Graciousness is the virtue that counts human dignity to be infinitely more important than the more conspicuous features of talent, status, or reputation.
Human beings are equal in dignity, but unequal in talent, status, and reputation. Because the marks of inequality are more conspicuous than dignity, which is a spiritual quality, they often determine and dominate human relationships. Birds of a feather, or men of the same stripe, tend to congregate exclusively. Some ballplayers who define themselves in terms of their batting average will not dine with colleagues who hit below .300. In some circles, it is an unequivocal sign of success that a businessman is not obligated to return his phone calls.
Who is the greatest?
Graciousness is the virtue that counts human dignity to be infinitely more important than the more conspicuous features of talent, status, or reputation. The supreme example of graciousness is Christ, who not only answers prayers, but also makes house calls. He shares His life with us as the center of the Mystical Body. And He invites us to share in that life, not in virtue of what distinguishes us, but in virtue of what unites us — our common humanity.
Placing the marks of distinction above the dignity of one’s humanity, commonplace as it is, can be vain and unattractive. The secular world, having lost sight of human dignity, is sycophantically disposed to laud what elevates the individual. A certain hockey player is ceremoniously called The Great One ”for no other reason than his prolific ability to score points on the ice. A particular boxer proclaims, “I am the Greatest,” merely because of his pugilistic prowess in the ring.
A friend of mine, who is a registered nurse in Connecticut, was involved in organizing a pro-life conference. “If we had a big name,” she said to her coworkers, “we’ll draw more people.” And so, with little appreciation for protocol or practicality, she called Cardinal O’Connor’s office and invited His Eminence to be a guest speaker. An office secretary assured her that the invitation would be passed on to New York City’s very busy archbishop.
Several days passed. One evening, when my friend was spending a leisurely evening at home, the phone rang. “Hello, is this Mary Smith? This is Cardinal O’Connor.” My friend leapt to her feet and her mind sprang to attention. “It really is him,” she thought to herself. “Thank you for inviting me to speak at your pro-life conference, but it seems that I have another engagement that day.” She could hear the pages of his schedule book fluttering as he turned to the date in question. He seemed apologetic about having to speak at the United Nations that day and therefore would not be able to accept Mary’s invitation. “But,” he added, “I want you to know that what you are doing is very important and that I will pray for the success of your conference.” The conference was a success, though my friend still can’t get over her own chutzpah.
Living for others
The first time I encountered Cardinal O’Connor was in Washington, DC, at a pro-life conference in 1985. He had just returned from Rome and was holding his newly acquired red hat in his hands. “Put it on,” people clamored. His modest retort: “It doesn’t fit.”
Eight years later, after I spoke at Dunwoodie Seminary in Yonkers, New York, an aide informed me that “The Cardinal wants to see you.” “What would I say to him?” I thought to myself. To establish a common bond at the outset, I mentioned a friend of mine who came all the way from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to New York City hoping to join his newly created religious order, the Sisters of Life. To my astonishment, the Cardinal remembered her name and even the details of her situation. I was in the presence of graciousness personified.
As Archbishop of New York, Cardinal O’Connor launched several programs for people with AIDS, inaugurated annual celebrations for people with disabilities, promoted workers’ causes, and formed three religious orders. He deemed his military pension more than enough to live on and therefore refused any salary or stipends as archbishop. In 1988, he donated all his Social Security earnings for the rest of his life to a scholarship fund he started for African-American students.
Not pulling rank
He lived by the simple maxim, as he once told an interviewer, that “the disciple cannot be greater than the master.” Christ said to all His future followers: “As the world has hated me, so the world will hate you.” “If there is any meaning at all to the fact that a bishop is an apostle of Christ,” he explained, it is in these words.
Surely John O’Connor was a man with many titles. In addition to “priest,” “archbishop,” and “cardinal,” he earned several academic degrees, including a doctorate in political science from Georgetown University and, after 27 years as a military chaplain, retired as “Navy chief of chaplains” with the rank of rear admiral.
But he will be remembered most of all for his graciousness. He submerged his titles so that they would never interfere with his common touch. He was a human among humans. None of us should aspire to be anything more than that.