The news came like a shot in the dark. Unexpected. Frightening. Bishop David O’Connell had been murdered in his home on Feb. 18. I and countless others who knew him began a difficult process of mourning for a good and holy man, a man who had been the face of Jesus to so many.
Lent came early for us all.
“Bishop Dave” was a dear friend to many people from all walks of life. We had met at an event years earlier, two Irish emigrants who loved the United States, a decent cup of tea, and long walks outside. We were two people drawn together by the hand of God.
His hearty laugh, mystical soul, and profound love for Jesus and the Blessed Mother became a constant source of strength and peace for me throughout the years. We often called each other when we were out walking — he in balmy California, me bundled up in the frozen tundra of Northeast Wisconsin.
Grief had touched both of our lives, and in our conversations we found an easy friendship that defied the 25 years that separated us.
Once, after I went through a tough time, he called and spent an hour on the phone with me, praying and teaching me what he called his “Prayer of the Heart.”
Not long after, he texted me these words: “God cannot catch us unless we stay in the unconscious room of the heart. This is the reason for the Prayer of the Heart.” To this day, this prayer remains one of the greatest gifts he has given me.
When I would travel to attend meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he was a touchstone of home. We always made time to see each other, praying as we walked the inner harbor of Baltimore, the bustling streets of Washington D.C., or the bright pavements of Palm Springs. He was my friend and his death has cut me to the bone.
And yet, in this month when we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I can’t help but read the parallels between the lives of St. Patrick and Bishop Dave.
They were two men sent from their home countries as missionaries of God’s love, mercy, and light; two bishops who loved the poor, the outcast, the marginalized; two priests who were conscious of the harsh reality of sin and suffering, but also of the newness of life that can be found only in Jesus; two men separated by centuries, but both compelled to share the same good news of God’s love that had transformed their lives and captured their hearts.
Bishop Dave grew up in Cork, Ireland, but was sent to the United States, just like St. Patrick who grew up in Roman Briton and was sent to the Irish.
O’Connell carried out his public ministry on the streets of Los Angeles, amidst the noise and intensity of one of the busiest cities in the world. It is a city filled with the hopeless, homeless, addicted, and lost, a place where luxury and squalor exist side-by-side. Father O’Connell made himself at home in one of the city’s most difficult areas, where families struggle to survive and stay together, and drugs and gang violence prey on the innocence of young people.
In the days following his death, the world began to talk about how remarkable he was, specifically his work with the poor, immigrants, victims of human trafficking, people in gangs and so many more. Many people wondered where his strength came from. Like St. Patrick, Bishop Dave burned with the fire of divine love that shone through him, a love that he knew personally and wanted to share with others.
Bishop David believed that each person, no matter who he was, what he had done, or what situation he found himself in, was worthy of love. To him, each person was the face of Jesus.
“They are all God’s children,” he would say to me. “They are beautiful, too.” Despite my occasional pleas for him to be cautious and safe on the streets, he would chuckle and tell me, “Child, comfort and safety is not where the Gospel lives.”
He is right. Love is not comfortable, and for many of us, we are afraid to love with our whole heart. We are afraid to love people who are different from us: those who vote, think, live, or look differently. But not Bishop Dave. His love cut across all divisions to the heart of each person as a beloved child of God. His love was what truly divine love looks like — unafraid.
In the weeks before his death, Bishop Dave and I had been texting back and forth prayers and songs to each other. I shared with him my great love for a prayer attributed to St. Columba. The last lines of this prayer seem particularly poignant in the light of these last few weeks:
“O breathe on me , O Breath of God, /
So I shall never die, /
But live with you, the perfect life /
For all eternity.”
A shot in the dark may have ended Bishop Dave’s life, but not his legacy. Like St. Patrick, the light of his life will burn brighter through the witness of all those who share his memory. The world is a better place, a more Christ-like place, because of his courage.
Now he walks in the company of the saints in heaven. I like to think that St. Patrick and the Blessed Mother walked him home into the arms of his beloved Jesus.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). So we have.
Thank you, Bishop O’Connell, for being the light of Jesus Christ for so many.