HACIENDA HEIGHTS, Calif. — In the final moments of his life, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell was not alone, but rather welcomed into heaven by those he loved most.
That is the firm belief of Msgr. Timothy Dyer, the late bishop’s friend who delivered the homily at a March 1 memorial Mass at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in the LA suburb of Hacienda Heights, the parish where Bishop O’Connell lived for the last seven years.
“When the bullets were being fired, Christ was looking at Dave right in the eyes and he said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ ” said Msgr. Dyer, pastor of St. Patrick Church in South Los Angeles. “I’ve prepared a place for you in the Father’s house.”
Clapping erupted before Msgr. Dyer could even finish.
“And there’s someone there who was waiting for you too, the one you always called the Blessed Mother,” continued Msgr. Dyer, “as well as your own mother waiting to hold you in her arms.”
The Mass, with Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, presiding, was the first of three farewell liturgies for Bishop O’Connell. A vigil Mass was celebrated March 2 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, with his funeral Mass March 3 also at the cathedral.
St. John Vianney was the parish Bishop O’Connell called home since he became auxiliary bishop for the San Gabriel Pastoral Region in 2015. The memorial Mass was organized by the San Gabriel Pastoral Region, for which the late bishop served as episcopal vicar.
Among the concelebrants, alongside dozens of priests, were Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles, LA Auxiliary Bishop Marc V. Trudeau, Bishop Kevin W. Vann of Orange and retired Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of San Bernardino.
More than a thousand mourners crowded the church just blocks from the home where Bishop O’Connell was killed Feb. 18. The accused gunman has been charged with murder and is to be arraigned later in March.
Family members from Bishop O’Connell’s native Ireland sat in the first row at the Mass. His nieces and nephews recited the prayers of the faithful, while younger brother Kieran shared memories of what turned out to be their final family get-together with Bishop O’Connell.
“Our last visit here, just at Christmas, seems more special: the Christmas Mass here … our Christmas dinner, we forever cherish those memories,” said Kieran. “I thank you most sincerely for taking care of Dave for these last 45 years. I know that he was happiest here among his people.”
His words provoked a standing ovation by the congregation. Later, the eyes of James Ponnet, himself the brother of Los Angeles priest Father Chris Ponnet, filled with tears as he imagined the family’s suffering.
“It’s just a joy to have a priest in the family so I could really feel his pain,” said Ponnet.
At the beginning of the Mass, Archbishop Gomez read a special condolence message from Pope Francis, who named then-Father O’Connell a bishop in 2015. His words recognized the bishop’s “profound concern for the poor, immigrants and those in need” as well as his “efforts to uphold the sanctity and dignity of God’s gift of life.”
At a press briefing in Washington the same day, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre expressed condolences on behalf of President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden in response to a question about Bishop O’Connell’s death EWTN News Nightly reporter Owen Jensen.
“The president and the first lady join Archbishop Gomez, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and the entire Catholic community” in mourning the bishop’s death, said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “We also express our sympathy and prayers for the family and friends of the bishop, who will certainly … remember his legacy of service to those on the margins of society.”
In his homily at the memorial Mass, Msgr. Dyer stood next to a large photo of the bishop and praised his ability to throw out a “wide net” that connected people in need with people who could help. Dyer revealed during a moment of “anxiety” in his own life, he, too, called upon his brother priest.
“He put his hands on my head and he prayed that the Blessed Mother would protect me,” described Msgr. Dyer. “I could see when he prayed, in his face he was carrying the worry and pain that was affecting me …t hroughout all his years he would respond to people with prayer and he would care for them.”
While saddened by the tragic passing of the bishop, many in the crowd found themselves uplifted by the testimonials and the presence of each other.
Barbara Rey said she was lucky enough to go on a Fatima pilgrimage with the prelate.
“I couldn’t stop crying because you feel the loss and how he died is deeply painful,” Rey, parishioner of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish in Montebello, told Angelus, LA’s archdiocesan news outlet. “But then to see this community and such an outpouring of love that he gave for those years come back to him. … It just makes me happy to be Catholic.”
Rosalind Marquez said she felt inspired to answer the call to carry on Bishop O’Connell’s work.
“He is an inspiration for us to go out and be fishers of men and to share God’s love with others,” said Marquez, also from Miraculous Medal. “It was really touching. Tonight I feel like OK, I’m going to go be that light.”
Seminarian Christian Morquecho is undergoing his intern year at St. John Vianney. He said the bishop was someone to model.
“He was so kind, so simple, so funny. He was very present,” Morquecho said. “For me personally, getting to serve at his memorial Mass is a real gift.”
St. John Vianney pastor Msgr. Timothy Nichols ended the Mass by delivering the eulogy, offering some final words of praise for his dear friend.
“It has been an absolute privilege and an honor to know him and to love him and to serve him as a great person, great priest, great bishop and someday, a great saint.”