Three new bishops in Los Angeles: sketches of an ordination

Yesterday afternoon in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez ordained three new bishops for service in the archdiocese – Monsignors Joseph Brennan and David O’Connell of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Father Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Chicago.  

It’s been a long time since the archdiocese had an episcopal ordination, 11 years, and over three and a half since the archdiocese first needed a replacement for Bishop Gabino Zavala, who resigned in 2012 amidst revelations that he had fathered two children. Things move slow in Rome, even for the largest archdiocese in the United States.


It’s impossible for the tone of this ordination, as for all liturgies at the Cathedral, not to be affected by the tapestries that hang down from either side of the nave. Designed by John Nava, these 25 art pieces offer larger-than-life images of 135 saints and children, each as alive and realistic as a painting of your grandmother or your little brother, all looking forward to the sanctuary, echoing and anticipating the procession.

One of these tapestries was used as the cover for James Martin, S.J.’s bestselling memoir “My Life with the Saints,” and his thesis in that book captures well what shines from these canvases, and what we’re about here today – being a saint does not entail being in possession of some otherworldly purity or inhuman power. No, it is in being ourselves, with all our assets and wrinkles, that we offer one another a glimpse of the kingdom that is promised and the God who loves us so deeply. Being a saint means just being who you are.

There’s also something strange about the space of the cathedral. The ceiling soars at the front, while the wings slope back so gently they give the impression that people are farther away than they actually are. Yet nothing seems to get lost or diminished here. It has a presence, this church, a life to it. It’s hardly older than a decade, but to come here is to feel as though you’re entering into a prayer that began quite some time ago and will continue far into the future. It’s as though each of our prayers are the holy oil that continue to soak into these walls, blessing and nourishing them and all who will come after. Our song lingers in the space like incense.

The Mass starts slow, the music taking its time as more than four hundred priests process in chasubles of cream and gold. You don’t see those kinds of numbers much these days. And intriguingly, they are far less grey-haired and balding than news reports often suggest. The church in Los Angeles is diverse and alive.

At the back some of the 80 seminarians and pre-seminarians look along and above and around each other like children waiting for the appearance of a favorite uncle. After the priests arrive at their seats they slide into the last row of the priests’ chairs, share furtive glances, getting-away-with-it grins.

Archbishop Gomez leads us into prayer. In his words sing the ready melody of Mexico that is the voice of so much of this archdiocese. He’s a quiet man, Gomez. He doesn’t draw attention to himself. It’s not that he’s shy; in fact, he can be quite playful. He begins his homily musing, “I now think I should’ve asked for more auxiliary bishops,” nodding at the jackpot of bishops he has received. “The Holy Father was granting me all that I asked for.” He’s just not someone who needs to demonstrate who he is.

His homily is short, barely five minutes, and to the point.  “You are the light of the world,” he tells the new bishops, echoing the words of the Gospel. “But always remember the light you hold is not your own.  Your mission is to radiate and reflect the light of Christ and let others into this light.” To be a bishop, he says, “is a privilege of service. It is not a privilege of status or position.” Over and over he keeps it simple and lets the liturgy speak for itself.

Apostolic Nuncio to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò reads the mandates from the Apostolic See, each of them with its own few well-crafted lines of support and invitation – “May the gift of the Paraclete Spirit together with the intercession of the Virgin Mother continually sustain you and gladden your spirit,” he writes to Brennan; work “for the good of the faithful” of Los Angeles, he asks Bishop Barron, “especially the needy, the sick and the poor.”

As this goes on, the three of them stand to one side, a study in contrasts. Barron, 55, former rector president of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago and creator of the internationally renowned Word on Fire Catholic Ministries apostolate, tall, slightly stooped and maybe a bit surprised – he’s probably been to a hundred of these, and now suddenly it’s his own.

Former Vicar General Brennan stands beside him even taller, hands in a position of prayer, somehow boyish even at 61. A smile seems always ready to break over his face. O’Connell, 62, longtime pastor to the underserved of South L.A., waits on the other side, his small, plain silver cross catching the midday sun. Something about him, maybe the white beard, gives a sort of movie-star-rascal quality.

Before the laying on of hands the ordinandi lay down on the marble floor, their chasubles swimming around them as the gathered kneel and sing the Litany of the Saints. Priests go through a similar ritual when ordained deacons and then priests. The marble, a cool respite from the heat of the vestments and the crowd. And for a moment it’s as though you enter another world; the singing is far away and there is just a sense of quiet, an unexpected shelter with the Lord. It’s a moment to relish what is. “Christ, Graciously Hear Us” the congregation sings.

There’s a lot of action to watch during an episcopal ordination – the laying on of hands, the blessing with oil, the ring-around-the-rosy presentation of ring, miter and crozier. For me, though, it’s all about touch – the archbishop holding the man’s hands in his own; the gentle press of bishops’ palms upon the new bishops’ heads; the pouring of the thick, scented holy oil into their hair. Each moment shines with a prodigal paternity, the kindly father who delights in his son. There’s a fraternity here as well, the gathered bishops stand in a semicircle around the men, protective, understanding.

And then, just like that, the ordination part of the liturgy is over. The presentation of the gifts is like an exhalation, while rich harmonies from the choir signal that we can let it all go now. All is well.  

O’Connell speaks for the three at the end, noting that Brennan preached the Mass the night before, and if you want to hear Barron “you can find him on your iPhone.”

Of all the affirmation and praise they’ve gotten he says, “We might get to thinking that we’re ‘all that.’ But we have to remember this treasure comes in very humble vessels.”And he talks of the world today, “the river of suffering” we witness. “It seems like half the poor of the world are migrants and refugees seeking a better life.” Pope Francis, he says, “Wants us to put into practice our faith in small or big actions of kindness and charity each day, so that the world once again may see the merciful face of Jesus, a world that needs that merciful face so much.”

After Communion the men walk up and down the entire church, offering their first blessings. Spontaneous starbursts of applause erupt in different corners as they pass. Barron will take over in the Santa Barbara region of the archdiocese, O’Connell in the San Gabriel Valley and Brennan in the San Fernando. And as they walk amongst their flock you can see it in their faces, the sense of wonder at what’s just happened, the question marks of a future that will be a surprise.

It’s all been quietly moving, and at the same time, nothing flashy. And that’s just fine. In L.A., believe it or not, they don’t need flashy. The moment speaks for itself. 

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