If you visit the Vatican in Rome and then stop for a cappuccino in the coffee bar nearby, you’re likely to run into the Reverend Bernard O’Connor (Knoxville ’94).
He may not be wearing orange. And he probably won’t be humming “Rocky Top.” But if you sit a minute and chat, which you inevitably will, you’ll soon learn you’re in the presence of a fellow Vol.
O’Connor’s life story is not a quick read. He has nine college degrees from universities in three different countries, including his law degree from UT Knoxville. His honors, jobs, memberships, and writings fill a 19-page resume–and that’s before you get to his hobbies, which vary from scuba diving to coin collecting to traveling and writing.
Law school challenge
Retired UT law professor Neil Cohen, now a visiting professor at Santa Clara University School of Law in California, recalls one particular day when O’Connor was in his evidence class. Cohen was lecturing about hearsay. “There is a common illustration that is used by instructors all over the country,” he said. “It involves a person saying I am the Pope. So, in class, I said, ‘What happens if I say I am the Pope?’
“I am Jewish,” Cohen said. “So when I said that, Father Bernie started to laugh. He said, ‘Hardly!’ And he laughed so hard he fell off the chair. He was a person of great humor and spirit. Everybody loved the guy.”
Despite such lighthearted memories, O’Connor said law school presented an academic challenge like he’d never experienced. “Its world was very different from my regular experience,” he said. “I doubted my suitability for law school, and my academic performance was less than impressive. My heart was simply not in it.”
The turnaround came when then-associate dean Mary Jo Hoover sat him down for a frank conversation. “She said, ‘The real problem is that you don’t think your values and -ideals, or your standards of morality, fit what you are studying. Am I correct?’
“She was definitely correct,” O’Connor said. Hoover suggested he focus on alternative dispute resolution, using arbitration and mediation to settle disputes. O’Connor took her advice.
“I came to appreciate the law school in a whole new way,” he said.
His law degree led him to teaching assignments at Eastern Michigan University and allowed him to serve on Michigan’s State Board of Ethics.
For nearly 10 years, O’Connor was involved with “We The People,” a program that helps schoolteachers better understand the U.S. Constitution. “Without a legal background, that would have been impossible for me,” he said.
O’Connor said law school also gave him “a greater respect for the right of citizens to query, to object, and to take responsibility for the development of our political and social heritage.”
Working at the Vatican
While teaching in Michigan, O’Connor met with the new bishop in O’Connor’s home diocese of Antigonish, Nova Scotia. “He indicated that the Vatican was in search of someone with my kind of background and that he would be delighted to propose my name for consideration by the Secretariat of State for the Vatican,” said O’Connor, who agreed but didn’t think a bishop from a rural Canadian diocese would pull much weight with the Vatican.
“I was wrong,” O’Connor said. “On March nineteenth, two-thousand-four, he telephoned me with the news that I was invited to commence my service with the Holy See. I was utterly astonished.”
Since June 2004, O’Connor has been the director of the Office for Syro-Malabar and Syro–Malankara Affairs for the Roman Catholic Church in south India. This office is part of the Congregation for Eastern Churches.
O’Connor said his role at the Vatican is akin to being the associate of a cabinet minister within secular government. There are 33 dioceses, more than 40 bishops, and about 4.5 million members of the Catholic church in his area. When church officials from the area contact the Vatican about such issues as human rights, development, finances, or even tsunami damage, O’Connor responds on behalf of the Vatican and sometimes in the name of the Pope.
What with teaching, preaching, and serving as an administrator, it’s hard to imagine that O’Connor has much free time, but he makes time for the pastimes he loves.
Like traveling: “For me, to travel is like entering a new library. There is a glimpse into the lived experience of another people, with the privilege of being welcomed and invited to respectfully engage them.”
And writing: “To write is to acquire a greater insight into one’s subject matter, one’s self, and one’s readership.”
And scuba diving: “Scuba signifies both my love for the natural world and my delight in being able to participate in the gift of the created environment. And it reminds me of the need for preserving that environment.”
And music: “Since my childhood I have -studied piano, organ, choral music, classical music, and folk music. Music is the very heartbeat of our soul!”
Passion for people
A common thread that binds O’Connor’s work life, hobbies, and enthusiasm for life is his love of people. And that’s what takes him to the coffee shop near the Vatican almost every day after work.
If you happen upon him there and he engages you in conversation, it probably isn’t by chance. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when O’Connor was an administrator at Eastern Michigan University, he decided he would try to meet at least 20 new people a day. O’Connor dubbed his idea “the Rule.”
University officials were enthusiastic about O’Connor’s mission and told him it would “help put a human face on the university’s administration, something every university needs.”
Others found out about O’Connor’s plan, too. “To my amazement, ‘the Rule’ became widely discussed, even in Detroit and Ann Arbor newspapers,” he said.
O’Connor says “the Rule” is easy to follow at the Vatican, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors daily. “After work, I go to an outdoor coffee bar and chat with those sitting at adjacent tables.”
The practice has earned him a bit of a reputation. “One day a couple went into the bar and told the manager, ‘We are looking for a chubby, jolly priest who sits outside here and gives free counseling to people. Our daughter wants to talk to him. Can you help us to track him down? What are his hours?’
“The locals thought this was hilarious,” O’Connor said, “and it’s the nearest I’ve ever been to qualifying as a tourist attraction!”