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.
Just about everyone I knew was surprised that Msgr. David O’Connell — a priest working in South LA — was appointed auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles.
I heard the news earlier than most. I was working at The Tidings and Vida Nueva in 2015, and I was asked to write about the appointment before the public announcement. O’Connell was named auxiliary bishop along with Msgr. Joseph Brennan and Father Robert Barron. Of the three, Bishop Dave was the hardest to reach.
When I finally did reach him, the first thing he asked was about me and my family. Bishop Dave didn’t care to talk about himself much. Frankly, we wanted to write more about his work before his appointment, but he didn’t really cooperate. He always suggested someone else we should write about.
“It’s been a great privilege, a great blessing to be given these parishes all these years, to be a pastor all these years. The people have touched my heart the way they are sincere,” he eventually told me. “They follow Jesus. … Despite the fact that they are poor or suffering, they still love their Catholic parish, and they still help as much as they can.”
Like so many of you, I was devastated to hear of Bishop Dave’s murder. I haven’t stopped thinking about him, replaying my interactions with him in my mind and rereading old stories that quote him. I remember seeing him in deep conversations with co-workers at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center. And the time he introduced me to Carmelite Father Tracy O’Sullivan, a retired priest who was serving in El Salvador when I interviewed him.
What became clear was Bishop Dave’s eagerness to talk about the good work of others. And he sure did like to talk about Jesus.
He worked alongside community leaders and law enforcement in various gang intervention programs. He also started the SoCal Immigration Task Force, was the adviser for the Catholic Men’s Fellowship of California, and was involved with community organizing efforts. He visited inmates in prison and immigrants in detention.
“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,” Bishop Dave told my friend and former colleague R.W. Dellinger.
For consolation, I’ve also been watching Bishop Dave talks on YouTube. It helps. I laugh and cry hearing his voice and seeing his gentle demeanor. I came across a wonderful talk posted by the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry.
Bishop Dave tells the story of an elderly woman he saw at a eucharistic procession when he was a teenager. She seemed poor and her hands were gnarled from arthritis. As the Blessed Sacrament came into view, the woman said to the Lord, “Alana, what could I have done without you all these years?” (In Gaelic, Bishop Dave explained, “Alana” means “beloved child.”)
It was a formative moment in his life. “I didn’t know you could just talk to Jesus like that, with love. And that you could speak to him like a beloved son or daughter or a beloved friend,” he said.
Bishop Dave also shared how, at a low moment in his life, he felt that Jesus or the Blessed Mother taught him a new way to pray.
Sit straight with two feet planted on the ground, he explained. Breathe softly through your nose. “Imagine you’re breathing into your heart,” he said. “Each time you breathe into your heart, imagine it says ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,’ or ‘Jesús, Jesús, Jesús.’ Just say his name with love every time you breathe into your heart. If any thoughts come into your head, let them go again and go back to focusing on soft breathing into your heart, and your heart saying Jesus.”
The peace and calm that follows will be from Jesus, he said. “He knows where you’re hurting. He knows where you’re damaged. He knows the traumas in your life. He knows where the wounds are,” Bishop Dave said. “But every time you say his name with love in your heart, he heals one more wound.”
That prayer has been helping me.
Funny moments in video clips also help. St. Paul the Apostle Church in Chino Hills has a lovely video with Bishop Dave titled “Rebuild My Church.” As it opens, Bishop Dave says, “They told me I haven’t changed a bit since 1984. I said, ‘I didn’t know I looked so bad in 1984.’ ”
He went on: “Time flies when you’re enjoying yourself. As I got older, I realized, time flies even when you’re not enjoying yourself.”
The jokes, I think, were another tool that helped him bring Jesus to others. His humor softened our hearts. Maybe Bishop Dave even prepared us to accept Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
It is good to celebrate his life, but lately I’ve been thinking it is not enough. To truly honor Bishop Dave, we must follow his example and make Jesus the center of our lives.
“That’s the way of the apostles, you know,” he told me of the path to Jesus. “You choose it again and again. And we travel deeper on that journey.”