I know I’ll have to forgive Bishop David O’Connell’s killer. But for now I’m grieving a great pastor.
I was at the park with my kids on Saturday. I had sent my wife the mandatory selfie to prove we were at the park (and not, say, eating ice cream). She texted back, in all caps, to tell me that Bishop David O’Connell, the auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, had died.
“Bishop Dave?” I texted back. I have been in shock ever since. I haven’t stopped thinking about him. I wake up in the middle of the night and I think about him. About what happened in his final moments. About the interactions I had with him. I try to pray myself back to sleep, repeating the Hail Mary over and over.
The still uncertain picture of his death makes it more difficult to grieve. The bishop was found in his home dead of a gunshot wound. On Monday, a suspect—the husband of the bishop’s housekeeper—was arrested, but no motive was given.
I didn’t know him as well as others did, so part of me also feels like my sadness is unjustified. And then there is regret. As a journalist, I could have tried to highlight his work more than I did. I might have had more time with him and did my part to let others know of his work.
I didn’t know Bishop Dave as well as others did, so part of me also feels like my sadness is unjustified. And then there is regret.
In 2014, then-Father David O’Connell was one of the first priests I met when I moved to Los Angeles. That was the year I began serving as the editor in chief of The Tidings, the Los Angeles archdiocesan newspaper. Before I met the Irish-born priest, my superiors told me how great he was. How he was a living saint. And how he was hilarious.
After I did meet him, though, I thought: “Huh. He seems kind of shy.” I mean, he was kind. But he didn’t “own the room,” as they say. He was meek. I wasn’t expecting that, not in L.A. I later understood that this was not a priest that served Beverly Hills. His ministry was in South Los Angeles.
“He was a peacemaker with a heart for the poor and the immigrant, and he had a passion for building a community where the sanctity and dignity of every human life was honored and protected,” Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles said of Bishop Dave. “He was also a good friend, and I will miss him greatly.”
As far as I know, Bishop Dave did not write any lengthy reflections or pen in-depth theological treaties. I don’t think he had time for that. He was too busy being present to the people he served. But over the last few days, I have been reading old stories about him. I’ve focused on his quotes in particular, and I can hear his lovely brogue as I read them to myself. (You can find a lot of articles at angelusnews.com.) I can’t stop thinking about how he exemplified the Beatitudes.
Like all great pastors, Bishop Dave preached through his actions.
A few years ago, I interviewed Bishop Dave for a story announcing the appointments of three new auxiliary bishops to the Los Angeles archdiocese. (The other two were bishops Robert Barron and Joseph Brennan, both of whom now lead their own dioceses.)
Funny thing about Bishop Dave. He was tough to interview because he didn’t like to talk about himself. But he did tell me how, on one occasion, he found two dead bodies in the parking lot of St. Frances X. Cabrini Church in South L.A. When he was appointed pastor to that parish in 1988, during the crack-cocaine epidemic in the area, there were killings in the neighborhood every night, he said.
“I’ve been part of the people’s lives, and been there during the suffering of the young people who have lost their lives so many times, but I haven’t had any problems,” he said. “I do believe what’s really important is for us to be out in the neighborhoods, to be out with the people.”
In the same interview, he said:
It’s been the great joy of my life to be the pastor of these people, especially the ones who are suffering or in need or facing difficulty. And it’s been a great privilege, a great blessing to be given these parishes all these years, to be pastor all these years. The people have touched my heart the way they are sincere.
Like all great pastors, Bishop Dave preached through his actions. He started the SoCal Immigration Task Force a number of years ago. He was the spiritual advisor for the Catholic Men’s Fellowship of California and very involved with community organizing efforts. He spoke directly to the suffering caused by sexual abuse by the clergy. He visited immigrants in detention and inmates in prison. He also worked together with law enforcement and the communities he served to reduce violence. (And he did school blessings, too.)
A couple of months after his episcopal ordination, Bishop Dave visited St. Frances X. Cabrini Church, where he served for 15 years. (My friend R. W. Dellinger covered the visit.)
“We don’t know from one moment to the next. We can’t say that now my life is guaranteed to be like this or like that,” Bishop Dave told the congregation during his homily. “And most of all we’ve got to trust. Just like you have to trust that our archbishop will assign a good pastor here to you. We have to trust what Jesus has in store for us. We can’t plan it.”
His ministry was about helping people have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, he told Mr. Dellinger. Everything else comes from that encounter. “When I work for immigrants, work for the poor, work for prisoners, work for gang intervention, it’s to help them know that Jesus cares for them, loves them,” Bishop Dave said.
I’m not sure who or what I will have to forgive just yet, since the investigation is pending. But I’ll work on forgiveness when the time comes.
I remember being delighted on the few occasions that Bishop Dave visited me in my office. It was never announced, so I was a bit surprised. I’d jump to my feet to greet him, and ask him to sit down. He was just saying hello, or more often than not, sharing the good work someone else was doing. They seemed like such brief, insignificant little conversations. But today I treasure them and every other memory I have of Bishop Dave.
In 2017, I covered an immigration event at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights, attended by both Bishop Dave and then-Mayor Eric Garcetti. Recent immigration crackdowns had frightened members of the community who were undocumented. Bishop Dave explained that the church was forming an alliance with city officials so that “our people feel welcomed.”
“I’m an immigrant, too,” Bishop Dave told those gathered, in both English and Spanish. “Though I’m not from Mexico—I’m from Guatemala,” he said to laughter. “No, no. I’m from Ireland.”
He continued: “We are a family, in good times and bad times. We are not going to abandon anyone.… We cannot continue like this, with so many people living in fear. Before we have a change in the law, we have to have a change of heart.”
On Tuesday, Larry Dietz, the vice president of the Knights of Columbus’ San Gabriel Valley chapter in California, told Angelus that Bishop Dave “wouldn’t want us to hate. He said you have to pray, you have to forgive.”
I’m sure he’s right. I’m not sure who or what I will have to forgive just yet, since the investigation is pending. But I’ll work on forgiveness when the time comes. In the meantime, though, I’m doing my best to be grateful that I knew Bishop Dave. By his words and actions, he led me and so many others closer to Jesus.