Perhaps the area that raised the most controversy was his relationship with the gay community. At a time when AIDS patients were treated as pariahs or lepers, O'Connor quietly visited hospitals and clinics to wash and pray with them. While O'Connor condemned hate crimes, he refused to stop expressing the Church's position, even when activists stormed St. Patrick's Cathedral in late 1989.
Policemen and firefighters, mayors and presidents, rabbis and ministers, union leaders and teachers, to name a few: John J. O'Connor had something to say to everyone. One gay rights activist who disagreed with him greatly still considered him "A very human person." The New York Times, at his death, hailed him as a
. . .a familiar and towering presence, a leader whose views and personality were forcefully injected into the great civic debates of his time, a man who considered himself a conciliator, but who never hesitated to be a combatant.
But O'Connor didn't see himself as either conciliator or combatant. Terry Golway writes: "The role he lived for . . . was that of priest and pastor." Until illness set in, he celebrated Mass every morning at St. Patrick's, heard confessions, counseled couples, and celebrated weddings. John O'Connor was always more comfortable with the average pew-sitter than with movers and shakers. In short, he never forgot his roots.