L.A. auxiliary Bishop O'Connell 'still looking out for us' one year after death, friends say

Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez is joined by LA auxiliary bishops and deacons during a Feb. 24, 2024, memorial Mass in San Gabriel at Mission San Gabriel Árcangel's Chapel of the Annunciation marking a year since the death of Auxiliary Bishop David G. O'Connell. The bishop was fatally shot at his home Feb. 18, 2023. (OSV News photo/Victor Aleman, Angelus News)

SAN GABRIEL, Calif. (OSV News) -- One year since the death of Auxiliary Bishop David G. O'Connell, the shock over his murder has largely worn off, the tributes have died down and the billboards that briefly lit up Los Angeles freeways flashing his smiling face are gone.

While a grieving city may have begun moving on, a portrait of "Bishop Dave," as a priest and a man, has come more sharply into focus.

"He was a mystic in the sense of his love affair with Christ," Msgr. Timothy Dyer, his friend and pastor of St. Patrick and St. Stephen's in South LA, said in his homily at a Feb. 24 memorial Mass marking a year since the bishop's death. "All that he did in the streets and people's homes, all the places he went to when he was bishop, he was conscious of this love in Christ in his own life."

His purpose in life, Msgr. Dyer said, was "to bring that love to others."

But rather than memorialize the bishop, the morning Mass at Mission San Gabriel Árcangel's Chapel of the Annunciation was mostly a chance to reflect on what Bishop Dave left behind, and what he was still doing.

The Irish-born bishop was shot and killed Feb. 18, 2023, at his home in Hacienda Heights. He was 69. Ordained a priest for the LA Archdiocese in 1979, he was ordained an LA auxiliary in 2015.

"He's still looking out for us," said his longtime friend, former LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who attended the Mass with his wife, Kathy. "We continue to move forward with his guidance and more so, his inspiration."

McDonnell first met the future bishop when he was a young LAPD officer and then-Father O'Connell was a young priest working the same tough streets of South LA. Their friendship was forged from a common concern for the people they served -- and their shared Irish heritage.

"He was kind of a man of the heavens, but a man of the streets," said McDonnell, whose friendship with Bishop O'Connell continued from those early days.

At the service, both Msgr. Dyer and Msgr. Jarlath Cunnane, Bishop O'Connell's closest friend and compatriot, highlighted a little known episode of O'Connell's life: the interior crisis he experienced after being named a bishop.

"Itt was terribly traumatic for him, and he went into this darkness," said Msgr. Dyer of the bishop's struggle to accept leaving South LA. "He knew he was going to have to leave the life he'd been living for nearly 40 years."

Later, Msgr. Cunnane said that in overcoming that crisis, Bishop O'Connell broke through to "a new dependence on God."

"His prayer became more mystical," said Msgr. Cunnane. "He became more uninhibited in his faith, in his love for Jesus and for the Blessed Mother."

He also recalled how Bishop O'Connell jokingly questioned his appointment by quipping that while there was a shortage of vocations of young men for the priesthood, "there was no shortage of vocations among young priests wanting to be bishops."

"His comment, not mine," said Msgr. Cunnane to waves of laughter in the church.

Bishop O'Connell's mark was felt throughout the liturgy celebrated by Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, together with four LA auxiliary bishops and more than 30 priests. During holy Communion the choir sang the Irish prayer known as St. Patrick's Breastplate: "Christ beside me, Christ before me, Christ behind me," and after, the words of a prayer meditation Bishop O'Connell used to teach: "Welcome to my heart, Lord Jesus."

After the Mass, Archbishop Gomez led a procession of people next door to the sacristy of the recently remodeled Mission San Gabriel, where he blessed an exhibit with mementos from the slain bishop's life, including vestments, pictures and his Jerusalem Bible.

Many of the more than 700 people at the service hailed from parishes where they'd met Bishop O'Connell as a priest.

Esperanza Navarro came from St. Frances X. Cabrini in South LA, where Bishop O'Connell served for more than 15 years. She has an image of the prelate on her prayer altar at home, where she makes time to ask for his intercession in prayer.

"He loved our community, and all of us -- people of all ages -- loved him," Navarro told Angelus, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "He had that gift of knowing how to be with people."

Others noted how they still benefit from the practical prayer techniques he'd taught them, like making time during the day to tell Jesus, "I love you," or reciting the "prayer of the heart" regularly.

"He was a part of my very early faith formation, and just planted a seed that has grown ever since," said Juliette Cacigas, who was a student at St. Hilary Catholic School in Pico Rivera when then-Father O'Connell was assigned to the parish in the mid-'80s.

Decades later, just a few months before his death last February, Bishop O'Connell helped lead a first-year retreat for couples in the archdiocese's diaconate formation program. She and her husband, Rafael, were among them.

"It feels like it came full circle, and it's been a tragedy and heartbreak this year," said Cacigas, who now attends St. Bruno in Whittier.

During his homily, Msgr. Dyer said that rather than let Bishop O'Connell "rest in peace," it was time to turn to his intercession in helping address the continued violence, homelessness and crime plaguing society, especially in LA.

"I say we shouldn't let Dave rest at all," said Msgr. Dyer, fighting back tears. "We should call on him all the time. I think he'd like that."


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