In the life of each of us, if we are fortunate enough, there comes along an individual that we not only prize the privilege of knowing, working with and possessing their friendship, but also one we can respect and admire, and after whose work we can attempt to pattern our own, with the same dedication that person gave to their life's vocation.
One such individual was John A. O'Connor, who died Oct. 23, 2005, from heart complications in Sequim, Wash.
When one examines the history of the American Catholic diocesan press it is immediately apparent that precious few laymen like O'Connor were not only entrusted with an editorship, but distinguished themselves as journalists willing to speak truth with courage and dignity to ecclesiastical power.
As the prominent American Catholic historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis once observed: "Can bishops or pastors hope to be in any way au courant with the Church in this hour in time if they turn a deaf ear to what O'Connor says so sincerely, so forcefully, yes, at times so angrily? In other words, if they are to fulfill adequately their apostolate, can they afford not to know what one of the best informed Catholic laymen of this age articulates so clearly for all of us?"
Along with laymen such as Robert Hoyt, editor of the Kansas City, Mo., Catholic Reporter and founding editor of the National Catholic Reporter, O'Connor came, both in his writing and in editing the news of the Church, to play a vital role in laying the ground work for a spiritual renewal and evaluation of Church practices prior to Vatican II.
Working for The Monitor in San Francisco from 1951 to 1965, O'Connor was named editor-in-chief in 1960. However, with the arrival of new conservative bishop Joseph McGucken, O'Connor in 1962 was quickly demoted to associate editor as the editorial reins were handed over to the diocese's assistant superintendent of schools so that, as McGucken told O'Connor at the time, someone from the chancery office could "watch over" the paper.
Two years later, after a host of staff resignations due to the San Francisco chancery office's oppressive editorial policy and the climate of the McGucken regime, O'Connor and his family moved to Wilmington, Del., at the invitation of Bishop Michael Hyle to start and edit an independent diocesan weekly, the Delmarva Dialog.
However, two years later, after being voted a new contract by the paper's board of directors, the board was rapidly disbanded and reconstituted by Hyle, leading to O'Connor's resignation.
In 1968 he edited American Catholic Exodus (published only in England by Herder and Herder) in which nine Catholics (including this writer) and Protestant theologian Robert McAfee Brown examined the turbulence and the subsequent consequences on the ultraconservatives within the American Church set off by the flinging open of the Church's windows to the modern world and Pope John XXIII's aggiornamento.
As O'Connor noted in his introduction, "I think the character of the present action is not so much that people are leaving the Church, but that they are taking the Church with them. They feel they are the Church. What they are leaving behind, for the most part, are old forms, old structures, some old ideas and prejudices and postures, and sad to say, some old men in moldy miters. Church leadership, they feel, has been crushingly disappointing."
In addition to numerous articles in a variety of religious and lay publications, O'Connor authored The People Versus Rome and The Pain of Renewal. Writing about O'Connor at the time, Hoyt noted that "O'Connor has the right skills and background for the job.
"He is a reporter-columnist-editor who has been fighting for a long time for professionalism in religious journalism. He has both witnessed and taken part in the movements he writes about and describes. He knows most of the key figures in the American church, in the 'underground' as well as the establishment. And he bears the scars enough to know the conflict within the Church is serious."
Born in Carroll, Iowa, during the roaring '20s, O'Connor migrated with his family to Southern California. After serving as a much decorated member in the 483rd Bomb Group of the Army Air Corp, stationed in Europe during World War II, he attended the University of Notre Dame, where he graduated in 1948 magna cum laude, with a journalism degree; he later earned a Masters Degree from Stanford University. In 1959 he was named Notre Dame's Man of the Year for his influence and moral leadership.
A consummate athlete, O'Connor played football under Frank Leahy at Notre Dame, and also competed in AAU wrestling well into his 40s.
After college he taught journalism at the Jesuit University of San Francisco before becoming one of only two lay editors of Catholic publications in the US. He was later elected vice president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada.
After leaving the Delmarva Dialog he received the National Journalist Award for content and editorials and wrote on a variety of subjects for various national publications, and was featured in Newsweek and Sports Illustrated articles in addition to appearing on The Today Show, Meet the Press and NPR.
An editorialist for The Philadelphia Daily News, he was recruited by CBS Television in Philadelphia as Director of Editorials where he was honored for his outstanding work by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. O'Connor later retired to the Pacific Northwest with his wife, where he wrote articles and lectured at universities.
He is survived by his beloved wife, Sara Lee Anderson O'Connor, and their four children, Paul, Chris, Mike and Shauna. A memorial mass was celebrated for O'Connor at Old St. Mary's Church in San Francisco on Dec. 11.
To his family and colleagues, O'Connor was a man of incomparable intelligence, honesty and writing skills, possessing a keen sense of humor, a love of life, a thirst for knowledge and an ability to frame all such attributes within a deep and abiding Christian faith.
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner. Email email@example.com; Web site www.electricarrow.com/CARP/.