Is it possible to see Angels on earth? I believe it is — no matter what your faith or systems of beliefs hold — and I’ll tell you why. After John Cardinal O’Connor died of brain cancer in New York City in 2000, Janna and I found ourselves outside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. We saw a snaking line of mourners outside the beautiful and towering French Gothic church at Madison and 50th-51st.
We were both starving for something to eat. Even though our stomachs were rumbling, and even though we were not Catholic, we gave in to the irresistible urge to fall in line with those there to pay their last respects to Cardinal O’Connor. It was an “of the moment decision” that would end up staying with us long after the instant was over.
Cardinal O’Connor was a tough, charismatic, man who believed in life and God and Christ and his intellectual character was a powerful political and spiritual force in all of New York. As the cancer ate him up from the inside out, he soldiered onward. He refused to be defeated despite losing his body. His final days in the public eye were hard to watch but easy to respect. It was Cardinal O’Connor who said, “The Catholic Church is not a buffet. You do not pick and choose what to believe. You take it all, or you take nothing.”
He believed any Catholic who supported abortion deserved excommunication. That hard stance made him the flashpoint for the argument between life and death and in the morality of living a disciplined life. You may not have agreed with Cardinal O’Connor, but you respected the deep logic of his faith put into the practice of his life and teaching.
As the line crept closer to Cardinal O’Connor’s body inside church, we were amazed to see how beautiful the cathedral looked inside. Cardinal O’Connor was dressed in full burial regalia and there was an amber glow that washed over the arches and the mourners.
It was then, in the moment between stopping to ponder on the life of Cardinal O’Connor and the pressing flow of the line, when I saw something out of the corner of each eye. I could only see this movement of spirit by looking directly at Cardinal O’Connor’s body.
If I averted my eyes, the excitement vanished. It was the same sort of eye mastery required for good night vision: If you want to see something in the dark, don’t look directly at it — put what you want to see in your periphery, relax your eyes into an unfocused state and everything becomes sharper and clearer despite the dark and the lack of directed purpose.
As I gazed at Cardinal O’Connor — who was whiter and thinner in death than he had ever been in life — I began to sense the outline of two tremendous Angels standing guard on either side of him. They were female and their faces were full and round and pink with life.
The Angels hovered in the air above him. Both were dressed in heavy, but flowing, crimson robes with golden trim. They were each carrying glimmering Shepherd’s Crooks.
Their Angel hair, as if made of sunbeams, poked out of white hoods in blonde ringlets. The Angels were the most beautiful things I had ever seen on earth and they were real and they were alive. As I moved my eyes from Cardinal O’Connor to steal a better glimpse at the Angels, they each plainly looked at me and wondered together if I could see them or not.
When I smiled at them, they nodded and disappeared. I tried to unfocus my eyes again on Cardinal O’Connor and reconnect with the Angels, but they were gone. I was pushed back into the reality of New York as one of the besotted church staff yelled at us to “Keep Moving!”
We were each handed a laminated John Cardinal O’Connor “baseball card” with his image on one side and all his religious vital statistics on the other as a final good-bye from the church and the workers who were there to bring order to misery, shuffled us along the line and, finally, out the door.
I asked Janna if she saw the Angels guarding Cardinal O’Connor. She had not. As we walked home on the hard streets of New York, I felt great inner warmth in knowing what I saw was not a vision or a dream but an Angelic reality as powerful as John Cardinal O’Connor’s bedrock belief that faith is not a buffet. I was no longer hungry.