National News

Slain Bishop Often Combined Humor and Faith in His Homilies

WASHINGTON — Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell had a gift for public speaking. 

When he addressed church groups, he was often on the same level with them — literally and figuratively — speaking away from the podium and just in front of the pews to deliver a simple message about getting closer to Jesus and living a life that reflected that. 

As an added bonus, he often threw in a joke or two. 

“He was an excellent teller of jokes,” a parishioner from St. John Vianney Church in Los Angeles recently told a reporter, noting that when the bishop celebrated Mass at his parish, everyone knew it would be at least five minutes longer because of his funny stories. 

That warmth and sense of compassion and humility is something many Catholics in the Los Angeles Archdiocese have said they will desperately miss following the Feb. 18 fatal shooting of their beloved auxiliary bishop in his home. 

Words of tribute for the 69-year-old bishop — from church leaders to those in the parishes where he served — emphasize his kindness, endearing manner, and emphasis on Jesus and Mary. 

One joke Bishop O’Connell liked to tell was of a man falling off a cliff and hanging to a creaking tree branch. When he cried out for help, God told him he would help but the man needed to let go of the branch. 

“Is there anyone else up there?” the man replied. 

Bishop O’Connell also liked to tell about a married couple going out to a nice dinner, with a bottle of wine, where the wife said how thankful she was for his support and that he had always been there for her. 

“That’s the wine talking,” the husband said, to which the wife replied, “I’m talking to the wine.” 

“Bishop Dave,” as he was known by most, could draw a congregation in with a funny story but then quickly shift gears to stress the urgency of receiving God’s love and acting on it by showing compassion, kindness, and forgiveness to others. 

His messages, found in YouTube posts of livestreamed Masses, parish talks, and archdiocesan videos, are not all peppered with humor. Some videos show him speaking about the impact of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and the struggles many experienced during the pandemic. 

At a parish talk at Holy Family Church in Los Angeles in 2019, Bishop O’Connell said the faith of many in the Church was destroyed by the clergy sexual abuse scandal that also damaged the Church’s credibility. 

He pleaded with those gathered to continue to practice their faith and turn to Jesus for healing, saying they were the ones who would help the Church continue its mission. 

And in a talk that was part of a Lenten series last year at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Los Angeles, he made a few jokes about the challenges of Zoom calls and the faithful not getting out during the pandemic, before emphasizing how St. Patrick relied on his faith and turned everything to Jesus. He told the parish group that he had similarly tried to do this in a daily meditation routine that he began during a dry time in his faith. 

Born in Ireland, Bishop O’Connell spent more than 40 years ministering in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, where he worked with communities impacted by gangs and frequently advocated for immigrants, speaking Spanish with his Irish accent. He publicly said on several occasions that he never imagined he would be named a bishop, which happened in 2015. 

But he also took his role as a shepherd seriously, ministering not just in person but also in taped messages sent across the archdiocese. 

In one video, in which he wore a flannel shirt over his vestments, he urged Los Angeles Catholics to remain devoted to prayer amid the pandemic, and even suggested ways they could pray. 

Bishop O’Connell also dramatically prayed a blessing over parts of Los Angeles in April 2020 on a hilltop outside the city as he held aloft a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament. 

In that prayer, captured on film, he prayed that God would bring the region “out from the darkness of the pandemic to the light of the Lord’s glory.” 

This recurrent message — turning to God and relying on Him — was also a theme of his last homily, given Feb. 11 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles for World Day of the Sick. 

He told the congregation his experience visiting the pilgrimage site of Lourdes, France, reminded him of going home to Ireland where his mother waited at the gate for him. 

“It was always such a joy to see her, and a joy to see how happy she was that I was home,” he said, noting that he had a similar feeling at Lourdes where he could almost feel Mary’s “happiness that I was there. I could feel her love for me, welcoming me home.” 

Bishop O’Connell urged the congregation to turn to Mary, saying he often talks to her first because “she’ll do something. Something will be done.” 

Her message, he said, is frequently to “do whatever Jesus tells you” — advice that he said will ultimately bring people blessings, healing, new life, and consolation. 

“That’s where new hope emerges, living in that relationship where you are putting yourself completely under the authority of Jesus,” he said, just hours before his death.