While recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumor earlier this month, Cardinal John O’Connor composed his annual New Year’s letter to his many friends in the New York Jewish community.
In fact, the 79-year-old leader of New York City Catholics has been sending heartfelt holiday greetings twice a year (on Rosh HaShanah and Passover) to Jewish leaders for at least 10 years.
Last Passover, for instance, the head of the Archdiocese of New York praised Jews for their steadfast faith. He also confided that he was "ashamed" of the pain inflicted on Jews by his "co-religionists."
So his latest missive, dated Sept. 8, at first garnered little public attention, seemingly following in the footsteps of Cardinal O’Connor’s previous candid remarks.
"I ask this Yom Kippur that you understand my own abject sorrow for any member of the Catholic Church, high or low, including myself who may have harmed you or your forebears in any way," he wrote.
Days went by with little reaction.But the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel was struck by Cardinal O’Connor’s sincere expression of personal sorrow over the tortured history of Jewish-Catholic relations. He shared the letter with World Bank president James Wolfensohn and Victor Barnett, chairman of Burberry.
Wiesel believed that Cardinal O’Connor’s remarks went further than any other Church officer, including Pope John Paul II, and deserved a wide audience.
"He went far in speaking in that he asks for forgiveness," Wiesel told reporters. "He goes further than the official line of the Church and this takes courage. For a prince of the Church to say the things he does, it’s very strong."
The trio decided to publish the archbishop’s four-paragraph letter as a full-page ad in The New York Times on Sunday, which prompted other newspaper stories.
The initiative took the 79-year-old Cardinal O’Connor by surprise, said spokesman Joseph Zwilling.
Zwilling, who said Cardinal O’Connor was unable to be interviewed for health reasons, said the cardinal "has not expressed to me that he realized" he had hit an emotional chord.
Zwilling said the letter is in keeping with the spirit of the Pope John Paul II’s statements on the Holocaust and Jewish-Catholic relations.
Eugene Fisher, head of Jewish-Catholic relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, also said there was nothing new here.
He told the Associated Press that Cardinal O’Connor has taken what has been said before by Catholic leaders but put it in a way Jews can understand. "It’s not a new statement," he said.
But Jewish leaders insist Cardinal O’Connor’s letter is groundbreaking, citing the personal and straightforward language, the scope of those for whom he seeks forgiveness, and the timing: the High Holy Days and Cardinal O’Connor’s illness.
"This is historic for the archbishop to publicly ask for forgiveness, not just for what he did, but for anyone in the Church, not just in his lifetime but for the history of the Catholic Church," said Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
While he called Cardinal O’Connor’s language specific and direct, he noted Pope John Paul II’s March 1998 statement, a foreword to the Vatican’s historic official statement on the Shoah, was more "nuanced and weighed."
In that letter, the Pope said the Church "encourages her sons and daughters to purify their hearts, through repentance of past errors and infidelities. She calls on them to place themselves humbly before the Lord and examine themselves on the responsibility which they too have for the evils of our time."
Said Rabbi Rudin: "John Paul talks about responsibility. O’Connor has taken it a little further than even the Pope by not just talking about responsibility, but who is responsible."
Other observers said that Cardinal O’Connor’s asking for forgiveness for any Church member "high or low" could very well refer to the new controversy involving World War II-era Pope Pius XII.
A new book released this week accuses the wartime pope of being an anti-Semite and aiding Hitler. The Vatican is seeking to make Pius XII a saint, over strenuous Jewish objections.
"I think he’s going out of his way to say that Pius XII morally failed," said one Jewish group leader who asked not to be identified. "I believe he genuinely wants to protect the historical truth relating to the Shoah."
Father Guy Massie, ecumenical and interfaith chairman for the Diocese of Brooklyn, said Cardinal O’Connor’s letter has received an overwhelmingly positive response from clergy and parishioners.
"It’s a concern close to my heart that the Jewish people know they have friends in the Catholic community," said the priest, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In his letter Cardinal O’Connor reiterated his plan for a day of Catholic repentance on March 8, 2000, Ash Wednesday, as part of the Catholic celebration of its Jubilee year.
The day "has been specially set aside as a day for Catholics to reflect upon the pain inflicted on the Jewish people by many of our members over the last millennium," Cardinal O’Connor wrote. "We most sincerely want to start a new era."