‘Thy Will Be Done’

Just about everyone who knew him said that Terence Cooke was a saint.

Oh, they spoke about his other qualities, too: his patience, his optimism, his humility, his love of life and of the priesthood. But mostly they kept coming back to his saintliness.

“He’s not going to die because he is a saint,” said one of his closest friends while this Cardinal–Archbishop of New York was still alive. “God has some special work for him to do.”

One of the doctors who treated him during his final illness put it this way: “The most amazing thing to me was that the cardinal just had a saintly approach to everything in life.”

The laywoman who served as his secretary said she always thought he was a saint, and the Jewish man who had known him as a boy and remained a lifelong friend called him “the most godly and saintly person I ever met.”

Pope Paul VI, himself beatified just last month, appointing him an auxiliary bishop in 1965, cited “the true holiness of your life.”

New York Cab Driver

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Cardinal Cooke with Mother Teresa in 1980. CNS photo

And finally, that quintessential New Yorker, a cab driver, told the priest he dropped off at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Cardinal Cooke’s funeral, “You mark my words, Padre. That cardinal was a saint!”

Like that cab driver, Terence Cooke was a New Yorker through and through. Born (in 1921) in Manhattan, he moved to the Bronx as a boy with his parents, Michael and Margaret (Gannon), and his older brother and sister, Joseph and Katherine. His mother died of peritonitis when Terence was only nine, but aunts and uncles moved in to help Michael raise the family.

To no one’s surprise, Terence always talked about becoming a priest, and that was indeed the path he chose. After studies at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Dunwoodie section of Yonkers, he was ordained to the priesthood in December of 1945 by Archbishop Francis J. Spellman.

Spellman (in 1946 a cardinal) would have a mighty influence on Father Cooke. So would the priesthood itself, the subject of many ruminations and writings throughout his career — as a young CYO leader, as a tireless parish organizer, as a student at the Catholic University School of Social Work in Washington, D.C. (at which he demonstrated “unusual ability” and was described as “a natural” by an evaluator).

Catholic Charities

This background in social work would serve him in good stead later on, when he plunged into the work of Catholic Charities — a huge organization in the New York archdiocese that benefited from his expertise and familiarity with all the subjects at hand.

Young Father Cooke would go on to demonstrate “unusual ability” at whatever he did. No assignment would be too trivial, and certainly none was too challenging, for him to accept cheerfully, and in time he went on to become the monsignor, the chancellor, and, in December of 1965, an auxiliary bishop.

His appointment as a bishop would set the stage for his selection, three years later, as the Archbishop of New York to succeed the recently deceased Cardinal Spellman, who before his death had come more and more to rely on his auxiliary bishop for whatever needed to be done. And it was as archbishop that Cooke would have the most fateful years of his foreshortened life.

Perennial Optimism

His designation as archbishop literally stunned the young prelate. The late Auxiliary Bishop Patrick V. Ahern, a close friend, once recalled that Cooke cried and explained that he knew all too well the circumstances of the archdiocese — that finances were shaky, the priests were “jumpy,” and that people in general were in a surly frame of mind. It didn’t take long, though, for Cooke’s perennial optimism to shine through. The next morning, said Bishop Ahern, “he was happy. He had made his peace with the whole thing.”

The happiness would be tested soon enough. The day of his installation was the same day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and Archbishop Cooke spent that night walking the streets of Harlem. His first official function was to attend Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta.

In his initial visits to different sections of the archdiocese, people found in Terence Cooke the same gentle and personable man they had known for years. But he had been right; the mood of the clergy was restive. As it was explained in Thy Will Be Done, his spiritual biography (co-authored by Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., and Pastor Terrence L. Weber, a Lutheran minister), priests expected sweeping changes to be made in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

Gradual Approach to Change

The new archbishop was generally comfortable with change in and of itself, but he preferred a gradual approach — and endured a number of awkward and sometimes embarrassing moments as a result. Once at a 1970 meeting of the Senate of Priests a young priest condemned him for not moving swiftly enough on changes that were anticipated; on another occasion a priest declined to share the Sign of Peace with him. Cardinal Cooke bore such insults patiently; it was not his style to take on, publicly or privately, those who disagreed with him.

From the earliest days of his 15-year tenure as Archbishop of New York he immersed himself in his work: in health care, in housing, in communications (he established Catholic New York as the archdiocesan newspaper). Cardinal Cooke devoted himself to those who couldn’t always help themselves: the very young, the elderly, immigrants and the poor.

Gradually there would emerge from all of his activities four hallmarks of his episcopacy, and of his life: a vigorous identification with pro-life issues; an abiding concern for individual priests and for the priesthood itself; an oft-repeated plea for peace in the world, and, perhaps most heroic of all, the way he dealt with an incurable illness that would eventually take his life. Shortly after his death, the cause for his sanctity was already under way, one that promised to confirm the sentiments of those who knew him: Cardinal Cooke was indeed a saint.

Pro-Life In Every Sense

The Cardinal was pro-life in every sense of that phrase. He not only spoke out (and spoke out strongly) against abortion, but on behalf of all human life. In his final letter for Respect Life Month, written at a time when all New Yorkers finally knew that he himself was dying, the words he chose were especially moving and dramatic: “The gift of life, God’s special gift, is no less beautiful when it is accompanied by illness or weakness, hunger or poverty, mental or physical handicaps, loneliness or old age. Indeed, at these times, human life gains extra splendor as it requires our special care, concern and reverence.”

The letter stands as personal testimony to the deeply felt beliefs about human life that Cardinal Cooke exhibited throughout his lifetime.

Those beliefs were certainly reflected in his abiding concern for adequate health care, manifested especially in the number of facilities that were made available for the chronically ill. They are further reflected in his early concern for AIDS patients, and his interest in general in pastoral care for the homosexually-oriented. And it was certainly reflected in the abortion controversy and the wider issue of respect for human life. In that same final letter for Respect Life Month, he wrote: “From the depths of my being, I urge you to reject this anti-life, anti-child, anti-human view of life and to oppose with all your strength the deadly technologies of life-destruction which daily result in the planned death of the innocent and the helpless.”

Much More than a Catholic Issue

For 10 years Cardinal Cooke served as the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee on pro-life concerns, and in that capacity dealt frequently with the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision which, in effect, legalized abortion.

In January 1983, on the 10th anniversary of that deadly decision, he wrote:“Abortion is much more than a Catholic issue; it is a concern of millions of other Americans as well. Not only is it a matter of personal morality; it deals with the most fundamental of human and civil rights — the very right to life. When an abortion takes place, the life of an unborn human being is ended. The fact that society allows this, much less supports it by law and sometimes — as in New York State — even pays for it with public monies; is a serious obstacle to the safeguarding of human dignity and the rights of each and every individual.”

Perhaps no other bishop — as a matter of fact, no other single individual — is as well-known for his constant dedication to the pro-life cause. For that aspect of his priesthood alone, Cardinal Cooke set a towering example.

Servant. Victim. Brother. Listener. Friend.

These five words summed up the essence of the priesthood for Cardinal Cooke, and he kept coming back to those same five words at various stages of his own life — as a young priest, as an administrator, as a shepherd. In Thy Will Be Done (the cardinal’s episcopal motto as well as the title of the book), the authors describe how the theme keeps repeating itself, how insistently it occupied his thoughts.

“Each priest,” he wrote at a time when his own ordination was not far behind him, “is a rock on which many souls will rest. Each priest is a fisher of men, a shepherd of the flock, a laborer in the vineyard, a reaper in the fields.” He continued: “We must be at the side of God . . . Christ has chosen me to be with him until I die. This means close union with him and continual independence of the world. Wherever Christ needs me I will go.” This was how a young priest viewed his calling, and the vision stayed with him until the end.

Those Five Words

How did those five words relate to his view? As a servant, a priest gives up his own family so that he can serve others, the cardinal wrote at one point; as victim, he is ready to share in the suffering of his people. A priest embraces the role of brother, so he can share the worries and fears of those around him. He is also a listener, “to learn prayerfully from the ways in which God has worked in the lives of His people.” And finally, a priest is called to be a friend — to those who have few friends of their own in their hour of need. These are Cardinal Cooke’s own thoughts on the priesthood, deeply-held concepts that reflect his innermost feeling.

All of this helps to explain his profound sorrow as the exodus from the priesthood, which had begun following the Second Vatican Council, continued in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. The cardinal established the Office of Spiritual Development to help priests resolve a vocation crisis, and as much as he found the decision to leave personally incomprehensible, each priest who had so decided was treated fairly and with compassion. In addition, the cardinal showed great personal concern for the priest’s future welfare.

In short, the priesthood meant the world to Cardinal Cooke, in the midst of good times or bad. He regarded it that way as long as he lived.

Also in the news when he was named archbishop were two items that would affect Cooke deeply: the burgeoning civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam.

Civil Rights

The cardinal saw to it that the Church involved itself in civil rights primarily in four areas: through thoughtful staffing of black parishes and attention to the needs of black Catholics, frequent participation in Harlem activities, maintaining Catholic schools in predominantly black areas, and, in general, an appeal to fairness on the part of all Americans.

As his biography pointed out: “Cardinal Cooke was a man of conviction with a strong belief that most people will do the right thing if they can be brought to see what it is.”

At the time of his death, the cardinal was hailed for “knowing the streets of Harlem” and for “making a difference” thereby putting resources in poorer neighborhoods where they were most needed.

Just as he had gone to Harlem, Cardinal Cooke (as Military Vicar) went to Vietnam. At Christmastime of 1968, addressing U.S. forces there, he hoped that “peace would quickly come to a world weary of war.” But by 1971, he ruled out a return Christmas visit (in favor of a trip to Bethlehem) to avoid the appearance of supporting the continuation of the war. The following year he criticized the war’s escalation, adding, “I am moved to speak again not only for an end to this terrible war, but for the prevention of future wars and for peace in the world.”

A peaceful man by nature, Cardinal Cooke was interested in peace everywhere. That certainly included Ireland, where his peaceful approach was not always appreciated. But as he wrote just a few days before his death: “We, who are daughters and sons of Ireland, are descendants of a race which strives for goodness, truth and beauty and which has also known oppression, religious persecution, injustice and denial of human rights. I am intensely proud of Ireland, our beloved Ireland, the small Nation which, despite centuries of suffering, ‘has never surrendered her soul.’”

Cardinal Cooke lived with serious illness for much of his life. In 1964, a year before he became a bishop, he was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw, and, after surgery, quietly went through radiation therapy without missing a day at work. From then until 1975 — a period during which he was named a bishop, an archbishop and a cardinal — he had no further problems.


Then, suddenly, came additional worries — another diagnosis of cancer, more surgery. Without the awareness of the general public, and known only to a few in the medical community and a handful of his own staff, the cardinal was going through chemotherapy, and eventually blood transfusions, and carrying on a full schedule, all without interruption.

It was a remarkable tour de force, one that the cardinal himself later explained away. “God helped me to do it,” he said. “I would have been a lame duck as an archbishop. I would never have been able to get done the things I knew had to get done.”

Father Benedict Groeschel, noting that courage is a moral virtue but also a gift of the Holy Spirit, had another explanation: “The virtue helps us to do what is difficult, the gift enables us to do what is impossible.”

Cardinal Cooke’s heroism endured for another several years, but finally, on Aug. 24, 1983, he was informed that his condition was terminal. Two days later all of New York knew the terrible news, and the outpouring of emotion that followed was genuine and heartfelt. Among the very few people permitted a final visit were President Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Nancy Reagan, who came to his residence on Sept. 25, and for whom the cardinal summoned forth a reservoir of strength that amazed those around him. He used it to beg the president to work for peace.

During his final two days he was semi-comatose, and ultimately, in the early morning hours of Oct. 6, 1983, he died. The giant city went into mourning, and hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers filed past his body as it lay at rest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. After a funeral Mass on Oct. 10, attended by President Reagan, he was buried in the cathedral’s crypt. He was 62 years old.

Sainthood Candidacy

Less than a year later, the cause that would discuss his candidacy for sainthood had begun. It was announced on Aug. 24, 1984, by Cardinal Cooke’s successor, Archbishop (later Cardinal) John J. O’Connor, who also designated Father Benedict as postulator. O’Connor also announced the formation of the Cardinal Cooke Guild, with (the late) Mother Aloysius McBride, O.Carm., as its coordinator. She had been involved with the care of the elderly for many years, and had gotten to know Cardinal Cooke in that connection. With her enthusiasm (and Cardinal Cooke’s appeal) the Guild rapidly attracted thousands of volunteers, and it has continued to provide financial support for the cause down through the years.

Will the cause eventually succeed? Will Cardinal Cooke ultimately be declared a saint? It is far too early to tell; a cause is a complicated process, and the Vatican moves carefully through it all. This much has happened: the cardinal was declared a “Servant of God” in 1992; Msgr. Joseph Giandurco replaced the aging Father Benedict as postulator (with the added title of vice president); Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York (later a cardinal) formally presented the documentation for the cause to the Vatican in 2010. With the beginning of the Roman phase of the cause, Dr. Andrea Ambrosi was declared its postulator in Rome.

Part of the documentation involved the story of a 28-year-old man cured of colon cancer with “no medical explanation,” according to his physicians. His family had prayed unceasingly for Cardinal Cooke’s intercession during his illness, and believed strongly that their prayers had been answered.

According to the Catholic News Agency, the next step in the process is a review of the documentation by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. How long that might take is a matter of conjecture; clearly it will not happen overnight. In the meantime, the waiting goes on.

How long will it be? Will Cardinal Cooke be declared venerable, will he be beatified? Will he become a saint?

We know this: Cardinal Cooke lived a life of extraordinary courage and heroism, and he did it all in the name of God.

And bear in mind that archetypical New Yorker, that Manhattan cab driver, who once said about Cardinal Cooke: “You mark my words, Padre. That cardinal was a saint!”

MR. COSTELLO retired in 1991 as editor-in-chief of Catholic New York, the third newspaper of which he has been founding editor. His earlier books are Mission to Latin America and Without Fear or Favor.