This coming Saturday, Father David O’Connell, CM, will preside over his twelfth and final graduation ceremonies as the President of the Catholic University of America. As an alumnus of CUA, I remember the excitement I felt when I first saw him walk into the bookstore at Kramerbooks 12 years ago. I recognized him from his picture in the CUA magazine and went over to introduce myself. Since that time, I have watched O’Connell’s performance with a critical but friendly eye.
It is no exaggeration to say that CUA was falling apart at the seams when O’Connell assumed the helm in 1998. Administratively, financially, and institutionally, it was in a bad way. The bishops, who own it after all, had lost confidence in the place. The only Pontifical University in the country appeared to have lost its Catholic identity. Never did you read about CUA in the Washington Post, and you rarely saw its presidents or faculty on television or heard them on the radio, and this in a town for which media is like oxygen. That great intangible, but most necessary, component, the culture of the place, felt like a patient on life-support with only the slimmest of chances for recovery.
O’Connell brought several personal qualities to the task of turning CUA around. First, he is crackerjack smart. Second, he does not micromanage, but finds the right person for a given job and let’s them do that job. This has sometimes provoked criticism from those in the clerical milieu who are accustomed to having special favors and requests granted by presidential decree but there were no complaints from the deans, faculty and staff who no longer had to worry about some "dues ex machina" intervention from above, and who felt empowered to do the jobs they were hired to do. Third, his gregarious nature was well-suited to the fundraising that has become increasingly necessary in such leadership positions and CUA is today on the soundest financial foundation it has enjoyed since Bishop Shahan hypothecated the university’s endowment to begin construction on the Shrine in 1914.
I remember many discussions with Father David about Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. What distinguishes O’Connell’s understanding of that text, and his application of it to the university, is that he saw it not as a restrictive document but as a liberating one. It is true that Pope John Paul II emphasized the importance of obedience to the truth as proclaimed by the Church’s magisterium. But, O’Connell also recognized that obedience itself opens up avenues of inquiry, knowledge and truth that are unknown to those whose commitments are different, that the mystery of the Crucified who is Risen makes demands upon our intellects as well as our wills and that obedience is the proper stance towards that mystery, and that this stance demanded that the university become home to what is best and most fruitful in American Catholic culture. For example, some conservatives raised eyebrows when O’Connell hosted a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s "Mass," but as O’Connell exclaimed at the time, "Where else would you perform this great work?!" O’Connell’s hopeful, engaged vision of Ex Corde could not be more different from that of those fearful, isolationist, shrill Catholics who confuse Catholic identity with nostalgia for a past that never was.
But, the most important quality that Father O’Connell brought to his tenure at CUA was this: He loves being a priest. Around the campus, when you hear someone say, "Father thinks…" or "Father said…." you know of whom they are speaking. I know he is responsible for many priestly vocations from among the student body. He presides at Mass during times of crisis, such as in the days after the earthquake in Haiti, and during times of celebration, such as the annual Baccalaureate Mass. The Catholic identity of the school has improved not only because of some of the changes he made, but mostly because of who he is and the example he set. I often hear it said of someone in a prominent administrative position within the Church: You know, if he wasn’t a priest, he would be a successful CEO or a politician or some such. No one ever says that of David O’Connell because it is impossible to imagine him as anything but a priest.
In the last 12 years, Father O’Connell also became my friend. My liberal friends would ask how I could hang out with such a conservative, and his conservative friends asked him the same. We mostly disagree about everything – except the essentials. I recognized immediately in O’Connell someone who really loved the Lord and loved His Church, and I think he saw some of that in me too. Just as important, and in a way related, is that fact that O’Connell has been Washington’s best dinner companion these past twelve years, smart, a skilled conversationalist with a small "c" catholic range of interests, possessed of a great sense of humor, and someone who enjoys good food and wine. But, fundamentally, what distinguishes O’Connell from other smart friends is what has distinguished his service at CUA, namely, his priesthood. In this Year of the Priest, I have often thought of how very blessed I have been to have experienced the incredible ministry of many fine priests in my life, and Father O’Connell is at the top of the list, for me and for many, many others in the CUA family.
Ave atque vale Father O’Connell. We at CUA shall miss you.