Observing the 30th anniversary of his ordination as a Vincentian priest, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., shares with the diocesan family his thoughts on his own vocation and that of priests in general. The bishop reflects on the importance of prayer and study; the so-called “crisis identity” in the priesthood; and the advice he would give anyone who is considering the priesthood.
Q. Have your experiences as a priest met the expectations you had on your ordination day?
A. I don’t honestly recall too many expectations from ordination day other than to work hard at being a good and faithful Vincentian priest. I was eager to begin ministry and to put many years of formation and training to the test. My first assignment was teaching in a Catholic high school and that was hard but good work. It prepared me well for a long career in education. But to tell the truth, I would have been happy doing whatever I was asked to do as a priest.
Q. What are some of the highlights of the last 30 years?
A. Of course, being appointed the Bishop of Trenton was a wholly unanticipated but wonderful surprise and a real highlight. That probably tops the list. My almost 13-year tenure as President of The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, was an incredible – and, again, unanticipated – opportunity to bring the priesthood to life in a unique way and setting. During those years, there were so many highlights but I’d have to say welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to campus was the most personally meaningful. In all of my assignments, however, being a priest, preaching the Gospel, advancing the Church’s mission, helping people encounter God in their lives, being present to people not only as a leader but also as a fellow traveler in life’s journey to heaven – all of these things and many more – could be considered highlights in every context in which I was given the privilege to serve. Each ministerial assignment brought unique and memorable highlights.
Q. What would you say were the greatest challenges about being a priest?
A. I have been blessed with a positive disposition and attitude toward life – inherited, no doubt, from my Mom – so whatever challenges I may have faced were more often viewed as opportunities for God’s grace to prevail. The greatest single challenge, frankly, was and remains stepping aside from the preoccupations and busy-ness of daily work to make time to pray and pray deeply, remembering that life is about God and God accomplishing things, not about me. Another big challenge I find is having such a joyful message to offer the world in Christ but encountering such hardness of heart in people, especially some Catholics who just seem to be so negative and who believe their negativity is justified.
Q. What factors have had the greatest impact on your priesthood?
A. Prayer and study, I would say, have provided guidance and direction to my priesthood but
the people whom I met in all my assignments, including brother priests, have shaped my attitude
Q. How do you think the priesthood has changed in the past three decades?
A. I often hear people speak of a “crisis of identity” in the priesthood today. I really don’t see that. Our identity is rooted in Christ and has not changed any more than Christ has changed. If there is a “crisis of identity” anywhere it is more in the particular priest himself rather than in the priesthood. Yes, the Church has changed but there again more in appearance or context than in substance or essence. The changes that have occurred require a more thoughtful, more focused and, at times, a more convinced and courageous response on the part of the priest to a world that is increasingly secular and hostile to faith, religion, the Church and the Gospel. Of course, the sexual abuse of minors by clergy has brought genuine harm and destruction into people’s experience of and faith in the Church in recent years. But the witness of so many good and faithful priests must counterbalance this tragedy occasioned by so few and motivate us to work all the harder so that people see Christ again in what we do and who we are as priests.
Q. What advice would you (and do you) offer to young men who are considering the priesthood?
A. Pray often and develop a relationship with Christ as a friend, a brother and real person in your life. Receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation, regularly and with devotion. Find a good priest to whom you can make known your heart and share your thoughts openly and honestly with him. Pay attention to your instincts and the movements of your heart and mind. Seek quiet. Ask God to reveal his will for you. And don’t be afraid to try.
Q. What advice would you (and do you) offer to young priests who are just setting out in their ministry
A. The same advice!
Q. How would you describe what you have learned about the special relationship between a bishop and his priests?
A. The Bishop is given to the local Church as pastor and teacher, father and guide, leader and sanctifier. He has a primary obligation in the diocese to his priests, his principal collaborators in ministry and mission, to love, encourage, support, direct and, at times, challenge them. Research has shown that where bishops and priests have a good relationship, priests are happier and more motivated and positive in ministry. I try to work on my relationship with my priests, conscious that openness and trust take a while. Some few have issues and problems with authority that only they can resolve and I recognize and accept that. But the majority of priests want to work together and find joy in what they do. If I can facilitate that, please God, then I believe that I am headed in the right direction.
Q. What is your prayer for the priesthood and the future of the Church?
A. “Behold, I am with you always.”[[In-content Ad]]