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.
“Jesus is calling you…”
Those words from the late Bishop David O’Connell at a prayer event compelled Amy Rodriguez to take a step forward that forever changed her faith.
“When I heard that, I immediately felt that Jesus was speaking through the bishop,” recalled Rodriguez, from St. Philip the Apostle Church in Pasadena. “While adoring the Blessed Sacrament, I was suddenly overcome with tears. They were the result of my soul recognizing that God was truly present in the host before me … there was profound peace.”
During his nearly 45 years as a priest in Los Angeles, reaching young people like Rodriguez was a top priority of O’Connell’s. From street evangelization to prayer on the beach, he was known for finding fresh ways to bring them closer to Christ.
Now 29 and a successful book illustrator, Rodriguez said she wasn’t aware of young adult fellowship until she was invited to a meeting with the bishop.
“I felt honored … wow, a bishop wants to talk to me,” recalled Rodriguez. The experience brought her into a community of young adult Catholics that she never knew existed.
That power of invitation as well as the bishop’s welcoming manner — jokes included — was important in drawing young people to explore their faith, believes Dayrin Perez, coordinator of Youth Ministry for the Archdiocese of LA. She saw him in action at confirmations, conferences, and parish events throughout his San Gabriel Pastoral Region.
“He wanted to be present and wanted them to know they were loved, they were seen and heard,” said Perez. “He was very good at meeting them where they were at.”
Following O’Connell’s March 3 funeral, a group of young people gathered at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel to pray and reflect. Among them was Michael Ramirez, moderator for the San Gabriel Pastoral Region Council. He was at the meeting the bishop was supposed to attend the day he was killed. It was fitting that they come together, he said, because O’Connell always urged them to avoid isolation and “plug-in, build a group.”
“He would call it the epidemic of loneliness,” explained Ramirez. “The anxiety, the depression, the suicides, all the struggles that youth and young people are going through. He wanted to find ways that they didn’t feel that they were alone.”
Under O’Connell’s leadership, the council created youth outings like “After Hours,” evenings of eucharistic adoration with music and food. There were larger events like “Oceans of Mercy” in 2017, an open Mass celebrated on Huntington Beach. In 2019, he accompanied a group to World Youth Day in Panama and last year spoke at the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) in Long Beach. There he guided attendees through a simplified version of the Jesus prayer; simply breathe and repeat his name. Months later, Michael Behtash said his Irish accent and soothing words have stayed with him.
“I find the prayer very calming, especially during this very busy time for me in the middle of the semester,” said the 16-year-old. “When you’re done with the prayer it will leave you feeling more fulfilled and much less stressed.”
O’Connell paid attention in a special way to mental health issues. In a 2017 interview on “We Are One Body Radio,” he opened up about his family’s history with depression and suicide, and how at times he felt “terrible anxiety.”
Later, he spoke of how a priest had introduced him to Neal Lozano’s book “Unbound: A Practical Guide to Deliverance,” and that its prayer technique gave him “peace.” He told host Father Boniface Hicks, OSB, what it’s like for people when they let go of a traumatic past.
“They could be liberated, they could feel free, they could feel new life,” said O’Connell, crediting the impact of Unbound Ministry on his work as a priest.
The bishop even started hosting retreats with Lozano so more priests could learn about the prayer ministry.
“It’s 101 Evangelization, helping people to yield to the love of God from a dark place in their heart,” said Neal Lozano, executive director of Unbound Ministry. “...He [O’Connell] continued to do the work, press through, and he never wavered.”
In 2016, O’Connell saw an opportunity in the Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis to try something new.
“He called it ‘Mercy on the Streets’ so we walked on the streets, we knocked on doors, and we said we’re here,” said Perez. “It was to evangelize and show them there’s a place that worries about them, cares about them, and is very ready to welcome them if they decide to go to church.”
When not on the streets, O’Connell was in the Catholic schools, making sure students and staff were being well-cared for. Nathan Graciano, now an adult with his own family, recalled how special it was when O’Connell celebrated Mass at his high school.
“His homilies were always so powerful. He really left an impact on everybody,” said Graciano, alum of Bishop Amat Memorial High School in La Puente. “He was also such a nice guy.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Connell didn’t forget his young flock, posting a video of encouragement on YouTube. He helped at least one couple get the Catholic wedding they wanted when churches were closed. With the help of a special emergency dispensation and a Mass kit, O’Connell celebrated the wedding of Matthew and Amber Ghanadian at an outdoor venue. Amber called the bishop a “shining light” during a dark time for the couple.
“He reminded us God is ready to bless this marriage and he allowed that to happen,” said Ghanadian, now a parishioner of St. Angela Merici in Brea in the Diocese of Orange. “It was so special. I feel like he became part of the family.”
On the day O’Connell died, he was going to introduce a new idea on the council agenda called the Shalom Project. Ramirez said the man known as a peacemaker saw too much violence in schools and wanted to teach conflict resolution. Ramirez said he hopes to make the bishop's dream a reality.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez hopes to continue the work O’Connell started, leading her own young adult pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Lisbon this summer. There, she believes, “Bishop Dave will be with us in spirit.”