Bishop-elect David O’Connell had plans to take a sabbatical after he handed off the reins as president of Catholic University of America to his successor, John Garvey, the former dean of Boston College Law School.

But his plans changed after the Vincentian priest was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to be the coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Trenton. The current bishop there, Bishop John Smith, turns 75 — the mandatory retirement age for bishops — on June 23.

Register correspondent Carlos Briceño interviewed Bishop-elect O’Connell, 55, shortly after the announcement. 

Where were you when you heard the news, and what was your reaction?

I was driving in a car to interview [a potential successor to me] as 15th president of the university. I was going downtown, and my cell phone rang, and I saw it was the papal nuncio.

I honestly didn’t think too much of it because the papal nuncio contacts me frequently about different things and different needs, so I thought it was another call to be of some assistance. And he said to me, “Are you in Washington?” And I said, “Yes.” (I travel a great deal.) I said, “I’m doing some business for the university.” And he said, “Can you stop by and see me?” Again, not an unusual request, and so I said, “Sure, I can be there around 12.” He said, “Why don’t you come at 12:30, and we can meet first and have lunch.” So I went, and we were talking, and then he put his hand up in the air and said, “Well, the Pope has something he wants me to do.” And I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “He wants you to be the bishop of Trenton.” And he said, “He’s not asking you.” I said, “Oh, wow. That’s quite an honor.” So he went on to talk about some statistics about the place and so on, and what I had to do, and I had 90 days in which I had to be consecrated.

I felt a combination of things. I felt a little scared. I felt humbled. It’s a very, very large diocese. I was a little bit in awe that the Pope had such confidence in me, that he would give me something so large to be responsible for. The nuncio made a point of saying, “You will be responsible for 805,000 souls.” When he said that, it struck me, but when he put it in those terms — that you were going to be responsible for souls — it made me realize the profound pastoral responsibility I was being asked to take on. I was happy. It’s an honor. In general, the most important feeling was a desire to serve the Church. I’ve always had that desire, so I felt really good about it.

Your meeting with the Pope when he addressed educators at Catholic University in 2008 — did that have any impact?

It’s hard to say. The Pope was very pleased with his trip to the United States. I served on the committee that planned the trip. The Pope was very happy with his meeting with the educators in 2008. I hosted him here on campus. He knew who I was; I had known him before when he was a cardinal. It’s not like we were strangers. These kinds of things are cloaked in such secrecy that you really don’t know how it happens or why it happens.
You never really know what went into it other than the fact that someone had to recommend me, and someone had to agree with the recommendation and move it forward, and others had to be contacted.

Do you know how usual or unusual it is for someone who has been a university president to be appointed a bishop?

Cardinal Ratzinger was not a university president. He was a dean and a vice president [at a university], but he went on to be the archbishop of Munich. It’s true in the case of the Pope that an academic was appointed. I’m sure there are others who have served, but I don’t think it is real common. But it has happened.

Was there something else that had been told to you about what you were going to do, or were you in limbo?

The truth be told, I had some sense that I might be considered a bishop somewhere. A lot of people said to me, “You’re going to be a bishop.” This is what I heard all the time.

I really didn’t make any plans to take on a concrete job or position immediately after leaving Catholic University. I wanted to take some time off, and in the academic world, we have this concept of sabbaticals; and so my religious community, the Vincentian Fathers, agreed that I could have a sabbatical for a year, and so I was going to take that sabbatical and go to our house in Cape May, N.J., and perhaps do some writing and some other things and basically try to rest.

Twelve years is a long time to be a college president in the United States. I think the average is either six or eight years. There is a lot of stress involved and a lot of work involved. I have never had a sabbatical in my life as an educator, and the time was right. My plans were to take this sabbatical and do some things. I had some commitments; people asked me to give talks. I had some commitments on the calendar. But, again, secondarily, I had some sense that something might happen like this, so I was leaving some space in case something did happen.

What did you know about the diocese before the appointment?

I went to high school in the diocese. I went to a high school in Princeton. It was part of the Diocese of Trenton at the time. My religious community, the Vincentians, have worked in the Diocese of Trenton since 1913. I grew up in Langhorne, Pa., which is 15 to 20 minutes from Trenton, and passed through Trenton many, many times traveling. There is a bridge there that has a big sign on it that is illumined at night: “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.” I remember seeing that sign driving through Trenton up toward New York many, many times. It was a place that wasn’t strange and, in many ways, a place that I knew well.

In my mind, and in my heart, I’m so grateful to the Pope, because I don’t think he could’ve given me a better diocese to serve. I have an elderly mother, and this will put me within 15 to 20 minutes of my mother, which is great. I can visit with her and be part of my family again in a way that I couldn’t because of the distance.

When are you going to start?

I’m going to be consecrated on July 30 in the cathedral in Trenton, and I’m going to be living in Pennington, N.J., at a parish there.

What would be some of your priorities?

This is something I’ve thought about in the last couple of weeks. My first priority is to lead people to holiness. That is the No. 1 job of the bishop: to lead people to holiness. And second, it would be to make sure that people understand the teachings of the Church, and I, as bishop, as teacher in the diocese, teach clearly, teach well and teach often. So I will pay careful attention to what I say, what I preach, what I write about, with the goal toward helping people understand their faith better.

I have strengths; I have weaknesses. I would hopefully maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses and try to match them up with the needs of the diocese.

The third thing I really need to get to do is I need to get to know the diocese by traveling, by celebrating the Eucharist in parish communities, and really getting to understand the people of the Diocese of Trenton and their deepest needs.

What’s your attitude toward new ecclesial movements, and do you envision a role for them within the diocese?

I don’t know the diocese well enough to know if there are ecclesial movements there, if they are making progress there. So that’s a question I’m going to have to find out. I can’t give you a clear answer.

On the other hand, I feel as the Pope does: that this is a very, very important manifestation of new life in the Church; and so I want to give every encouragement to groups and organizations and movements that are faithful to what the Church teaches and faithful to the values that the Church embraces and will help us to grow as a Church.

Is there anything you want to add that you feel is important?

My episcopal motto is “to serve and not to be served” (ministrare non ministrari).
The reaction has been very positive to that. People have said that that is very consistent to St. Vincent de Paul, who is the founder of the community of priests to which I belong. People have said to me, “You will have plenty of opportunity to serve and not to be served, and we wish you well in our prayers and support.” I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for me to continue to be a good and faithful priest; to do what a bishop is called to do.

Carlos Briceño writes from Naperville, Illinois.