Volume 74, Number 48 | April 06 - 12 , 2005


‘Goodbye, father to us all’: Koch on John Paul II

By Ed Koch 

At St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Roman Catholic Church on E. Seventh St. between First Ave. and Avenue A, a bust of Pope John Paul II was adorned with flowers and candles. Near the bust, an American flag flew at half-mast.
Regardless of one’s own religious tradition, Pope John Paul II was the world’s preeminent religious leader.

It is also fair to say that the preeminent religious leader in New York City is the cardinal archbishop of New York, whomever he may be. Going back to the 1950s that would include Francis Cardinal Spellman, who was seen as a great source of political power in the city; Terence Cardinal Cooke, who was genuinely liked and respected by everyone who knew him and seen as a great source of spiritual power; John Cardinal O’Connor, who was truly loved and respected by most who knew him and seen as a great source of spiritual and political power — I loved him — and to this day, I keep his Mass card on my desk; and Edward Cardinal Egan, respected and admired.

All of these cardinals are perceived as very conservative in their views. They dominated the religious environment of this city during their days as cardinal archbishop. Their views on contraception, abstinence, abortion and gay rights are the conservative traditional views of the Catholic Church and sometimes in conflict with those who are members of other religious traditions, as well as some Catholics who reject some of their religion’s traditional values.

However, notwithstanding the rejection of some fundamental beliefs, there are very few who don’t perceive these princes of the church as the leaders of this city, in matters religious towering in perceived power over the leaders of other faiths. When they enter a room, where they stand becomes the center of that room. John Cardinal O’Connor’s impact on me was special. We were not only close friends, we wrote a book together entitled, “His Eminence and Hizzoner.” I recall saying to him at one of the half-dozen dinners we had each year, “Your Eminence, there are lots of people who really don’t understand your positions on a host of matters and think you are too harsh instead of the compassionate person I know you to be.”

His response: “Ed, tell those people when you explain my positions that those positions are 180 degrees diametrically opposed to yours.” And he laughed, and we continued our discussion.

I won’t ever forget Terence Cardinal Cooke at a ceremony opening the then closed cathedral’s central doors on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the cathedral — built at Fifth Ave. and 50th St. (when that area was considered part of the suburbs) by Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, who was called that because his signature looked like a dagger. He is remembered as saying to the city authorities, “If you permit the cathedral,” then under threat of being attacked, “to be set afire by the mobs, I warn you, no other building in the city will survive,” or words with the same meaning. The cathedral, needless to say, was not touched by the mobs.

As the magnificent doors opened and we looked out onto Fifth Ave., Cardinal Cooke said, “Mayor Ed,” — for whatever reason, he never called me simply Ed — “this cathedral is yours.” He meant it in the sense that St. Patrick’s Cathedral belongs to every New Yorker and the mayor represents all New Yorkers. When David Dinkins was inaugurated on Jan. 1, 1990, at City Hall, I sat with Cardinal O’Connor. It was a bitter cold day. To help stay warm, we were discussing past and current events, and I told him that the day before I had been asked to participate that evening at a celebration at St. John the Divine to welcome the leaders of the Captive Nations to New York City. Eastern Europe was being set free with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I replied to the woman inviting me that they should not invite me, but should invite David Dinkins, the newly elected mayor. I was never supported by their minister, Bishop Paul Moore; the parishioners of St. John’s had not supported me over the years of my mayoralty; indeed they found me not sufficiently radical left and had generally criticized me.

“No,” she said, “we want you.”

I thought O.K., I’ll go and go I did. I had prepared one line, a refrain, which I thought would bring these heretofore captive leaders and the audience to their feet. It was: “Communism failed and God prevailed.”

I proclaimed that mighty, weighty statement and there wasn’t even a jot of applause. I was shocked, and said so the following day to John Cardinal O’Connor. His response was, “Why should you be surprised? God hasn’t been mentioned in that cathedral for years.”

Of course, he said it jocularly as was evidenced by his smile.

All of this brings me to His Holiness Pope John Paul II.

I first met Pope John Paul II when he came to New York City in 1979. I met him at Kennedy Airport in a pouring torrential rainstorm. As he stepped out of the plane — I swear to you this is the unvarnished truth — the rain stopped and a cop standing behind Police Commissioner Robert McGuire and me yelled out, “That’s the kind of guy you want to make a golf date with.”

When he came down the steps and greeted me with, “Mr. Mayor, I shall try to be a good citizen all the time I’m in New York,” I said, “Your Holiness, you are the number one citizen of the world.”

On another visit, that time to the Vatican, I recalled when I met him at an audience arranged by John Cardinal O’Connor with only the two of us in the room, sitting at his desk, and I urged that he open Vatican diplomatic relations with Israel. He replied, “We have to be concerned with the Koranic reaction” — referring to Arab retaliation — “but it will happen.”

I replied, “You are held in such high regard, there would be none.”

Then wearily he said, “Enough,” which sounded like, “enough, already.” I then took out the crucifixes and rosaries I had purchased for friends at City Hall and asked him to bless them, and he did.

Pope John Paul II was a friend of the Jews, referring to them as the “elder brothers” of Christianity. He visited a synagogue in Rome, the first time ever for a pope. He visited the Western Wall and placed in a crevice a letter to God in the tradition of Jews. He ordered diplomatic ties with and recognition of the state of Israel. And he apologized and asked forgiveness for the failure of Christians to help in any large numbers to save Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis.

My last story concerning the pope is that in 1979, when Cardinal Cooke told me he was coming to New York, I asked if I could ride with His Holiness in his car here in the city. The cardinal said he would inquire. Shortly thereafter, he called me to say, “No politicians on any of the pope’s trips in any city are permitted to ride in the pope’s car.”

I said I could understand that, but would he please tell the pope that when he looked out to the East River and saw a police launch, I was in it. When he saw a car next to his on the highway, it was mine. And, when there was a helicopter overhead, I was in it. The cardinal laughed and said, “Good. I’ll tell him.”

I loved and respected Pope John Paul II. The young people of the world had it right when they called out to him in every country, “John Paul II, we love you.” Those youngsters were blessed when he replied, “John Paul II, he loves you.” The world loved him for his holiness and closeness to God, as well they should.

Goodbye, father to us all.

Koch was the 105th mayor of New York City, serving from 1978-1989.

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