Posted: March 7, 2014

His Eminence Edwin Cardinal O’Brien, Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, has accepted President Michael F. McLean’s invitation to serve as Thomas Aquinas College’s 2014 Commencement Speaker. The former Archbishop of Baltimore and the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, Cardinal O’Brien will travel from Rome to the College’s California campus to participate in the May 17 graduation ceremony. He will also serve as the principal celebrant and homilist at that morning’s Baccalaureate Mass, and he will be awarded the College’s highest honor, the Saint Thomas Aquinas Medallion.

“Throughout his nearly five decades of ministry, Cardinal O’Brien has done whatever the Church has asked of him, whether that was jumping from airplanes, administering sacraments to soldiers on the battlefield, or tending to the spiritual needs of Christians in the Holy Land,” says Dr. McLean. “It will be an honor to welcome him to our campus, to benefit from his words of wisdom, and to recognize his life of faithful service to Christ and His Church.”

A Soldier’s Priest

After his ordination to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of New York in 1965, Fr. O’Brien became a civilian chaplain at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Five years later, he would shed his civilian status, undertaking flight and parachute training to earn the rank of captain and become a chaplain in the United States Army. He briefly served at Fort Bragg in North Carolina before heading to Vietnam in 1971, where he traveled the countryside via helicopter to minister to soldiers in the field. After the war he became a chaplain at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga.

In 1973 Fr. O’Brien took what would become a 24-year break from his chaplaincy duties and departed for Rome, where he earned a Doctorate in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. Upon his return stateside in 1976, he served as the vice-chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York and associate pastor at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Between 1983 and 1985 he served as secretary to two Archbishops of New York, Terence Cardinal Cook and John Cardinal O’Connor. Then, over the course of the next dozen years, he served as rector at the North American College in Rome and St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York, where his students included the College’s head chaplain, Rev. Joseph Illo.

Bl. John Paul II appointed Fr. O’Brien to the episcopacy in 1996 as the Auxiliary Bishop of New York. Only one year later, however, the new bishop left his home state to become the Archbishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, the spiritual shepherd for 1.5 million Catholics serving in the United States Armed Forces throughout the world. Archbishop O’Brien continued in that role for 10 years until Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI named him the Archbishop of Baltimore in 2007.

In 2012 Pope Benedict elevated Archbishop O’Brien to Cardinal, then named him the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. The Order, which dates back some 900 years, claims 23,000 clerical, religious, and lay members worldwide. It is responsible for promoting and defending Christianity in the Holy Land, both through prayer and financial assistance. It provides 75 percent of the annual income for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem — which cares for the Church in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Cyprus — and funds 40 schools, hospitals, and institutes of higher education.

The Saint Thomas Aquinas Medallion

As part of the May 17 Commencement Ceremony, the chairman of the College’s Board of Governors will present Cardinal O’Brien with the Saint Thomas Aquinas Medallion in recognition of his extraordinary dedication to God and His Church. Established by the Board in 1975, the Medallion is a means of honoring Catholics who have demonstrated unfailing adherence to the Magisterium and have used their influence to help to advance the Church’s teachings. Past recipients include Bl. Mother Teresa, M.C.; Servant of God Rev. John Hardon, S.J.; and Cardinal O’Brien’s onetime superior, Cardinal O’Connor.

“Please receive the expressions of my gratitude for inviting me to participate in Thomas Aquinas College's Commencement Ceremonies, celebrating the Baccalaureate Mass and delivering the Commencement Address,” wrote Cardinal O’Brien in a letter to Dr. McLean. “I am glad to accept your invitation and look forward to joining you, all the members of Thomas Aquinas College’s Board of Governors and students.”

The Commencement Ceremony, the 40th in the College’s history, will be held on campus on Saturday, May 17 at 11:00 a.m. It is open to the public.