's what I have seen:

"Cops of all races and both sexes work together with a mutual respect and affection that should be an example for the rest of society. Cops know that the ethnicity of the person who's watching your back in a dark alleyway or on some desolate rooftop is quite unimportant.

"Cops will go out of their way to talk to or play with or comfort a child. Perhaps thinking of their children, they try constantly to counter the negative influence, the lack of love and guidance, that many of our city's kids experience.

"Cops will almost always, even at the risk of their own safety, try to resolve a situation with words instead of force. 'Let's talk about it...' or 'Try to calm down, pal...' are always preferred to a stick or a gun.

"And sometimes, while they're doing their jobs, they die. Unexpectedly, violently, painfully.

"If cops ask for respect, or the benefit of the doubt, when they take action, that request has been paid for, many times over, in blood...

"Guess what: Cops are people. They're subject to the same weaknesses, temptations and dark impulses as anyone else. But what's remarkable is not that, on rare occasions, they succumb to them but how rare those occasions are.

"So let's condemn the very few corrupt or brutal cops. I do. But then let's salute the rest of my 37,000 brothers and sisters in blue, who humble me with their patience and bravery, their incredible decency.

"Because right now, somewhere in the city--maybe even in the 7-0--a cop is handling some tense, potentially violent situation, keeping everything cool with cynical wisdom and a sense of humor, common sense and the right words.

"He or she wears the NYPD uniform, and so do I. Nothing could make me prouder."

Isn't that something! It is a marvelous, marvelous article. I would ask this. The Attorney General of the United States, Janet Reno, says, "The whole purpose of the law is to value human life." That is not unlike what Thomas Jefferson said, "The first and only legitimate object of good government is the care of human life and not its destruction." What you do you have to do with faith. You have tough jobs which all of us should respect. All of us have tough jobs. Raising a family is a tough job. But we have to do everything with faith and we run risks. Cardinal Newman says, "No one is a martyr for a conclusion, no one is a martyr for an opinion; it is faith that makes us martyrs."

I know that you are not supposed to be sociologists, psychologists and so on, but some of you are. But while you are neither judge nor jury, to the degree that it is within your authority, I would ask that you will always treat everyone--the innocent, the suspect, the guilty--with that mercy with which Jesus treated the woman taken in adultery. He didn't condone the crime, but he was merciful to the sinner and tried to give her a new chance at life. Where you can, where it is within your authority, I ask that you do the same.

Finally, Jacques Maritain, the great French writer and philosopher, has a remarkable statement that I think is very applicable here.

"It is easy to practice the law without being loving, and easy to love while scorning the law. But he who practices the law without loving does not practice the law because the first commandment is love [Love the Lord, thy God, with your whole heart, your soul, your whole body, your neighbor as yourself]. And he who loves while scorning the law does not love, because the law is the first will of him who loves us, and whom we love. The Christian gives up his life every day, he embraces both the law and love, which, joined together form the Cross." ["Art and Poetry," pp. 41-48]

We thank you. We love you. God bless you. I think everyone here would like to express appreciation to you.

Cardinal O'Connor's Homily, Cardinal O'Connor