John Cardinal O'Connor and Mayor Edward Koch turn out with...

John Cardinal O'Connor and Mayor Edward Koch turn out with thousands of others for the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade down Fifth Avenue in New York. The man in the center is unidentified. Credit: AP, 1989

I ATTENDED a dinner Saturday at the Waldorf Astoria celebrating Cardinal John O'Connor's 80th birthday. Fifteen hundred New Yorkers were there, applauding the cardinal, now recovering from his recent operation that removed a brain tumor.

At dinner's end, the final grace was given by Rabbi Ronald Sobel of Temple Emanuel. He began, "Be- loved Eminence," repeating this phrase many times. As I listened, I began to reflect on how appropriate the words were when applied to the cardinal. He is truly loved.

I am proud of what I accomplished for New York City during the 12 years I served as mayor, but I am particularly pleased that the cardinal and I were able to strengthen the bonds between Jews and Catholics.

The cardinal is also undoubtedly responsible for the Vatican's decision to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.

In 1989, at the cardinal's suggestion, we co-authored the book, "His Eminence and Hizzoner," in which we discussed our respective philosophies on controversial issues such as abortion, homosexuality and the relationship between church and state. After recently re-reading the book, I believe it has withstood the test of time.

I have only one revision to make. I wrote: "The difference between the cardinal and myself is that he is in the business of saving souls and I am in the business of saving lives." How ridiculous and sophomoric on my part. The cardinal has saved so many more lives than I ever did, along with saving their souls.

I am a proud Jew. Yet I think of the cardinal not only as my friend but as my spiritual leader, and sought his counsel many times.

One such incident occurred as I was reeling with enormous pain following the betrayal of city government by Donald Manes and Stanley Friedman, who had corrupted a city agency. Even though I had no part in their conduct, I was so overwhelmed with shame that I actually contemplated suicide.

As our book reports, the cardinal called me at Gracie Mansion and said: "Ed, I know that you are feeling terrible. I want you to know that you are in my prayers. I have full confidence in you as do the people of this city. They know that you are honest. I know that all of us are subject to being abused by those who work for us. I know what you are going through."

I said: "Thank you so much, Your Eminence. I cannot tell you how much your call means to me."

He said: "No, it is not important. I just wanted you to know that I am thinking of you."

I said: "It is very important. The Lubavitcher rebbe did not call me and tell me of his support."

I did note, however, that Rabbi Morris Sherer did call after he heard me tell this story.

Another incident occurred when Police Officer Steven McDonald was close to death after he was shot in Central Park. I called the cardinal from Bellevue Hospital, where Steven's family was assembled, praying for his recovery.

I was so overwhelmed by the tragedy that I broke down on the phone and asked the cardinal to come to the hospital, which he did immediately. I believe that the comfort the cardinal gave to the McDonald family and his prayers for Steven are the reasons why Steven survived. Thanks to the cardinal and his prayers, and Steven's indomitable will, Steven became an inspiration for the entire nation, remains on the police force (even though a quadriplegic) and continues to be a source of strength for police officers seriously injured in the line of duty.

There are few truly heroic figures in our lives. When they appear, they must be treasured. The names that thrust forward for me are Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Fiorello LaGuardia, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Anwar al-Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin and John O'Connor. I met the latter four individuals, but the only one I can truly call a personal friend is the cardinal.

The cardinal will soon leave office, but during his speech at the Waldorf he said that he does not look forward to retirement. There are many new challenges awaiting him in the years to come.

Even though the cardinal's days as the archbishop of New York may be numbered, I expect he will not retire from public service and will save many more lives and souls in the years to come.

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