The Catholic Thing
The Making of Cardinal O’Brien Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The most exclusive club in the world is the Sacred College of Cardinals. Out of 1.1 billion Roman Catholics worldwide, only 193 men wear the red cardinal’s biretta. Of the twenty-two more who will be elevated to the cardinalate at the papal consistory in Rome in February, there are only two Americans. Both have roots in my hometown, New York.

Timothy Michael Dolan, the tenth Archbishop of New York, was no surprise. For what is, arguably, the most important see in the nation, the rank has historically gone with the territory.

It’s interesting, however, that he is receiving the red hat some months before Archbishop Emeritus Edward Cardinal Egan turns 80. I can only conclude that the pope was eager to reward Dolan for quickly establishing himself as the voice of the Church in America. 

The other New Yorker being elevated is a man I have had the privilege of calling a friend for thirty years – Bronx-born Edwin Frederick O’Brien, Pro-Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem.

Both men know that to be a member of the College of Cardinals means more than assisting and advising the pope. It even means more then serving as an elector at a conclave to choose a successor to the throne of St. Peter. To be a cardinal really means that one is willing to be among the foremost defenders of the Catholic faith – no matter the cost.

The word “cardinal” comes from the Latin cardo or “hinge” which means a pivotal or critical point. Hence, the body of the Roman Catholic Church relies on cardinals to lead them against secular enemies attempting to destroy its spiritual foundations.

A cardinal is permitted to wear a special red cassock and to print his coat of arms in crimson because he is expected, if necessary, to shed his blood for Holy Mother Church. A cardinal must be prepared at all times to be a martyr.

Cardinal-designate Edwin O’Brien was born in the Bronx in 1939 and attended Our Lady of Solace parish school on Morris Park Avenue. (He goes back to that church every year to confirm children.) Ordained a priest by Francis Cardinal Spellman at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1965, his first assignment was as a curate at Most Holy Trinity Church located on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Realizing that he was marrying young graduates “in June and burying them a year later because they were shipped to Vietnam,” O’Brien became an Army chaplain to better serve our troops. Attached to an airborne brigade, he parachuted into the jungles of Vietnam to attend to the spiritual needs of men in combat.

        Cardinal-designate Edwin F. O’Brien

I first met Father O’Brien in 1981 shortly after he was named Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of New York. We battled New York’s City Hall and Board of Education over various public policy decisions that the Church held were ill-advised.

O’Brien went on to become secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke and he helped care for the archbishop as he was dying of cancer in 1983. When President and Mrs. Reagan called on the ailing Cooke at the Madison Avenue residence on September 25, 1983, eleven days before his death, Father O’Brien was one of the greeters who accompanied the first couple during their visit.

Msgr. O’Brien later served as secretary to John Cardinal O’Connor, and then went on to be Rector of New York’s St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers and of the North American College in Rome where he proved to be an able administrator and devoted spiritual advisor to seminarians and young priests – as well as an institutional reformer.

O’Brien and I have stayed in touch over the years and when he was consecrated an auxiliary bishop at St. Patrick’s in 1996, I was pleased to represent the governor of New York at the ceremony in my capacity as Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

One year later, the Army veteran was named the Ordinary of the U.S. Military Archdiocese which is responsible for the spiritual needs of 1.4 million Catholics in the armed services. The Archbishop spent the next ten years traveling to military bases throughout the nation and the world. I would receive his monthly schedule and I can assure readers it was always grueling. He was constantly on the go confirming children at bases in the United States and overseas. He also ministered the sacraments to our troops in harm’s way. He did not fear delivering Christ’s message in war zones.

Which is perhaps why, in 2006, the Vatican asked him to lead a visitation to examine U.S. seminaries and other houses of priestly formation, a truly thankless task. He strongly recommended on the basis of that experience and leadership of two seminaries that homosexuals not be admitted as candidates for the priesthood.

When O’Brien became Archbishop of Baltimore in 2007, he made it clear to his flock and to the political class that abortion is the “greatest civil rights issue of our time.” He also took on Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, a baptized Catholic, by publicly criticizing the governor’s support of same-sex marriage.

Last fall, Pope Benedict XVI named Archbishop O’Brien to head up the 30,000 Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. I’m sure he received that appointment because of the time he spent in the Middle East as Military Archbishop. The Order is very active in that region and also helps support and preserve the Church’s most sacred sites in Jerusalem.

Edwin F. O’Brien, what a story:  from a kid who played stick ball on the streets of the Bronx to Prince of the Church. And one thing you can be certain of, Cardinal-designate O’Brien as well as his close friend Cardinal-designate Dolan, will, like their noble New York predecessors, be great defenders of the faith.

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen. His newest book is Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Mark Kirby, January 11, 2012
Archbishop Edwin O'Brien is an impressive man.
written by Alecto, January 11, 2012
Cardinal O'Brien is certainly deserving of this honor, but I cannot agree that Dolan is. Despite the author's complimentary description of Dolan, he has insulted and alienated many faithful Catholics who also happen to be faithful American citizens with his lobbying on behalf of law-breaking criminals. He even went so far as to make the outrageous statement that anyone who disagrees with wholesale amnesty for illegal aliens is a KKK sympathizer. For these types of intemperate comments, was he disciplined? No! He was rewarded. Good luck getting me into a den of iniquity otherwise known as a Catholic church after the constant abuse of the Catholic hierarchy led by Dolan. Good luck with those Mexicans, too, Dolan. I hear most of them leave within the first generation for more "flexible" Protestant denominations.

In addition, his actions prior the New York legislature's vote on gay marriage are suspect. He elected to attend a USCCB conference instead of visiting the state house in Albany to persuade legislators or attempt to prevent this perverted redefinition of marriage? And what words did he have for the Catholics in the legislature who voted in favor of passage? None. He assured them he wanted to keep the friendly "dialogue" going. What courage, that! He may fool Rome, but he doesn't fool the rest of us. He's a coward, plain and simple. Nothing in his actions or his positions demonstrate he possesses the kind of character which, when called upon, will defend the Faith to the death.
written by Jack Amadan, January 13, 2012

I feel your pain. But His Excellency's behaviour is par for the course in the NY Church. I suggest you read Rite of Sodomy by R. Engel for more on how the NY Archdiocese has a history of pulling the wool over Rome's eyes.

I don't think O'Brien can be lumped in here and I'm glad to see you didn't.
written by Idaho Joe, January 22, 2012
The Sees of the East Coast share much with the dying Metropolitan Sees of W. Europe. To wit, their prestige is based on hopes of the past. In the case of the US, they were never realised. Blame it on Americanism in the 19th Century and the Potomac flowing into the tiber in the 20th.
It will come as no surprise that Rome has put in charge of those prestigious dioceses men from the Midwest and not the East Coast. Only time will tell if the strategy will be successful. If not, New York may one day be a titular see going to an orthodox African bishop.
written by Mary Taylor, January 22, 2012
I agree, NY have been pulling the "pallium" over Rome's eyes for years. But, while a chuckling politician may be perfect, O'Brien is of a much higher caliber and obviously known to be too good. His appointment last Summer proves that even Rome is aware of this.
written by Michael Kelley, January 24, 2012
"pulling the "pallium" over Rome's eyes "

I have to remember that phrase. Maybe it's the money or the human element of the Church that causes her to look away from what happens on Madison Avenue. In any event, Dolan is probably the best shepherd NY has had since Cardinal Hayes. Unfortunately, that isn't saying much but you can't expect this environment to breed men like a Ratzinger.

I am happy to see O'Brien isn't forced into running an American diocese.
written by Mr. Jamesy Mac, February 08, 2012
Uniformed interlopers ALL questioning the wisdom of the Holy Father's (& his predecessors) shrewd judgement re his heretofore appointments while appointed to serve within the role of The Vicar of Christ here on earth (i.e. The Primary Shepherd of The Church is not as niave as you may think).
written by Elizabeth, June 30, 2013
Well I am aware of the trail of dirt Archbishop O'Brien left in Baltimore. particularly with families and youth. He hurt a great many people with his lack of pastoral ability, and there are families still suffering because of him.

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