DUNWOODIE, N.Y. — He needed the unbridled courage to train with U.S. Army paratroopers to earn his jump wings, and the prayerful humility to walk the sacred halls of the Vatican.
But Cardinal Edwin O’Brien says his most satisfying job was preparing young men for the priesthood.
He was honored on March 24, as the first recipient of the Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan Founder’s Medal, at ceremonies marking the 125th anniversary year of St. Joseph’s Seminary and College, where he twice served as rector.
Cardinal O’Brien, 82, a Bronx native, entered Dunwoodie in 1959 and was ordained in 1965. He was a U.S. Army chaplain in Vietnam, Auxiliary Bishop of New York, Archbishop of the Military Services, and Archbishop of Baltimore. He retired in 2019 as Grand Master, Order of the Holy Sepulcher in Rome.
However, Cardinal O’Brien, who was Dunwoodie’s rector from 1985-1989 and 1994-1997, said his favorite work was overseeing the formation of men seeking the priesthood. Separating those two terms were four years as rector for the Pontifical North American Seminary in Rome, 1990-1994.
“I think nothing will surpass the 12 years as rector, forming priests,” he told The Tablet before the Mass. “But every step along the way, I felt, has been very providential.”
Cardinal O’Brien said he’s only ever asked for one assignment. During the late 1960s, he requested permission to join the U.S. Army’s chaplaincy corps when he was a young priest serving at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, but not yet a soldier.
“I was marrying cadets and burying them a year or two later because of Vietnam,” he said. “They were fine, fine men. Those were difficult times.”
Permission came for him to become an Army chaplain, but he also volunteered for some of the military’s toughest training — jump school. With a crucifix and jump wings, he shipped out to Vietnam in 1971 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Paratroopers and seminarians have similar characters, Cardinal O’Brien explained. Quoting John 15:13, he said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
“And folks in the military,” he added, “give up their lives to total strangers. It’s a good lesson for all of us as Christians and certainly as seminarians that our life is one of sacrifice on behalf of others.”
The seminary created the Founder’s Medal to help celebrate its 125th anniversary. It is named for Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York, who in 1891 laid the cornerstone for St. Joseph Seminary on Valentine Hill in the Dunwoodie section of Yonkers.
Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan celebrated Mass before the fundraiser. Representing the Diocese of Brooklyn were Bishop Robert Brennan and Bishop Emeritus Nicholas DiMarzio.
Cardinal Dolan discussed succeeding Cardinal O’Brien as the Pontifical North American College rector.
“I had big shoes to follow,” Cardinal Dolan said. “And rector here twice? Wow. He is like the Mount Rushmore of this place.
“And he’s a man who was in the Synod of Bishops that advised John Paul II on the document on priestly formation (1990).”
Cardinal O’Brien said that, from that synod, Saint Pope John Paul II produced an apostolic letter in 1992 titled Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I Will Give You Shepherds”). The title is from Jeremiah 3:15, which the cardinal said he chose as his motto.
“It was a promise from God in the Old Testament, and one which Christ fulfilled in the New Testament,” he said. “The apostles and the priests became shepherds in his name and in his strength. So it was a motto I’ve never regretted.”