January 30, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Terence J. Cooke

John F. Fink(Last in a series of 34 columns)

I’ve been fortunate to get to know several cardinals who, I thought, were saintly—Samuel Stritch, Joseph Ritter, John Carberry, Joseph Bernardin. However, as far as I know, the cause for canonization has not been started for any of them.

Only one American saint was even a bishop—John Neumann—although three others are being considered—Frederic Baraga, Servant of God Simon Bruté and Fulton J. Sheen. Contrary to what you might expect, it is unusual for a bishop, archbishop or cardinal to be considered for sainthood.

Terence J. Cooke, the cardinal-archbishop of New York, really stood out for his sanctity. He became Archbishop of New York in 1968, and a cardinal in 1969.

Cardinal Cooke was always a New Yorker. He was born in 1921, the third child of Irish immigrants in Morningside Heights in Upper Manhattan. His parents, Michael and Margaret Gannon Cooke, named him in honor of Terence MacSwiney, who had recently died in a hunger strike while protesting the British occupation of Ireland.

It was a devout family. His parents taught him the importance of daily prayer, the Eucharist and devotion to the Blessed Virgin. But when he was 9, his mother died. Her single sister moved into the home to care for the children.

From his earliest days, Terence wanted to be a priest. He entered the seminary after finishing the eighth grade. Cardinal Francis Spellman ordained him a priest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Dec. 1, 1945. Later, he received a master’s degree at The Catholic University of America.

His advancement in the leadership of the Church in New York was meteoric. His positions included work in the Youth Division of Catholic Charities, procurator of St. Joseph’s Seminary, secretary to Cardinal Spellman, vice chancellor and then chancellor of the archdiocese, vicar general and auxiliary bishop. He became the archdiocese’s archbishop after Cardinal Spellman’s death, probably on the cardinal’s recommendation.

He was a very different archbishop from his predecessor, known as a holy and extremely kind man. He listened attentively and worked quietly but diligently.

Unbeknown to the public, Cardinal Cooke was diagnosed with cancer in 1964, when he was only 43. He had been treated with chemotherapy and blood transfusions, which only a few people knew about. He never reduced his workload. In 1975, he was told that the cancer had spread to a terminal condition. He still did not reduce his workload.

It wasn’t until August of 1983 that the public learned about the cancer. He could no longer work as he had been doing, and doctors told him that his time was short.

He wrote his last letter to the people of the archdiocese, read in churches on Oct. 9, 1983, which happened to be Respect Life Sunday. He had died on Oct. 6.

He wrote, in part: “At this grace-filled time of my life, as I experience suffering in union with Jesus Our Lord and Redeemer, I offer gratitude to Almighty God for giving me the opportunity to continue my apostolate on behalf of life.” †

Local site Links: