Newly ordained Coadjutor Bishop David M. O’Connell blesses the congregation in St. Mary of the As-sumption Cathedral, Trenton, July 30, 2010, at the conclusion of the Mass at which he was ordained to the episcopacy. More than 1,000 people, including 300 priests and bishops, attended from around the country. Craig Pittelli photo
Newly ordained Coadjutor Bishop David M. O’Connell blesses the congregation in St. Mary of the As-sumption Cathedral, Trenton, July 30, 2010, at the conclusion of the Mass at which he was ordained to the episcopacy. More than 1,000 people, including 300 priests and bishops, attended from around the country. Craig Pittelli photo
On July 30, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., will mark the 10th anniversary of his ordination to the episcopacy, less than two months after being named Coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton. The Bishop took some time with Rayanne Bennett, Associate Publisher of The Monitor, to look back on the day he first received the news of his appointment from Pope Benedict XVI, and the many highlights that have come in the decade that followed. 

THE MONITOR: HOW DID YOU LEARN YOU WERE APPOINTED BISHOP OF TRENTON, AND HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR RESPONSE TO THE NEWS?

BISHOP:  It was May 24, 2010, a very busy day for me in the final months of my 12-year tenure as President of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  My cellphone rang around 7:30 a.m. but I was in the shower.  I saw the Papal Nuncio’s phone number and name on the “missed call” log but I had Mass at 8 a.m. and, so, planned to call him back later.  There was no message.  Archbishop Pietro Sambi and I talked often so there wasn’t anything unusual about his call.   I went to a staff meeting at 9 a.m. and he called again but I couldn’t take the call.  No message. 

Around 10:30 a.m., I got in the car for another meeting, this one across town.  The phone rang a third time and I picked up.  “Where are you?” Archbishop Sambi asked.  When I apologized for missing his calls and filled him in, he said, “Come over here (the Apostolic Nunciature) for lunch.” And so I did.

I must confess, I never expected what he was about to tell me.  After some typical light-hearted banter in his office, he looked at me and smiled.  “The Holy Father would like you to be the Bishop of Trenton ... and he is not asking. Write a letter accepting and now let’s have lunch.”

To say I was stunned is an understatement.  Many of my predecessors as CUA President were bishops but it was not a requirement of the job nor was it something I thought about.  After all, I was a member of a religious community.  I had planned on taking a sabbatical after CUA and then returning to teach at one of our Vincentian universities or to do whatever my Provincial asked, so I was getting myself ready mentally to move on.  I had heard rumors about being appointed a bishop occasionally but they came and went as rumors usually do. I had more important things to think about and paid little attention.   So “surprise” is putting it mildly.

THE MONITOR: HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE YOUR EXERIENCES AS UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT, AND NOW, AS DIOCESAN BISHOP, AND WHICH ASSIGNMENT HAVE YOU FOUND MORE CHALLENGING?

BISHOP: People ask me that all the time.  Despite the similarities in some aspects of administration, each position has its unique challenges.  My answer is a simple one: it depends on the day!

I enjoyed my 12 years as President at CUA and my previous eight years as Academic Dean at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, before that. Those 20 years of executive administration taught me a great deal, many things that helped prepare me for leadership of a diocese.   At first, I was the “coadjutor bishop” of Trenton, so I had a few months to get to know the Diocese, its staff and clergy, its parishes and programs and faithful before assuming full responsibility.  Of course knowledge of the position deepened and intensified after that. 

Honestly, I didn’t feel it was a huge adjustment and I felt prepared for the major responsibilities: administering a large organization, implementing a substantial budget, working with diverse personnel, evaluating activities with a specific focus, raising funds and so on. These were part of my responsibilities as a university president as well.

The difference, however, was the spiritual motivation and faith-centered goal of serving the Diocese as bishop and shepherd, a “different hat” to wear – no pun intended. Academics gave way to evangelization as the primary mission and focus of my attention.

THE MONITOR: WHY DID YOU CHOOSE AS YOUR EPISCOPAL MOTTO “TO SERVE AND NOT TO BE SERVED”?

BISHOP: That’s an easy one. When I was ordained a priest in 1982, the selection from St. Mark’s Gospel read at Mass contained that phrase.  It became a personal aspiration and motivation for me, something to strive for in ministry, reflective of the attitude of St. Vincent de Paul, the founder of my religious community.  They are Christ’s own words, describing the mission of the Son of Man (Mark 10:45). I kept a holy card in my breviary containing that phrase over the years and, when Archbishop Sambi asked me what motto, I would choose as bishop, I did not hesitate in my response. 

I am very mindful of our Lord’s words and I hope I will always try to embrace them as my motivation, although perhaps imperfectly.  The rest of the phrase, not quoted in my motto is also very much in my mind: “to serve and not to be served ... and to give his life as a ransom for the many.“  

THE MONITOR: AS YOU LOOK BACK OVER THE PAST 10 YEARS OF EPISCOPAL MINISTRY IN THE DIOCESE OF TRENTON, WHAT MEMORIES STAND OUT?

BISHOP: Well, there are many memories for sure, some good and some difficult. Some good ones first, OK? 

The solemn episcopal ordination ceremony in our beautiful St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in Trenton on July 30, 2010 is certainly a memory I will always cherish.  My mother was present, which I consider the Lord’s special gift to me, along with the presence of my brothers and family, so many friends, Vincentian confreres and members of the Diocese.  Diocesan staff worked very hard to make it a great day and they succeeded.

The Eucharistic Congress of 2012 at the PNC Arts Center in Holmdel, the first ever in New Jersey, was an amazing celebration of our faith in Christ’s Eucharistic presence as the foundation of all we are and do in the Diocese.  I will never forget it.

Although the memories of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and elsewhere still linger in our minds, the rapid response of the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Trenton, and their care and concern for one another at a time of crisis, were nothing short of inspiring. The outpouring of support for us from dioceses all over the country demonstrated to me the unity of compassion that characterizes what it means to be the Catholic Church.  It was a landmark moment!  

Personally, I always find visitations to parishes for Confirmations, parish anniversaries, special events and programs uplifting and memorable.  To be able to celebrate Mass and the Sacraments, to pray with and for the clergy, religious and faithful of the Diocese — just the visits to the parishes are always joyful experiences that remain in my memory.  It’s all about loving and serving the Lord Jesus and his people.

THE MONITOR: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE STRENGTHS OF THIS DIOCESAN COMMUNITY AND THE PROGRESS THAT HAS BEEN MADE DURING YOUR EPISCOPACY?

BISHOP: A great source of pride for the Diocese are the many, many Catholic organizations and charitable societies that can be found serving the people of the four counties without counting the cost: Catholic Charities, Knights of Columbus, Mount Carmel Guild, Mercer CYO, Holy Innocents Society, St. Vincent de Paul Society, Knights and Ladies Auxiliary of St. John International, Legion of Mary, Cursillo, Catholic Women of Zion, Pro-life movements, Project Rachel, St. Francis Retreat Center — I am sure I am missing some and I apologize  — but coming to know their leaders, their boards and members over these past 10 years, I have been amazed by their unselfish witness to Christ’s love here in the Diocese of Trenton. They bring the Gospel to life daily, each through their own unique mission.



We have been able to recruit and ordain some wonderful seminarians and priests in the Diocese over the past decade, and I am excited at vocation programs being put in place to continue the trend.  We all have to pray for and support these efforts.  We need more good, holy priests to join those already serving our faithful.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible generosity of so many people throughout the Diocese. Support for the Annual Catholic Appeal and the recent Faith to Move Mountains endowment campaign, as well as so many second collections has enabled the Diocese to build upon its past and create a stable home and future for the evangelization of and service to the local Church and its parishes.  The works and ministries of the Diocese simply could not continue without the generosity of the faithful.

THE MONITOR: WHAT HAVE SOME OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CHALLENGES BEEN, AND HOW HAVE THEY IMPACTED YOU PERSONALLY?

BISHOP: On the downside, I have found the closure of some Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton a painful experience, given my life’s work in Catholic education.  Our Catholic schools provide such a demonstrably outstanding service to families and the broader community, but low enrollments and escalating costs have crippled our ability to keep some of our Catholic schools open.  This weighs so heavily on my heart as it does for many families.

The sexual abuse of minors by some clergy in the Diocese of Trenton has been one of the most disturbing and painful experiences of my entire life.  In saying that, I must acknowledge that my own sense of pain does not even come close to what many innocent children and their families have experienced and shared with me. I hope that, as Bishop, I have been able to offer support to victims through our diocesan efforts to reach out to them and by establishing effective measures that will prevent such abuse from ever happening again anywhere in the Diocese.  I pray for the victims of sexual abuse every single day.

I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I am very concerned about the continuing decline in weekend Mass attendance when only 17 percent of our registered faithful report attending Mass regularly. I realize that other U.S. dioceses are witnessing a similar downturn, but other areas of the country are happily trending in the other direction. I hear many reasons from the faithful for this decline – some of which, frankly, are excuses rather than real reasons – but all of us in the Diocese need to confront this worrisome trend and try to turn it around. There is more to this issue than I can address adequately here but, believe me, it’s on my mind day and night.  

On a more personal level, the loss of my left leg due to a bone infection several years ago has changed so much of the way I do things. It has been challenging, at times, but I think I have adapted pretty well.  It hasn’t affected my ability to get around.  Another bishop similarly challenged once shared with me some words of encouragement given him by Pope John Paul II.  He apologized to the Holy Father for his prosthetic leg and a noticeable limp to which the Pope responded, “Your Excellency, you don’t lead the Diocese with your leg.”  

There are many other things that come to mind but I think, maybe, my response is more than you bargained for when you asked the question! 

THE MONITOR: YOU MENTIONED EARLIER BUILDING A “STABLE HOME AND FUTURE.” WHAT DO YOU ENVISION FOR THE FUTURE OF THE CHURCH IN OUR DIOCESE? 

BISHOP: As Catholics, we are people of hope.  Hope characterizes our Catholic outlook on life. It’s in our “Catholic DNA.” Hope looks to the future. For the Catholic, all hope is rooted in the Lord Jesus Christ and his promise to be with us “all days, even to the end of time (Matthew 28:20).”  That is something I never doubt.  

In these last few months the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic and financial hardships as well as the civil unrest and racial tensions that have taken hold of our nation have deepened both the worries and divisions that already seem to plague us in American society. We can DO better. We can BE better. We must. If ever there was a time for hope, it is now. Hope builds upon faith and faith leads to prayer and prayer leads to holiness. That is where the future begins.  

The future of the Church in our Diocese depends upon our willingness – all of us, clergy, religious, faithful – to take our faith seriously in our Diocese and to be convinced that Christ and his Church can and do make a difference. We need to be believers who are pray-ers and pray-ers who are doers.  Being a Catholic is hard work.

The Eucharist must be the center of our lives and not for just 17 percent of us.  The Word of God and the teachings of the Church must be a way of life for us and not just a series of “do’s and dont’s” as options on some cafeteria menu. We need to respect and affirm life in all its stages and not surrender to convenience, exceptions and excuses.  We need to reach out to all people with respect and love and compassion and mercy and generosity as sisters and brothers, as children of one God and Father of us all.  We need to embrace our identity as both the personal and communal call of the Lord Jesus.  

That is my vision for the future Church in our Diocese: to be full of faith, to be confident in hope, to be generous in love, mindful of Christ’s words in John’s Gospel: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have troubles but take heart I have overcome the world (John 16:33).”