Bishop David O’Connell was installed as the bishop of Trenton, N.J., in December 2010, following a long career in education, including the presidency of The Catholic University of America. This past December, serious infections caused by diabetes led to an emergency amputation of his left leg midway between knee and ankle. He has been working throughout his recovery and is learning to walk again using a prosthetic leg.
The Register spoke with Bishop O’Connell about his illness and recovery, his diocese and Pope Francis’ visit to Trenton’s neighboring archdiocese, Philadelphia, in September.
Your Excellency, how are you, and how is your recovery coming along?
I’m making steady progress with the rehabilitation. I’m learning to walk again. I can tell you it was a lot easier the first time around! We take so much for granted, even just taking a single step. I’ve been very blessed. The support of the people of the diocese has really been overwhelming.
In your reflection on the 23rd World Day of the Sick, you wrote the following: “People do not ‘ask’ or ’seek’ to be sick; rather, they endure and face it when it arises — some willingly and with courage; others with fear and trembling. Some with faith and hope; others with desperation. Some with trust and confidence in God’s will and mercy; others with the utter meaninglessness of their disbelief in the providence of God. Some with peace and a sense of union with the sufferings of the Lord Jesus; others buried in unrelenting loneliness. Some with the promise of heaven in their grasp; others with the nothingness of hell before them.”
Many who suffer illness experience these moments. What has your own struggle been like?
I had a problem with my left leg, especially the foot, since the day I arrived in the diocese. In fact, my first day here, I arrived, dropped my bags off and went directly to the hospital. It’s something that has been with me since becoming the bishop of Trenton. It really hasn’t impeded my being able to do all the things I need to do and want to do as bishop. I kept a full schedule of confirmations and visits and talks, and I was able to maintain that up until December.
I recognized at that time that there was something more seriously wrong with my leg, and that it needed a drastic intervention, but I must tell you that my own experience has been surprisingly peaceful. I accepted the proposal of losing the limb — and no one wants to lose a part of his body — as my cross and with faith that the Lord would be by my side.
By nature, I’m a pretty cheerful person, so I think I’ve been able to handle things cheerfully. People talk to me about grieving the loss of a limb and depression, but I haven’t encountered anything like that at all. I have my fair share of little irritations. There are some days I wish I could just jump up and do things as I did before, so I think God is teaching me to slow down a bit. When I was in the hospital and rehab, and I saw the tremendous sufferings and challenges that others around me had, I recognize that, really, I’m a lucky man, and I feel pretty blessed.
I have been able to maintain my schedule, even when I was in the hospital, even the day after the amputation. I currently work here from the home office. Meetings continue; I get my correspondence twice a day and respond; priests and staff continue to be received here with me; I just finished taping my weekly radio show and taping the annual appeal. No grass is growing under my feet. Or should I say “foot”?
Has it given this Lent any added meaning?
It’s something that has been part of my own movement into Lent. I’m conscious of this disability and that it is requiring sacrifice on my part. The biggest sacrifice is the fact that I can’t get out and see my people. I’m here in the residence, and I do a lot of work from here, but this has been a real challenge. There’s something about confronting real challenges in life that does test your faith, and that’s what Lent is all about.
Lent is recognition of the challenges you have to face and the resolution that you make to overcome them to be better. In the course of my ministry and many years as a priest, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve told, “Don’t lose faith, hope; don’t give up; don’t be afraid.”
Now, this Lent and this experience have been my chance to listen to my own advice. God has been ever-present. I’ve had that sense very clearly in the crosses and also the successes each day. This is a Lent that I won’t soon forget.
We are drawn closer to the Lord because we become aware of our shared dependence. That’s something as human beings we don’t think about a whole lot. We are totally dependent on God and on others. When you don’t have a leg, you can’t walk. You need people to get you out of bed; you need people to help you. I need people to teach me how to relearn how to take a step, stand up, sit down, walk up a stair. You don’t think about these things. I do feel that this experience has deepened my realization of dependency, and that, maybe, isn’t the worst thing.
Shifting focus to Trenton, what are some of the challenges you’re facing in the diocese, and what are some of the pressing issues you hope to address?
I’m facing the same challenges other bishops are facing. For me, always, the transmission of faith is the main thing that’s in my mind. How do I hand on the faith, and in handing it on, how do I encourage people to believe and live and witness it? That’s a challenge that never changes, and my temporary disability hasn’t changed that at all.
I want to make sure that all of us in the diocese evangelize effectively. When people have moved or drifted from the faith, we can bring them back to the practice of their faith, but we also need to help them see their faith as something meaningful and purposeful in their lives.
Most dioceses are experiencing the closing of schools. Trenton has been lucky. We have not had to deal with that for a couple years, but now we are. That’s never an easy thing, especially because it touches young people and young families, and that’s a difficult experience. Two or three parishes have decided to close their schools; and one high school.
The other question is about personnel: I’ll be ordaining five priests this year, but I have seven retiring. We have 166 diocesan priests in Trenton, and within the next five years, 51 of them will retire. So I have 107 parishes; now, you do the math.
It’s going to be a challenge: more and more moving to one-priest parishes. And priests aren’t going to like that, and parishioners aren’t going to like it either. People will have to face the reality that Trenton is encountering what every other diocese throughout the country is encountering. It’s not going to be business as usual. We will have to make hard decisions and stand by them, and I need the people to be as positive as possible. There are a lot of demographic shifts that are coming. Our parishioners just need to realize that Trenton cannot continue to function indefinitely as it has been in the last several years.
What are your thoughts about the World Meeting of Families and the presence of the Pope in America, and specifically in such close proximity to your diocese? What kind of effect do you think it could have on the Church?
I certainly think it’s a wonderful and unique opportunity to draw attention to Catholic family life, which is the purpose of the meeting. A rampant secularism and a very pervasive relativism have eroded the traditional family values of the Catholic understanding of marriage. The presence of the Holy Father will help us all to lift up Catholic family life just by the fact that he’s here.
I had the great privilege of hosting Pope Benedict when I was president of Catholic University, and I saw what that visit did for us. It wasn’t just the sense of pride, but also a mindfulness of the importance of the Holy Father and the Holy Father’s teaching and what all that represented. I’m hoping we’ll have the same kind of experience when Pope Francis comes.
The concern that I have is that at one point this was a visit to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, and it was very focused and very clear. And then it became a trip to Washington, D.C., and then an address to Congress and then a trip to New York to the United Nations. I’m afraid that the focus on Catholic family life will be lost as people focus on his words to Congress or the United Nations. It’s going to becoming politicized, and I hope the purpose of the meeting and the message he hoped to present doesn’t get diminished.
Could you share some of your thoughts on both the 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family and the upcoming Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family and about the potential changes in policy regarding such topics as Communion for the divorced and remarried and ministry to people in same-sex relationships?
I followed the extraordinary synod with careful attention and its discussion topics, such as those you mentioned, as well as others. They’re very important to Catholics the world over, but, unfortunately, some of the conversations among bishops were misrepresented by both the secular and Catholic media. It’s very important that people read and understand the final document of the extraordinary synod before drawing any conclusions.
These topics are very timely: in fact, timeless. I don’t believe Church doctrine and practice is going to change. I believe that it will deepen and that people’s understanding will deepen. In other words, why does the Church teach and believe and say what it says? Here’s why. It will give people a deeper sense. That’s part of evangelization: why we believe what we believe.
I don’t think there will be doctrinal changes. That will disappoint some and makes others happy. The Church is doing this in the service of evangelization, and it’s a process that involves every Catholic, regardless of ideology. I hope the synod is successful, and I pray that it is truly an instrument of evangelization.
Thomas L. McDonald has been a technology journalist for 25 years.
He blogs at GodandtheMachine.