In the final moments of his life, Bishop David O’Connell was not alone, but rather welcomed into heaven by those he loved most.
That is the firm belief of Msgr. Timothy Dyer, the late bishop’s friend who delivered the homily at a March 1 memorial Mass at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Hacienda Heights.
“When the bullets were being fired, Christ was looking at Dave right in the eyes and he said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ ” said Dyer, pastor of St. Patrick Church in South Los Angeles. “I’ve prepared a place for you in the Father’s house.”
Clapping erupted before Dyer could even finish.
“And there’s someone there who was waiting for you too, the one you always called the Blessed Mother,” continued Dyer, “as well as your own mother waiting to hold you in her arms.”
The Mass, the first of three farewell liturgies for O’Connell, was presided by Archbishop Jose H. Gomez at the parish O’Connell called home since becoming auxiliary bishop for the San Gabriel Pastoral Region in 2015. It was organized by the San Gabriel Pastoral Region, for which O’Connell served as episcopal vicar.
Archbishop emeritus Cardinal Roger Mahony, Auxiliary Bishop Marc Trudeau, Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange, and emeritus Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernardino were among the bishops who concelebrated the Eucharist alongside dozens of priests.
More than 1,000 mourners crowded the church just blocks from the home where O’Connell was killed Feb. 18. The accused gunman has been charged with murder and is awaiting arraignment later this month.
Family members from Bishop O’Connell’s native Ireland sat in the first row at the Mass. His nieces and nephews recited the Prayers of the Faithful, while younger brother Kieran shared memories of what turned out to be their final family get-together with O’Connell.
“Our last visit here, just at Christmas, seems more special: the Christmas Mass here…our Christmas dinner, we forever cherish those memories,” said Kieran. “I thank you most sincerely for taking care of Dave for these last 45 years. I know that he was happiest here among his people.”
His words provoked a standing applause from those in attendance. Later, the eyes of James Ponnet, himself the brother of Los Angeles priest Father Chris Ponnet, filled with tears as he imagined the family’s suffering.
“It’s just a joy to have a priest in the family so I could really feel his pain,” said Ponnet.
At the beginning of the Mass, Archbishop Gomez read a special condolence message from Pope Francis, who named O’Connell a bishop in 2015. His words recognized the bishop’s “profound concern for the poor, immigrants and those in need” as well as his “efforts to uphold the sanctity and dignity of God’s gift of life.”
In his homily, Dyer stood next to a large photo of the bishop and praised his ability to throw out a “wide net” that connected people in need with people who could help. Dyer revealed during a moment of “anxiety” in his own life, he, too, called upon his brother priest.
“He put his hands on my head and he prayed that the Blessed Mother would protect me,” described Dyer. “I could see when he prayed, in his face he was carrying the worry and pain that was affecting me … throughout all his years he would respond to people with prayer and he would care for them.”
While saddened by the tragic passing of the bishop, many in the crowd found themselves uplifted by the testimonials and the presence of one another. Barbara Rey says she was lucky enough to go on a Fatima pilgrimage with O’Connell.
“I couldn’t stop crying because you feel the loss and how he died is deeply painful,” said Rey, parishioner of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church, Montebello. “But then to see this community and such an outpouring of love that he gave for those years come back to him … it just makes me happy to be Catholic.”
Rosalind Marquez said she felt inspired to answer the call to carry on O’Connell’s work.
“He is an inspiration for us to go out and be fishers of men and to share God's love with others,” said Marquez, also from Miraculous Medal. “It was really touching. Tonight I feel like OK, I’m going to go be that light.”
Seminarian Christian Morquecho is undergoing his intern year at St. John Vianney. He said the bishop was someone to model.
“He was so kind, so simple, so funny. He was very present,” noted Morquecho. “For me personally, getting to serve at his memorial Mass is a real gift.”
St. John Vianney pastor Msgr. Timothy Nichols ended the Mass by delivering the eulogy, offering some final words of praise for his dear friend.
“It has been an absolute privilege and an honor to know him and to love him and to serve him as a great person, great priest, great bishop and someday, a great saint.”