Slain Los Angeles Bishop Remembered for Ministry

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Killed in an act of violence, Bishop David O’Connell is recalled for his dedication to pastoral care in Los Angeles’ poorest parishes.

By Pablo Kay, OSV News

LOS ANGELES (OSV News) — During his seven years as auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, Bishop David G. O’Connell made many friends — and a strong impression — among his brother bishops.

The native of County Cork, Ireland, was one of three priests named auxiliary bishops for Los Angeles by Pope Francis in July 2015. The pope was known to refer privately to the future bishops — then-Father O’Connell, then-Father Robert E. Barron, a Chicago-born media evangelist, and then-Msgr. Joseph V. Brennan, an LA priest, as “Archbishop Gomez’s triplets.”

In his often emotional remarks about Bishop O’Connell in the days since his Feb. 18 murder, LA Archbishop José H. Gomez has described him as “a man who loved Jesus Christ, and gave his whole life to following Jesus, to being his friend and to helping others to find Jesus.”

And in interviews with Angelus, the archdiocesan news outlet, bishops from around the country and even across the pond in England expressed admiration for Bishop O’Connell’s energetic faith, his ability to work with all types of people, and his kindness.

“If you had to write a play about his life, it would be ‘A Man for All Seasons,'” said Bishop Brennan, who left LA in 2019 to lead the Diocese of Fresno, California. “He was ‘all things to people,’ as St. Paul described his mission.”

Bishops O’Connell and Brennan were ordained priests for the Los Angeles Archdiocese a year apart in 1979 and 1980. “I remember thinking, here’s this great Irish guy, hope he does well, ” said Bishop Brennan, who also is of Irish descent. “Little did I know he was already working circles around us native guys, just in terms of totally immersing himself in the community.”

Bishop Brennan said that Bishop O’Connell had a special way of “making everyone feel that he was a kindred spirit to them,” from community organizers to law enforcement officials. “And he was,” Bishop Brennan added. “But Dave was never a chameleon. He was never pretending to be any of these things. He did it because he was genuinely interested in everyone, wanting to love everyone.”

Bishop Barron, who now heads the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota, said he was “absolutely devastated” by the news of Bishop O’Connell’s death. “He was a man of enormous kindness, dedication, good humor, and Gospel simplicity,” Bishop Barron told Angelus. “I always came away from meetings with him feeling more alive, more confirmed in my faith. I will miss him tremendously.”

Bishop O’Connell served in the archdiocese for all of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony’s 25 years as archbishop of Los Angeles.

Cardinal Mahony recalled that “his entire life and ministry were devoted to his people, those who were poor, powerless and on the margins of society,” praising Bishop O’Connell’s ability to bring people together and to work to overcome differences and build trust and understanding. He also said that Bishop O’Connell had “made it clear that he never wanted to be moved away from Central and South Central LA” when it came to his parish assignments.

Brennan agreed that Bishop O’Connell would often express privately that “he didn’t want to be anywhere else. He loved that ministry, he loved those people.”

Among current American bishops, there are two other Bishop O’Connells, including Bishop David M. O’Connell of Trenton, New Jersey.

The third, Auxiliary Bishop Mark W. O’Connell of Boston, first met LA’s Bishop O’Connell at “Baby Bishop School,” the unofficial name of a multi-day course for new bishops held at the Vatican. “He was a truly humble and holy man,” he told Angelus. The 58-year-old said the pair called each other “cousins,” since they shared not only a last name but also family roots in County Cork.

His LA counterpart later recruited him to serve on the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, where he made an impression as “a very strong advocate for the poor and for the dignity of every human person.”

Auxiliary Bishop Tim E. Freyer of the neighboring Diocese of Orange, California, was another one of O’Connell’s recruits to the subcommittee. “We had a number of challenging issues to discuss, and I marveled at how he kept the conversation rooted in prayer, focused on how to best help the poor, and would bring us to consensus,” Bishop Freyer recalled.

Bishop Freyer said that he would bump into Bishop O’Connell on walks during silent retreats for bishops, and Bishop O’Connell would be either praying the rosary or the Liturgy of the Hours. “I found that he was a man of deep faith, was very thoughtful and joyful,” he said.

Phoenix Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares remembers Bishop O’Connell’s episcopal consecration at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Sept. 17, 2015, as a “very Spirit-filled event.”

In meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops through the years, Bishop O’Connell struck him as a “gentle” colleague with “great insights.” Bishops Nevares and O’Connell shared dinner at the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore last November. “I knew him to be a very special person, a real brother,” said Nevares. “I consider myself lucky and privileged to have known such a wonderful Christian.”

Auxiliary Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster, England taught as a young priest at Bishop O’Connell’s alma mater, the former All Hallows College in Dublin, during the 1990s.

Future priests destined for Southern California were still being formed there, and then-Father Sherrington wanted some firsthand experience of ministry in the City of Angels. In the summer of 1991, he arrived to help at St. Frances X. Cabrini Church in South Central LA while the pastor, then-Father David O’Connell, took some vacation time.

“I realized very quickly the love that the people had for him, and his passion for justice,” said Bishop Sherrington. Bishop O’Connell had already made a reputation for his efforts to reconcile rival gangs in his parish neighborhood, Bishop O’Connell also was pushing for the cleanup of a toxic dump near the parish at the time, Sherrington recalled.

The arrangement worked out so well that Bishop O’Connell invited the English priest back to St. Frances the next two summers. Almost two decades later, Bishop Sherrington was named a bishop in his native England in 2011, four years before his old friend.

“When (O’Connell) was appointed a bishop by Pope Francis, I thought: This is the sort of priest who for Pope Francis is a priest of the peripheries. A priest who goes the extra mile, who’s on the edge of situations, living out the Gospel and living out the message of Christ,” Bishop Sherrington said.

LA Catholics are preparing for Bishop O’Connell’s funeral Mass March 3 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. On March 2, there will be public viewing hours for the bishop, followed in the evening by a vigil Mass for Bishop O’Connell at the cathedral.

On March 1, a memorial Mass organized by the San Gabriel Pastoral Region, which Bishop O’Connell oversaw as the region’s episcopal vicar, will be celebrated at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Hacienda Heights.

Bishop Brennan from Fresno offered some thoughts on his legacy.

“We need to channel our inner Dave O’Connell, defender of life everywhere,” Bishop Brennan said. “We need to be tenacious when it comes to reaching out to folks, as Pope Francis keeps telling us. Dave actually did it: going out to the people who are unwelcome, marginalized, on the peripheries.”

Pablo Kay is editor-in-chief of Angleus, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Featured image: Bishops from Los Angeles gather for a group photo after concelebrating Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome Jan. 30, 2020. Pictured from left are: Auxiliary Bishop Alejandro D. Aclan, Auxiliary Bishop Marc V. Trudeau, Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles, Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell, retired Auxiliary Bishop Gerald E. Wilkerson and retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry. Bishop O’Connell was found murdered at his home in Los Angeles on February 18, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)


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