The dark clouds of a weather system of historic proportions added to the heaviness already felt by the thousands at the 2023 LA Religious Education Congress Feb. 23-26 in Anaheim, a week after the death of beloved Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell.

But as the sun came out Sunday morning, organizers had pulled together a bilingual prayer service in O’Connell’s honor, presided by Archbishop José H. Gomez. His life was celebrated in many ways with Irish prayers and music, images of O’Connell from throughout the years, and testimonies from some of those who knew him best.

Father Jarlath “Jay” Cunnane of St. Cornelius Church in Long Beach was O’Connell’s best friend, a relationship forged during their seminary days in Ireland 50 years ago.

Cunnane, from County Sligo, recalled how O’Connell, a County Cork native, used to say: “A Cork man will always leave without saying goodbye, but a Sligo man will say goodbye but he would never leave.”

“Dave, you went and left without saying goodbye,” said Cunnane.

Archbishop Gomez assured the crowd that O’Connell is ready to intercede for them from his new home.

O'Connell prayer

An image of Bishop David O'Connell is seen before the start of a special prayer service for the late bishop at the LA Religious Education Congress Feb. 26, 2023. (Victor Alemán)

“Now he has more power because he’s in heaven, and I’m sure you’re going to feel his presence more,” said the archbishop.

O’Connell’s figure was prominent all weekend at Congress. Workshop speakers referenced him frequently, while a book of remembrance was set up for him in the Congress’ Sacred Space, to be presented to his family at his March 3 funeral Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. He had been scheduled to participate in the “Front Row with Archbishop” Congress event on Saturday as a featured guest on the conversation of Catholic Social Teaching. The event was later canceled. 

Even freeway-adjacent digital billboards flashed memorial messages with his photo that attendees noticed on their way into Anaheim. Angelus has since learned that the signage, which appeared on 30 billboards throughout Southern California, was a gift from State Sen. Bob Archuleta, who considered O’Connell a friend.  

This year marked the first fully in-person Congress since 2020 due to the pandemic. Attendees found plenty of moments to reflect on the late bishop’s life and legacy while clutching onto this year’s theme, “Embrace Grace.”

Saturday morning saw a thunderclap moment that wasn’t weather-related when Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Espaillat of New York took the arena stage as keynote speaker to deliver on his opening promise: “My intention is to light a fire — a fire in us.”

In a pre-event interview, the country’s youngest Catholic bishop and the first Dominican-American prelate had told Angelus that “lives are going to get rocked” at Congress. The 46-year-old may have underpromised and overdelivered.

“When I say ‘Jesus,’ you say ‘lives’!” Espaillat woke up the thousands in the arena at about 8:30 a.m., seizing the stage following a quieter and more contemplative half-hour prelude of musical and cultural reflection.

“There ain’t no party like a Holy Spirit party ’cause a Holy Spirit party don’t stop!” he proclaimed with a hip-hop cadence.

His talk drew from a slideshow presentation of Scripture, quotes from several religious figures, statistical charts and pop-culture references. It also extracted data that warned about the dangers of some social media becoming too much of a negative influence. Espaillat incorporated it all, switching between English and Spanish, imploring how the love of God, the mercy of Jesus, and the catapulting effect of the Holy Spirit can help us “stop maintaining the status quo.”

At one point, a group of high school cheerleaders attending a national “spirit” event at the other end of the Convention Center exhibit halls gathered outside the arena doors to hear what was going on.

The 55-minute high-octane revival led to one of the longest and loudest ovations inside the arena in recent memory. Espaillat then asked the attendees to stand, close their eyes, open their hands and pray for healing.

Congress keynote

Congress attendees pray during Bishop Espaillat's keynote presentation Feb. 25, 2023. (Victor Alemán)

Afterward, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S., said Espaillat’s keynote talk “was not just a show, it was something much deeper.”

“His style appeals to a lot of people, younger people,” said Pierre as he greeted people leaving the convention center area. “But what I liked was the message, with very sound theology and in line with what Pope Francis wants for us, to communicate the Gospel to the people using their language and their capacity to understand.”

Loreena Garcia, a 37-year-old catechist leading the confirmation program at St. Joseph Church in La Puente, said that as a social media evangelizer and content creator she appreciated how Espaillat found common ground in a world where Catholic messaging too often defaults into one extreme or another.

“I think sometimes as a youth you feel stifled by different things in the Church, and there isn’t enough about how ‘I’m just trying to live my Catholic life,’ ” said Garcia, also involved in The Salesian Family of LASGV Search young adult encounter movement.

“I try to live that. It was empowering when he said, ‘The power of Jesus is you and you need to go out and be.’ I loved his youthful exuberance and his fire. He was amazing. He showed you could experience Jesus with all your senses.”

In today’s troublesome and turbulent world, several workshops focused on themes that dealt with practical ways one can faithfully navigate. Allusions to O’Connell were often invoked as examples.

Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, said in his arena talk about apostolic wholeness and the kinship of God that he was once asked, “How do you talk about faith?” He responded, “I don’t.”

“Faith can get stuck in your head as creedal statements and doctrine,” he said. “But Bishop Dave allowed his faith to find its way to his feet. … He stood with those feet with the poor, the powerless, and the voiceless. He stood with those whose dignity had been denied. And those whose burdens are more than they could carry.

“So do you talk about faith? Eh, not so much. Dave embodied this.”

Julianne Stanz, in a Saturday workshop entitled “Ministering in the Midst of Disruption,” talked about how her Irish-Celtic upbringing was the initial basis for her friendship with O’Connell.

Stanz, who led the worship program at the Sunday prayer service for the bishop, said his spiritual guidance and relatable experiences helped her write the book, “Braving the Thin Places: Celtic Wisdom to Create a Space for Grace.”

Stanz explained the nuances of the Celtic cross with its circle embedded in the cross as a representation of the sun, and O’Connell’s works “made our lives better by the light that he had.”

Congress Gomez

Archbishop Gomez with local teens after the Feb. 23 Youth Day Mass at the 2023 LA Religious Education Congress in Anaheim. (Victor Alemán)

Organizers said more than 10,000 registered to attend the Friday-Saturday-Sunday events in person, and more than 5,000 young people and chaperones also came to Thursday’s Youth Day. Its theme of Strive4Live included a Mass presided by Archbishop Gomez and concelebrated by more than 40 priests.

Archbishop Gomez also celebrated the weekend’s closing Sunday Mass on Feb. 26. There, he invited participants to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and “let the Spirit open our eyes to see the signs of the times.”

The Spirit, he assured them, is at work today “in our parishes and schools and in our communities.”

“We see young families not afraid to go against the grain of the culture, living their faith with zeal and joy, striving to be everyday saints, raising their kids to know Jesus and to live for him.”

“It’s happening,” he added. “There’s a new awakening, a new religious revival beginning.”