“I’m still trying to get my hands around this,” said newly-ordained Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell five weeks after Pope Francis appointed him as a bishop to assist Archbishop José H. Gomez in Los Angeles.

The 62-year-old priest was named to serve the San Gabriel Pastoral Region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. But on the last Sunday in August, he was about to celebrate the 7:30 a.m. Spanish-language Mass at his previous assignment, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Church in South Los Angeles.

Hanging around his neck was a silver pectoral cross — the medal traditionally worn by popes, cardinals and bishops — that Archbishop Gomez had given him. On it was the embossed figure of Jesus carrying a lamb over his shoulders with a flock of sheep in the background. The Good Shepherd.

Walking out of the sacristy behind two altar servers dressed in white surpluses and red cassocks, Bishop O’Connell stopped and bent down to hold the hand of an elderly woman in a wheelchair. A few minutes later, the mini-procession, led by two men now, came down the center aisle to the heavy guitar-driven beat of the adoration hymn “This is the Day.”

When the Mass ended more than an hour later, the celebrant stayed on the altar.

“I came back to St. Francis Cabrini, and I thought I’m going to be here the rest of my life ‘cause now I’m 62,” he said with a brogue that clearly gave away his Irish heritage. “Twelve more years here and 13 until I retire. And then suddenly everything changed.”

Bishop O’Connell told how he’d just visited a parishioner who had a stroke and was lying in a hospital bed in “serious trouble.”

“We don’t know from one moment to the next; we can’t say that now my life is guaranteed to be like this or like that,” he stressed. “And most of all we’ve got to trust. Just like you have to trust that our archbishop will assign a good pastor here to you. We have to trust what Jesus has in store for us. We can’t plan it.”

The priest said two more Masses back-to-back on this Sunday, looking none the worse for being on his feet three-plus hours. It was what he did most weekends.

‘A beautiful, beautiful thing’

Bishop O’Connell said he was caught completely off guard when Rome picked him, along with Bishop Joseph V. Brennan and Bishop Robert Barron, to be an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese. It especially came out of the blue since he just returned to his beloved St. Francis Xavier Cabrini on July 1st.

From 1988 to 2000, he was pastor there before serving as pastor of two other inner-city L.A. parishes, St. Michael and Ascension. All together the priest logged 27 years at urban churches.

“I didn’t think this would ever happen. I did not think I had the profile for it. Well, what people are saying is that Pope Francis wanted just priests who are pastors involved with their communities,” he said before adding, “Of course there’s lots of those around. But maybe it’s because of the fact that I was here in South Los Angeles for so many years?”

He said he’ll miss working directly with immigrants and the poor “terribly.” And then told why.

“Well, you know, the beautiful thing about being a pastor for one area for so many years is that you get to know people, their children,” he explained. “You married them, you baptized their children, you married their kids. They know where to go if they need some help. You get to be part of their struggles — struggle to help the immigrants, to help the poor, to help the people with housing, to help people in emergencies and their illnesses.

“You get to be part of so many families,” he noted wistfully. “And it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. It was a very meaningful way to live. And I was getting to love it more and more and more being just a priest as part of the community here. I’m going to do the best I can to be a pastor of the people I meet in the San Gabriel Region. But no matter how many years God gives me, I won’t have the same amount of time to build up that community.”

Pastoral outreach

And then there was the Peter Principle. The bishop likened it to somebody who’s really good at making cookies. They get more and more customers, winding up owning a handful of bakeries. But running the bakeries is not where their gift is. Their gift is making the cookies.

“So I think what we have to do as auxiliary bishops or pastors or bishops is to make an effort just to make the pastoral outreach whenever an opportunity is given to you,” he said. “The pope is a good example of that, too. I mean, he’s got to run the whole Church, but he takes the time to stop his car and get out to greet somebody. Or return a phone call. Or to visit somebody who’s sick. Within the administration, you try to do what you can do to be pastoral.

“And you have to hold onto that. You can’t let the administration consume you. I think there’s some great deans and priests in the San Gabriel Region. So I think we can help each other to rethink in light of Pope Francis what our role is.”

He planned to walk around the neighborhoods of the region, which takes in East L.A. as well as the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys. There are 67 parishes, 13 Catholic secondary and 49 elementary schools, four Catholic cemeteries, two seminaries and one Spanish mission.

Bishop O’Connell said he sees his primary work as helping people have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Everything else comes out of that.

“When I work for immigrants, work for the poor, work for prisoners, work for gang intervention, it’s to help them know that Jesus cares for them, loves them,” he said. “We have to keep on translating our faith into action. There’s a world of hurt out there people are in.”

When asked about the role of a bishop in the U.S. today, there was no hesitation.

“The bishop is called to be a pastor, a shepherd,” he pointed out. “And Pope Francis says to have the smell of the sheep, to know the sheep and to be part of their lives. I think we’re very blessed that we’ve got Pope Francis. He is a pastor.”