As we continue to struggle with the senseless killing of Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell on February 18, there is no question that he leaves behind a brilliant legacy of love for others and Jesus, seen particularly well through his work with the California Catholic Conference.
A native of County Cork, Ireland, Bishop O’Connell was born in 1953 and ordained a priest in 1979. His work with the Conference began immediately after he was installed as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2015.
He joined the CCC’s Restorative Justice Committee and took on the role of chair in 2018. His work was instrumental in moving toward a society healed from divisiveness and fear and that responds to crime and violence with restoration and healing.
“His lifelong work as a peacemaker made him perfect in this role, and he did it so well,” said CCC Restorative Justice Director Debbie McDermott, who also shares Bishop O’Connell’s Irish heritage. “We were from different parts of Ireland. I grew up near the border and ‘the troubles,’ so I understood the conflict and the peace he was about because of it.”
Bishop O’Connell’s work on the CCC Restorative Justice Committee included spearheading the creation of a bereavement ministry guide in English and Spanish, which was met with extreme gratitude from families who had experienced murders or the violent crime of a loved one and had no spiritual direction.
“He was one of a kind, very humble. He did so much for people behind the scenes,” said CCC Director of Social Justice and Environmental Stewardship Linda Wanner.
Just before COVID, Bishop O’Connell and two other committee members held an in-person meeting with the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which resulted in expanding its job specifications for Catholic Chaplains to include lay persons. Before that, it was confined to only priests.
“He was uniquely able to listen to the problem and see the solution and make the strategic plan, and it was always through the light of God and Our Blessed Mother,” said McDermott.
Bishop O’Connell was also involved in AB 256 – The Racial Justice Act, which addresses racial disparities in California’s sentencing process. He met with Senator Portantino at his district office with a group of faith leaders advocating for this legislation to get out of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill ended up being signed by Governor Newsom last year.
“More than anything, Bishop Dave wanted to radiate the love of Jesus,” said CCC Executive Director Kathleen Domingo. “Everything he did for the incarcerated, the homeless, gang members, immigrants, children, expectant moms, the elderly, and dying—he did so that he could bring the love of Jesus to them.”
Bishop O’Connell also played a significant role in working against physician-assisted suicide, which became legal in California in 2015.
“A failure of heart, really, that we can’t think of anything else we can do for people who have been told that they have terminal illness than to offer them a package of pills, where they can take their own life, and say, ‘Go ahead; just commit suicide,’” he told the National Catholic Register in 2016.
“Bishop Dave was a true shepherd with a ministry of presence,” said CCC Associate Director for Life Molly Sheahan. “He would show up to everything – pro-life prayer vigils, youth events, immigration meetings – and always had time to pray with the person in front of him. My fondest memories of him are when he would attend our young adult events, offering hilarious jokes and words of encouragement and always reminding us: ‘Jesus loves you. He wants to be close to you.’”
Bishop O’Connell’s commitment to immigrants often led him to the border, where he would pass out water to immigrants in the hot, dry desert region. He regularly said Mass for the undocumented children staying at the LA County Fairplex in Pomona and was one of the founding members of the So Cal Immigration Task Force. He worked with CCHD to gain funding to help immigrant and other poor families have access to Catholic school education, knowing it would change their lives.
“He had a great love for children; nothing hurt him more than seeing children unloved, abused, forgotten, or in pain. He had a heart for foster youth and helped us with many initiatives to promote fostering in our Catholic community,” said Domingo.
“The first time I met Bishop Dave, we presented a new project we were looking to launch, and he immediately wanted to be involved,” said CCC Director of Communications Kim Nickols. “His enthusiasm and spirit were gifts to all who worked with him.”
Bishop O’Connell was poised to launch his latest vision, “The Shalom Project,” a series of 12 workshops building skills for all in the areas of restorative justice – conflict resolution, the basic building blocks of transformation, peacemaking, listening, and more. The CCC is moving forward with the project in his memory.
He recently facilitated a retreat for Catholic chaplains using this process. “They told him, ‘you know your onions,’ in other words, he peeled back all the layers,” said McDermott.
All are welcome to The Shalom Project online event on Tuesday, March 21, at 6:00 PM Pacific.
“Bishop Dave believed in old-fashioned face-to-face togetherness,” said Domingo. “When you were with him, you knew that you mattered, that he loved you. By his very presence, looking you in the eye and taking what you were saying so seriously, he brought Jesus into every moment, every encounter.”
“We have truly lost something special in Bishop Dave, but we have also gained a relentless intercessor,” Domingo continued. “Bishop Dave had such a great love for Our Lady that stemmed from his experience of love from his own mother. I am certain he is with her now, telling her little jokes and asking her to intercede for all the people he loved to her son Jesus. And I am also certain that Our Lady will do just about anything for her beloved son, David.”
Go n’eirigh an bóthar leat
May the road rise to meet you
Go raibh an ghaoth go brách ag do chúl
May the wind be always at your back
Go lonraí an ghrian go te ar d’aghaidh
May the sun shine warm upon your face
Go dtite an bháisteach go mín ar do pháirceanna
May the rains fall softly upon your fields
Agus go mbuailimid le chéile arís,
And until we meet again
Go gcoinní Dia i mbos A láimhe thú.
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.