This story is part of a series featured in a commemorative issue honoring Bishop David O'Connell. Read more stories at the Bishop Dave Commemorative Issue web page.
Monsignor Jarlath Cunnane settled himself at the ambo with a homily ready to share at the funeral Mass for his great friend, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell.
Nearly 5,000 had shown up to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels the morning of Friday, March 3, including those standing in crowded aisles and ambulatories, or seated outside with access to large video screens, plus many more abroad watching on livestream.
“It’s Bishop Dave we’re talking about here,” said Msgr. Cunnane, better known as “Father Jay,” a classmate of O’Connell’s since their seminary days in Ireland in 1971. “So I’ve got to start with a joke.”
This one had to do with a vat of Guinness, the iconic stout Irish beer — “all black with a white collar — a bit like a priest actually,” Msgr. Cunnane began. A visitor taking a tour of the brewery dove into the vat. The guide climbed the steps and found the man praying: “Lord, grant me a mouth worthy of this occasion.”
The congregation laughed appropriately, even if they had heard it before from the mouth of Bishop O’Connell.
Msgr. Cunnane saw a reality in the humor of that story. He said he prayed the Lord would give him a mouth worthy of summing up a man he had traveled with in their religious journey for six decades. In a Spanish-to-Irish translation, Msgr. Cunnane said they were “caminantes juntos,” or “wayfarers together.”
Among the words Msgr. Cunnane found: Bishop O’Connell was a man “gripped by grace.” He was someone “at ease with the movers and the shakers and also with the moved and shaken.” He was a man who showed up for a weekly dinner meeting with a dog leash in one hand and his Padre Pio rosary in the other as he waited.
Most often, Msgr. Cunnane said, Bishop O’Connell represented the phrase “Anam Cara,” the Celtic concept of having a friend of the soul.
“You’re blessed if you have a soul friend,” said Cunnane, the pastor of St. Cornelius Church in Long Beach. “And I was blessed to have David. … I was better for having known David O’Connell. Many of you were too, were you not?”
The burst of applause that came from the congregation suggested that they had.
‘He found the good in people’
The Friday Mass was the conclusion of a three-day tribute to O’Connell that began with a Wednesday night memorial service at St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights, and was followed on Thursday by an all-day public viewing and vigil Mass.
For Friday’s gathering, it was befitting of Bishop O’Connell to see priests attending along with parishioners. A gaggle of nuns followed by long, yellow school buses pulling up to the curb outside the Cathedral to drop off more mourners. Not only were the pews filled inside, but many stood in the aisles and ambulatories, or were seated outside on the Cathedral Plaza, using umbrellas as shade. As the two-hour Mass went on, many continued to filter in, gravitating toward the back end of the plaza, simply wanting to be present.
Archbishop José H. Gomez presided over the Mass that included the presence of three cardinals — Roger Mahony, Blase Cupich of Chicago, and Robert McElroy of San Diego — as well as 34 bishops and more than 75 priests at the altar.
Local dignitaries included LAPD Chief Michel Moore, former Los Angeles Mayors Eric Garcetti and Jim Hahn, former LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, and several other civic leaders who called O’Connell a friend over the years.
“I met him more than 20 years ago as a young captain in the Rampart area,” Moore told reporters outside the Cathedral. “He was plain-spoken, down to earth, his heart was about the people. It was also about our law enforcement, our men and women who go out and make the sacrifices they make. We don’t always get it right, but he had a heart of compassion and he worried about (the officers) as much as he worried about anyone else. That’s why he was such an effective bridge builder.”
Cunnane echoed that, saying in his homily that O’Connell “wasn’t just my good friend. Friendship is something he was good at. He has friends young and old, far and wide … he has friends up and down the social scale, at ease in the corridors of power and with the powerless.”
In calling him a man “gripped by grace,” Cunnane said O’Connell was “seized by the Lord, like Jeremiah (who) said, ‘Lord, you seduced me, and I let myself be seduced; you were stronger and you triumphed.’
“A mind and a wit always quick and sharp, but sometimes in earlier days, with an edge. By grace became levity and joyous humor, and ability to affirm — he was always affirming, he found the good in people and praised it. He spoke it into them.”
Cunnane thanked O’Connell’s family members present, several who came from Ireland, “for giving us the blessing of him for all these years and all this wonderful ministry here in Los Angeles.”
‘Carry on the example that he set’
Archbishop Gomez read a message from Pope Francis that concluded, “To those gathered for the Mass of Christian Burial and to all who mourn Bishop O’Connell’s loss in the sure hope of the Resurrection, the Holy Father cordially imparts his blessing as a pledge of peace and consolation in the Lord.
Gomez added: “As we know, Bishop Dave loved and served Jesus with all his heart and all his strength, and like Jesus, he loved his brothers and sisters “to the end,” with a special love for those who are often forgotten and those who live on society’s margins. … We continue to pray for his eternal repose and especially we know that he has received the eternal reward. He’s in heaven. So, let’s keep praying for him, for his family, and for all of us. And let’s start going to his intercession for our needs.”
An ensemble choir with musicians from St. Andrew and St. Philip churches in Pasadena, St. Denis Church in Diamond Bar, Sacred Heart Church in Covina, St. Frances of Rome Church in Azusa, St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and Bishop Amat High School in La Puente provided music for many still in shock about O’Connell’s death at his home in Hacienda Heights on Feb. 18 at the age of 69.
One of the songs sung before the Mass was the traditional Irish ballad, “Danny Boy.”
After Communion, the choir sang the Irish hymn, “Lady of Knock,” to whom O’Connell had a lifelong devotion. Among the lyrics: “Golden Rose, Queen of Ireland, all my cares and troubles cease. As we kneel with love before you, Lady of Knock, my Queen of Peace.”
A multitude of various religious leaders were also present, welcomed by Father Alexei Smith, the ecumenical and inter-religious officer of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Faith groups represented included Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Evangelical Lutheran, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Episcopal and Baptist.
“Many of these representatives had worked with Bishop David in one capacity or another on various peace and justice issues, particularly the unhoused, and others were so impressed by his devotion to those in need that they wanted to come to pay tribute to him and to demonstrate solidarity with the Catholic community upon our loss,” said Father Smith.
Chris Untiet, the director of faith and community relations at Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles, noted how that non-profit is made up of many religious-based coalitions and O’Connell was one who helped build bridges of unity as well as build homes for a common goal.
“Every faith tradition has a core tenant of serving the poor and helping those most in need, and Bishop Dave helped to bring us all together on that front and we’re very grateful for that,” said Untiet, adding he was compelled to attend the Friday Mass to honor O’Connell, who was part of the organization’s Catholic Coalition launched eight years ago to unite parishes in social justice outreach.
David O’Connell, a nephew from Ireland who shared a name with his uncle, said in a reflection at the end of Friday’s Mass that “for me and my family and everyone listening here, we all have an opportunity to pick up where he left off and carry on the example that he set. Help those that you can help. Lend an ear and listen to people. Respect each other. Be considerate and give others the benefit of the doubt. Have patience and give everyone a chance.”
He added that his uncle “liked being a comedian, but he had a day job that seemed to be going better for him. … Uncle Dave was an inspiration for our whole lives. He taught us if we have the capacity to help someone, you should do it. All he wanted to do was make things easier for everyone else, and never asked for a single thing in return.
“He never ended a phone call without telling me how proud he was of me. And I hope he knows how proud we are of him. Let those close to you know that you love them and that you are proud of them.”
O’Connell was interred in the cathedral’s mausoleum following the Friday Mass. He is the second bishop to be buried at the Cathedral since it opened 20 years ago: the first was Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop John Ward, who died in 2011.
‘Where did this all come from?’
Guadalupe De La O, an educator in South LA, said she was grateful to have the opportunity to attend the vigil Mass on Thursday. She was always drawn to O’Connell’s homilies, during a visit to the Padre Pio relics at St. Andrew Church in Pasadena as well as the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes at the cathedral in February.
“I was moved by his joy and impeccable Spanish during the bilingual Mass (in Pasadena),” said De La O, whose home parish is St. John Chrysostom in Inglewood. “(At the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes), his encounter with Mary and his love for her and us, his sheep, was palpable. I am grateful for the pastoral care and impact he had on the community, having served at parishes that my students and friends belonged to. I wanted to pay my respects and mourn with the greater Los Angeles Catholic community and pray that we all continue his labor of love for justice.”
De La O was deeply touched by all the priests who placed their hands on Bishop O’Connell’s casket as they processed out of the Thursday vigil, many openly weeping.
“While lots of emotions were felt, I also felt a deep sense of peace amongst the unity of the people from all walks of life who were touched by Bishop Dave — knowing that the power of the Holy Spirit and the memory of Bishop Dave’s spirit in our hearts, his good deeds will continue to be multiplied.”
During a Thursday night homily, Mahony asked the question, “Where did our dear brother Bishop David O’Connell get his wisdom for all his marvelous pastoral works?”
Mahony focused on O’Connell’s “inner core of his own spiritual power,” referring to Scripture readings. He said O’Connell had a very special way of understanding two critical points from the Second Vatican Council: the absolute primacy of baptism, and the people of God.
“St. Paul says all have different gifts, and all those gifts, Bishop David was incredible in empowering and sending forth everyone he met,” said Mahony. “He didn’t go himself to the City Council, he brought parishioners, informed, and they were the ones to raise their voices. He helped in their formation, but they were the ones.”
Mahony continued: “As we reflect on this wonderful life and ministry of our beloved Bishop David, we always have to go back: Where did this all come from? It came from that special place; secret place in him; a secret place you and I all have as well … where our spirit, our soul, our heart, our mind converge with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit.”
Mahony said O’Connell never left a meeting without having a mission to take on, “always sending us somewhere to do something.” As he walked down three steps from the altar to the center aisle, Mahony put his hands on O’Connell’s casket and added with a halting voice between tears, “[The mission is] we ourselves go to that special place in our hearts as David taught us. Come Lord Jesus. Come Holy Spirit … Come … Amen.”