The Making of Cardinal O’Brien

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, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.