A father figure with a ‘shepherd’s heart’

Devoted, humble, “down to earth” and a “father figure” — this was how many young Catholics describe the late Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell.

Mar 03, 2023

Bishop David O’Connell is seen in 2019 with young adults at a Mass celebrating the 40th anniversary of his priesthood, at St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights. (San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Michael Ramirez

By Allyson Vergara
Devoted, humble, “down to earth” and a “father figure” — this was how many young Catholics describe the late Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell.

Santa Ana resident Beverli Reyna said he “genuinely cared” about people. Being a bishop — one of the highest clergy rankings in the Roman Catholic Church — made him that much more “approachable,” no matter your age, race, what you believe or where you come from.

“He was always very invested, driving himself, even showing up at the small parish events,” she said. “You could tell that he was always interested in our well-being to grow as young adults, in community. It always made me want to do more in my faith.”

O’Connell’s sudden death stunned many in the Roman Catholic faith who worked with and encountered him throughout his ministry. And that includes the Church’s youth and young adult community, whom the bishop was closely connected with.

On February 18, authorities found O’Connell, 69, dead by gunshot wound at his Hacienda Heights home. The suspect, whom officials say had previously worked at the bishop’s home and whose wife was the bishop’s housekeeper, has since been arrested.

O’Connell was named an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles by Pope Francis in 2015, and was assigned to oversee the San Gabriel Valley region. Officials said he served as a priest and later bishop in the archdiocese for 45 years.

Local Catholics say that O’Connell’s deep dedication to ministering to young people — along with involvement in region-wide Church initiatives and ministries — was what made him genuine and accessible.

Young adult Michael Ramirez has been working with O’Connell for years, as part of a regional council representing different parishes in the area. He and a group of volunteers had regular meetings with the bishop at his office in Irwindale. Ramirez said a meeting was scheduled for that Saturday — the day the bishop was killed — but he never showed.

“We were worried because he hadn’t responded, and he never missed our meetings without communicating,” said Ramirez, who lives in Gardena. “We were going to discuss a new project he wanted to start that would teach people to be peacemakers. That’s who he was; always so enthusiastic, starting and supporting new initiatives… everyone who met him felt close to him because of his tenderness. You felt like he really saw you (and) knew you.”

Ramirez and other young adults said that O’Connell was always involved in ministry events throughout the area; from parish retreats and Bible studies, to big public Masses and displays of faith. The bishop sometimes celebrated open Masses, including one on Huntington Beach, with the goal of evangelising and getting peoples’ attention.

He often visited the poor and homeless on Skid Row, supported immigration reform programmes, was known to drop by L.A.-area Catholic schools and raise funds to help keep them open, and gave passionate talks at conferences packed with youth. He helped establish several communitystyle homes for young men and women, and often held retreats for them. His office often had a line out the door, full of young people waiting to talk to him.

As local churches and fellowship events were shut down during the pandemic, O’Connell would share video messages to stay connected and encourage young Catholics, stuck in their homes, to remain faithful.

“Bishop Dave saw the loneliness, the hurt, the effect of brokenness from our culture on young people, and he had a heart to bring healing to these places,” Ramirez said. “He pursued youth and young adults in the Church with a father’s heart, a shepherd’s heart.”

Ramirez also said that the bishop — who was born in County Cork, Ireland — had a “deep Irish humour,” sometimes joking about being a “wild young adult himself.”

“He’d use humour to teach the Gospel, the message of Jesus, and share his deep devotion to Our Lady, to the Divine Mercy,” he said. “He always broke down barriers and was so down to earth; he never exalted himself.”

Laura Corza, a parishioner at St John Neumann church in Irvine, said that the bishop “had a heart for people,” regardless of their race, creed, legal status or other factors.

Mariela Arellano said she first met O’Connell in her later teen years, and watched him grow his ministry by working closely with immigrants and young people. She called O’Connell a “man of action, who always showed up; never boasting.”

Studies have shown more youth and young adults — including those who are baptised — are leaving the Catholic Church in droves. Those who knew Bishop O’Connell said he encouraged many young people to find their hope and reason to stay. --Los Angeles Daily News Reproduced with permission of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Southern California News Group.

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