The Passion of Bishop O’Connell

EDITORIAL: The life, ministry and death of ‘Bishop Dave’ can teach us a valuable Lenten lesson.

Bishop Dave O'Connell worked closely with undocumented immigrants including unaccompanied minors.
Bishop Dave O'Connell worked closely with undocumented immigrants including unaccompanied minors. (photo: Courtesy photo / Linda Dakin-Grimm)

Until multiple gunshots cut his life short on Feb. 18, Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell of Los Angeles was unknown to most U.S. Catholics.

But that wasn’t because he sat on his hands in the rectory or operated at a distance from a chancery office. 

“Father Dave,” then “Bishop Dave,” after his 2015 episcopal appointment, was a man of action and of prayer. 

And within hours of his death, news stories in the Los Angeles Times documented his jam-packed 45-year legacy as a priest of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, while the city’s district attorney praised his strong record of social-justice advocacy, which included outreach to undocumented immigrants, crime-ridden neighborhoods, and prisoners preparing to reenter society.

But that wasn’t the whole story. The Register’s reporters also learned that Bishop O’Connell had regularly participated in 40 Days for Life during the pro-life group’s prayer vigils at local Planned Parenthood abortion businesses and that he personally subsidized Catholic-school tuition for poor children stuck in failing public schools. Friends spoke of his efforts to bring Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body to prostitutes looking for a fresh start and remembered the many times he gave odd jobs to people living on the streets. 

Likewise, his collaborators recalled his deep spiritual bond with Jesus Christ and his Blessed Mother. Not only did he recite all the mysteries of the Holy Rosary on a daily basis, he was passionate about encouraging Catholics of all ages to deepen their relationship with God, and he was active in the Charismatic Renewal and “deliverance ministries” that helped the faithful free themselves from the shackles of sin and overcome trauma. 

The bishop’s life was tragically cut short at the age of 69. But as we traverse Lent, there is much to learn from his great hunger for securing justice for the poor and for bringing hurting souls to Christ.

First, it’s instructive to step back and reflect on the example of a beloved shepherd who defied rigid categories of “social progressive” and “social conservative.”

Truth be told, Bishop O’Connell could not be pigeonholed. And if we find ourselves mimicking the tendency of secular commentators to categorize his pastoral service in ways that place pro-life outreach in opposition to immigration work or community organizing in tension with personal piety, we need to correct that tired impulse. Instead, this is an opportunity to ponder the both/and aspects of the bishop’s countercultural witness that made him a trusted “peacemaker” in embattled neighborhoods. Our divided nation and our Church need this kind of radical witness to Christian discipleship.

Second, we should prayerfully reflect on the bishop’s remarkable work ethic and allow ourselves to be inspired by his example. Lent, after all, is a season for action, and the Catholic quip “Jesus is coming; look busy” reminds us of that fact. 

From his very first parish assignment in 1979 at St. Raymond’s Church in Downey, California, Father O’Connell embraced opportunities to assist the poor and the lonely. Just a year after his arrival, he learned that an orphanage in Tijuana needed clothing and other supplies and promptly organized a caravan of parishioners who brought this precious cargo to needy Mexican children.

Over time, he emerged as a courageous advocate for immigrants and neighborhoods consumed by gang warfare. But this work was about so much more than advancing a political agenda or providing social services. 

“He walked with us. He prayed with us,” said Ilegra Evans, a retired business manager of Ascension Catholic Church in South Los Angeles, where Father O’Connell served as a pastor in the early 2000s. “He was right there, hand in hand. He was a loving, tender person.” 

We can take a page from the life of this energetic and tender pastor. Let us keep our eyes open and look for people in our own neighborhoods who need our practical support and the equally valuable gift of our time and friendship.

And if we need a nudge, we might take up just one of the numerous pastoral commitments that filled Bishop Dave’s days. 

We can help immigrants obtain legal assistance, become involved with prison ministry, provide tuition assistance and mentoring to poor Catholic-school children or take part in pro-life prayer vigils. And we can pray the Rosary daily.

If we are preoccupied with our own troubles and question whether others should have a claim on our time and patience, consider that Bishop O’Connell carried his own cross. For many years, he suffered from bouts of depression. But the resulting emotional toll never stopped him from serving the needy. And when his cross was finally “lifted” during a healing service, he became a more fervent apostle of prayer, sharing his story of deliverance and urging others to turn to the Lord for help. 

Lent is a time of action. And this season, let’s look at how we can help complete the work that a young Irish-born priest began 45 years ago.

Let him be our inspiration and our guide this Lent, as we answer our baptismal call to bring Christ to a wounded world.