EMU's O'Connor receives Vatican appointment
YPSILANTI - Former Michigan Professor of the Year, Father Bernard O'Connor, will be trading in his favorite Eastern Michigan University ROTC windbreaker for something a bit more formal - his clerical attire - this summer.
O'Connor, or "Father Bernie" as most people know him, is officially leaving Eastern Michigan, July 1, for a position at the Vatican. He has been at EMU for 10 years teaching political science; serving as assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and counseling EMU students and staff as a Roman Catholic priest and ROTC chaplain.
O'Connor will join Pope John Paul II's papal administration, or Curia, as political adviser and consultant for the Congregation of Oriental Churches.
"Oriental refers to the eastern countries such as Egypt, Syria, Iran and Jordan," O'Connor said. "The Christian minorities (in those countries) have different religious and political concepts as well as different backgrounds." His responsibilities will include helping the eastern part of the Catholic Church communicate with one another and working with various governments on human rights concerns.
"I have a certain level of anxiety about this transition. I haven't been back to Rome in 18 years and I understand that there are tremendous differences," said O'Connor. "Also, I'm not entirely sure of all the details of my responsibilities."
O'Connor said the Vatican hierarchy is comparable to the U.S. government, with the Pope similar to the president and the Curia like the administration.
The Pope has Parkinson's disease, said O'Connor, so he is adding new advisers to the Curia to give it a more international, updated focus. This move will help the Pope's successor make a smooth transition. The Curia is composed of several hundred people.
Catholic priests are usually transferred every 6-12 years, so O'Connor said he expected to move, but not to Rome.
"My bishop was looking to move me to other countries, but said my experience pointed to Rome," said O'Connor, who has United Nations certifications in peace support operations, international humanitarian law, and peacekeeping and international conflict resolution. He has also written a book, "Pope John Paul II: Papacy Diplomacy and the Culture of Peace."
Currently, O'Connor is busy renewing his Italian language skills, he said. Since finding out about the appointment in March, he has been to the bookstore and has had an intensive two-week tutoring course to brush up on his mastery of the language.
"I speak just enough Italian to get into trouble," said O'Connor. "I can read Italian, but can't converse very well."
And if he can't communicate with people in Rome, he'll especially miss meeting and consoling people. Those are two facets of his daily routine on campus that he said he'll miss.
During a typical week, at EMU, O'Connor would be in the student union at 8 a.m. with the goal of meeting 20 new people every day. He asked that his formal EMU job description include a "20-per-day" clause that he sometimes exceeded, he said.
He also will miss the political science department and its head, Rhonda Kinney, who he said is remarkable.
"He has been an outstanding teacher, valued adviser, active scholar and trusted colleague," said Kinney. "Bernie's generosity and commitment to educating students has inspired us and we will miss him."
And, of course, he said he'll miss the students. In 10 years he has taught 18 different subjects to an entire generation of young people. He stressed civic education and constantly challenged them to explain what it is to be a responsible citizen in the United States, he said.
As a student himself, O'Connor lived in Rome from 1981-1986 when he was working on his doctorate.
"I met the Pope several times and found that he had an incredible sense of humor," said O'Connor. "The first time I met him, I knelt to kiss his ring and had the Pope tell me, 'You better stand up because I can't lift you.'"
In fact, when he returns to Rome, he'll be living in the same general area he called home as a student. Only this time, O'Connor will be working only a few blocks from St. Peter's Square in a "big square box" of a house that is the former home of the Italian painter Raphael.
A native of Nova Scotia, O'Connor was ordained a Catholic priest in 1977. He earned a doctorate in systematic theology from the Gregorian University in 1986 and a law degree from the University of Tennessee in 1994.His numerous honors include the EMU Gold Medallion Award in 2004, the Award for Excellence in Innovative Teaching from the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning in 2003, and Michigan Professor of the Year in both 1999 and 2001.
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