‘Living Faith with Joy’: Bishop O’Connell’s priesthood defined by trusting God, teaching

May 10, 2024 at 7:00 a.m.
Bishop O’Connell blesses the congregation at the Blue Mass April 4 in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold. Hal Brown photo
Bishop O’Connell blesses the congregation at the Blue Mass April 4 in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold. Hal Brown photo (Hal BROWN)

By EMMALEE ITALIA
Contributing Editor

The following story is part of BE INSPIRED, a new feature of The Monitor reporting on ordinary people who inspire others through their extraordinary stories. 

A mystery to no one who has been in his presence more than a few minutes, a singular focus on the Lord upholds the life and ministry of Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

“Absolute belief in the goodness and mercy of God drives my everyday life and ministry,” he recently shared in an interview with The Monitor. “That belief is not simply accidental – it is an intentional choice. It has sustained me in the good times and the tough ones as well.”

Bishop O’Connell’s episcopal motto “Ministrare non ministrari” – to serve and not to be served – has been visible throughout his nearly 14 years in the Diocese. On the occasion of his 10-year anniversary, he told The Monitor that the motto he chose was inspired by a passage from Mark’s Gospel containing that phrase, which was read at his priestly ordination Mass.

“It became a personal aspiration and motivation for me, something to strive for in ministry,” he said. “They are Christ’s own words, describing the mission of the Son of Man (Mark 10:45).”

He has prioritized being available to his flock – in person whenever possible, as well as creating a strong catechetical voice in his writing that is shared in print and online. Integrated with his faith has been a love for and gravitation toward teaching, which includes leadership roles in Catholic institutions of higher education. As shepherd of the Diocese of Trenton since 2010, the Bishop has embraced leadership and teaching through his homilies, letters and essays, catechetical series, pastoral writings, videos and podcasts – all while maintaining an impressive schedule of appearances for sacramental and milestone celebrations throughout parishes of the Diocese’s four counties.

“In my mind and many years of experience, nothing is more important than to encourage our young people in Catholic schools and parish programs of religious education to learn about and grow in their Catholic faith,” Bishop O’Connell emphasized. “Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I address the need to make faith the center of their young lives. Catholic education is Catholic because it does just that.”

Priestly Path

A native son of Philadelphia, Bishop O’Connell was born in 1955 to June and Arthur O’Connell and attended Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, Pa. His early years were spent learning from the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters in the parish grammar school, along with three brothers, Arthur Jr., Dennis, and Daniel, who works in the diocesan Office of Catholic Schools.

“My parents were a great source of encouragement in my vocation, as were the sisters,” Bishop O’Connell said.

The idea to become a priest first crossed his mind in 1962 when his pastor came to the family home to bring the Sacraments to his grandmother, who was suffering with cancer.

“Father Corrigan was so gentle and kind during those visits,” the Bishop remembered. “At the same time, I was an altar boy at the parish and was close to the other priests. I wanted to be like them. I loved serving Mass and felt close to the Lord.”

With support from his parents, the young David enrolled in the Vincentian minor seminary in Princeton in 1969, where he said his vocation began in earnest.

“The Vincentian priests who taught and staffed St. Joseph’s Preparatory Seminary were tremendous examples of what it meant to be a priest,” he said. “And like the parish priests I had known, I wanted to be like these good and faithful men. Looking back over the past more than half-century, I can see how I absorbed many of their qualities and characteristics in my formation and ministry.”

Inspired by his teachers, he continued his Vincentian education in Mary Immaculate Seminary, Northampton, Pa., earning a master of divinity degree in 1981 and a master’s degree in moral theology in 1983. He was ordained May 29, 1982, as a priest of the Congregation of the Mission in Mary Immaculate Seminary by Bishop Joseph McShea of the Diocese of Allentown.

Heart of a Teacher

Much of his priesthood and episcopacy have revolved around Catholic education, but that charism seemed to find him.

“I wouldn’t say that I set out to be an educator as a career path. The Vincentians are a community of priests and brothers dedicated to the service of the poor and training the clergy,” the Bishop explained. “They also work in parishes and missions, both at home and abroad. I was intrigued by the stories I heard from my Vincentian confreres about their diverse ministries when we would get together. Education in high schools, universities and seminaries was also a part of the community’s profile.”

His love for studying in the seminaries he attended quickly became obvious to those responsible for his formation and training, and “it came as no surprise to anyone that my first assignment as a priest was teaching in the Vincentian high school.”


One of the highlights of Bishop David M. O’Connell’s tenure at The Catholic University of America was hosting Pope Benedict XVI during his 2008 visit to the United States. Photo courtesy of The Catholic University of America

Then-Father O’Connell was assigned as faculty member and director of student activities at Archbishop Wood High School, Warminster, Pa., serving there from 1982-1985. He continued at The Catholic University of America, Washington, where he studied canon law and obtained a licentiate in 1987 and a doctorate in canon law in 1990.

“Catholic education from then on became my vocation as a priest,” Bishop O’Connell said. “I can honestly say I loved the works and assignments I was given, especially serving as academic dean and vice president of St. John’s University, Queens, New York (1989-1998) and president of The Catholic University of America (1998-2010).”

During his CUA tenure as 14th president of the university, Father O’Connell hosted Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, served frequently as commentator on CNN, Fox News, ABC’s “Nightline” and other national news broadcasts, and gleaned wisdom from various Catholic Church leaders.

“CUA, the national university of the Catholic Church in our country, was also popularly known as ‘the bishops’ university’ since it was founded and remains sponsored by the bishops of the United States,” he pointed out. “During my 12 years as president, I came to know and work with many of the country’s bishops – an experience that I am sure factored into my being recommended by them for an episcopal appointment by Pope Benedict XVI. I had come to know Pope Benedict XVI over the years since 1998 both as a cardinal and, later, as pope.”

He has also received 12 honorary doctorates and other honors from various colleges and universities and was recently elected as the chairman of the education committee for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Fulfilling Life, Facing Challenges

Ordained July 30, 2010 to the episcopacy and installed later that year as 10th Bishop of Trenton, Bishop O’Connell has found much of his role fulfilling. Provided with a solid foundation at CUA, he already had experience in responsibilities he would need as bishop: governance, communication and coordination as a leader, supervision and cooperation with central office staff, financial and facilities management and fundraising, working with and supporting the priests and deacons of the Diocese, spiritual and Sacraments guidance, support for diocesan organizations and caring for the faithful.

Reflecting on his many responsibilities, Bishop O’Connell said, “I enjoy most of all being with the clergy and faithful of the Diocese, celebrating the Eucharist and the Sacraments with and for them, preaching in parishes and writing.”

The Bishop has built a veritable library of his teaching, including catechesis on the Sacraments, which can be found on DioceseofTrenton.org > Our Bishop. In addition to his writings, he regularly records videos for the Diocese – including his most recent series “Eucharistic Moments with Bishop David M. O’Connell” – and appears frequently on a radio broadcast, “The Shepherd’s Voice,” on Domestic Church Radio, domesticchurchmedia.org.

There have been, however, several challenges that came with his role as Chief Shepherd.


At the ordination of Father Rjoy Ballacillo in 2021, Bishop O’Connell anoints his hands with Sacred Chrism and wraps them with linen cloth. Jeff Bruno photo

“As far as the most trying or difficult, I have found responding to the sexual abuse crisis tops the list, with closure of schools and parishes running a close second,” he said. “Unfortunately, people do not understand or accept these decisions when they are necessary. Closing anything is never an easy task.”

Personal setbacks have included several health issues, which he tries not to dwell on often. He has faced an ongoing struggle with diabetes; in 2014 a serious infection in his left foot brought on by the disease led to emergency surgery.

“I have never made a secret about my diabetes, which cost me my left leg. I wear a below-the-knee prosthetic,” Bishop O’Connell explained. “I know that it is obvious in churches that I need assistance climbing and descending stairs as well as getting up from chairs. ... Diabetes is an insidious disease and I pray for all who suffer from it. Watch your diet, monitor your sugar and follow your doctor’s advice!”

He attributes an earlier basal cell carcinoma on his nose and face, necessitating removal and skin grafts, to time spent in the sun on the beach as a boy. More recently he developed a stomach condition known as gastroparesis, related to diabetes, making digestion challenging.

“And I think the whole world knows I suffered a ‘widow-maker’ heart attack in Rome during my recent January pilgrimage,” he observed with good-natured humor, referring to the expansive media coverage that followed. He added, “There was some damage, but I have been able to resume my regular schedule. Again, diabetes seems to be the culprit.”

The Bishop readily admits that his health problems have not been easy to deal with. But he acknowledges that he has been sustained and supported by the prayers of so many of the clergy and faithful. “I am so grateful!,” he attests. “I have managed to carry on, and I refuse to let any of these maladies drag me down – advice I give to anyone with similar health issues. As far as I’m concerned, I’m doing OK!”

Leaning on Prayer

The Bishop’s reliance on prayer bolsters his ability to take on the many different challenges of the day. 

“In the morning, immediately after coming downstairs, I make a chapel visit to Our Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I thank him for bringing me to another day as I place the many needs and intentions recommended to me before him along with the work of the day before me. And I ask God’s help to be a faithful bishop for the local Church.”


Back in the classroom to celebrate Catholic Schools Week, the Bishop engages students of Sacred Heart School, Mount Holly. Monitor file photo

Bishop O’Connell said he cannot imagine life and ministry as a bishop without sustaining a life of prayer. “Nothing means more to me,” he emphasized. “Building friendships with my priests also enables me to face daily struggles and brings me much satisfaction.

“As I look forward to the next several years before my retirement,” he reflected, “it is my hope that the Diocese of Trenton will continue to grow and prosper, that young people will become and stay connected to the Church and Diocese, that the Eucharist will be the central force in the life of our parishes, that good and holy vocations might increase and that I may be faithful in my ministry to fulfill both my episcopal mission to teach, to govern and to sanctify, and my episcopal motto ‘Ministrare non ministrari.’ This list is not exhaustive but is certainly in the forefront of my mind and heart.”

A reporter once asked the Bishop what he believed his legacy would be.

“I replied, ‘Too early to tell. I’m not done yet. I hope that folks will say he lived his faith with joy! Ask someone else when the time comes.”

The Church needs quality Catholic journalism now more than ever. Please consider supporting this work by signing up for a SUBSCRIPTION (click HERE) or making a DONATION to The Monitor (click HERE). Thank you for your support.


The following story is part of BE INSPIRED, a new feature of The Monitor reporting on ordinary people who inspire others through their extraordinary stories. 

A mystery to no one who has been in his presence more than a few minutes, a singular focus on the Lord upholds the life and ministry of Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

“Absolute belief in the goodness and mercy of God drives my everyday life and ministry,” he recently shared in an interview with The Monitor. “That belief is not simply accidental – it is an intentional choice. It has sustained me in the good times and the tough ones as well.”

Bishop O’Connell’s episcopal motto “Ministrare non ministrari” – to serve and not to be served – has been visible throughout his nearly 14 years in the Diocese. On the occasion of his 10-year anniversary, he told The Monitor that the motto he chose was inspired by a passage from Mark’s Gospel containing that phrase, which was read at his priestly ordination Mass.

“It became a personal aspiration and motivation for me, something to strive for in ministry,” he said. “They are Christ’s own words, describing the mission of the Son of Man (Mark 10:45).”

He has prioritized being available to his flock – in person whenever possible, as well as creating a strong catechetical voice in his writing that is shared in print and online. Integrated with his faith has been a love for and gravitation toward teaching, which includes leadership roles in Catholic institutions of higher education. As shepherd of the Diocese of Trenton since 2010, the Bishop has embraced leadership and teaching through his homilies, letters and essays, catechetical series, pastoral writings, videos and podcasts – all while maintaining an impressive schedule of appearances for sacramental and milestone celebrations throughout parishes of the Diocese’s four counties.

“In my mind and many years of experience, nothing is more important than to encourage our young people in Catholic schools and parish programs of religious education to learn about and grow in their Catholic faith,” Bishop O’Connell emphasized. “Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I address the need to make faith the center of their young lives. Catholic education is Catholic because it does just that.”

Priestly Path

A native son of Philadelphia, Bishop O’Connell was born in 1955 to June and Arthur O’Connell and attended Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, Pa. His early years were spent learning from the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters in the parish grammar school, along with three brothers, Arthur Jr., Dennis, and Daniel, who works in the diocesan Office of Catholic Schools.

“My parents were a great source of encouragement in my vocation, as were the sisters,” Bishop O’Connell said.

The idea to become a priest first crossed his mind in 1962 when his pastor came to the family home to bring the Sacraments to his grandmother, who was suffering with cancer.

“Father Corrigan was so gentle and kind during those visits,” the Bishop remembered. “At the same time, I was an altar boy at the parish and was close to the other priests. I wanted to be like them. I loved serving Mass and felt close to the Lord.”

With support from his parents, the young David enrolled in the Vincentian minor seminary in Princeton in 1969, where he said his vocation began in earnest.

“The Vincentian priests who taught and staffed St. Joseph’s Preparatory Seminary were tremendous examples of what it meant to be a priest,” he said. “And like the parish priests I had known, I wanted to be like these good and faithful men. Looking back over the past more than half-century, I can see how I absorbed many of their qualities and characteristics in my formation and ministry.”

Inspired by his teachers, he continued his Vincentian education in Mary Immaculate Seminary, Northampton, Pa., earning a master of divinity degree in 1981 and a master’s degree in moral theology in 1983. He was ordained May 29, 1982, as a priest of the Congregation of the Mission in Mary Immaculate Seminary by Bishop Joseph McShea of the Diocese of Allentown.

Heart of a Teacher

Much of his priesthood and episcopacy have revolved around Catholic education, but that charism seemed to find him.

“I wouldn’t say that I set out to be an educator as a career path. The Vincentians are a community of priests and brothers dedicated to the service of the poor and training the clergy,” the Bishop explained. “They also work in parishes and missions, both at home and abroad. I was intrigued by the stories I heard from my Vincentian confreres about their diverse ministries when we would get together. Education in high schools, universities and seminaries was also a part of the community’s profile.”

His love for studying in the seminaries he attended quickly became obvious to those responsible for his formation and training, and “it came as no surprise to anyone that my first assignment as a priest was teaching in the Vincentian high school.”


One of the highlights of Bishop David M. O’Connell’s tenure at The Catholic University of America was hosting Pope Benedict XVI during his 2008 visit to the United States. Photo courtesy of The Catholic University of America

Then-Father O’Connell was assigned as faculty member and director of student activities at Archbishop Wood High School, Warminster, Pa., serving there from 1982-1985. He continued at The Catholic University of America, Washington, where he studied canon law and obtained a licentiate in 1987 and a doctorate in canon law in 1990.

“Catholic education from then on became my vocation as a priest,” Bishop O’Connell said. “I can honestly say I loved the works and assignments I was given, especially serving as academic dean and vice president of St. John’s University, Queens, New York (1989-1998) and president of The Catholic University of America (1998-2010).”

During his CUA tenure as 14th president of the university, Father O’Connell hosted Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, served frequently as commentator on CNN, Fox News, ABC’s “Nightline” and other national news broadcasts, and gleaned wisdom from various Catholic Church leaders.

“CUA, the national university of the Catholic Church in our country, was also popularly known as ‘the bishops’ university’ since it was founded and remains sponsored by the bishops of the United States,” he pointed out. “During my 12 years as president, I came to know and work with many of the country’s bishops – an experience that I am sure factored into my being recommended by them for an episcopal appointment by Pope Benedict XVI. I had come to know Pope Benedict XVI over the years since 1998 both as a cardinal and, later, as pope.”

He has also received 12 honorary doctorates and other honors from various colleges and universities and was recently elected as the chairman of the education committee for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Fulfilling Life, Facing Challenges

Ordained July 30, 2010 to the episcopacy and installed later that year as 10th Bishop of Trenton, Bishop O’Connell has found much of his role fulfilling. Provided with a solid foundation at CUA, he already had experience in responsibilities he would need as bishop: governance, communication and coordination as a leader, supervision and cooperation with central office staff, financial and facilities management and fundraising, working with and supporting the priests and deacons of the Diocese, spiritual and Sacraments guidance, support for diocesan organizations and caring for the faithful.

Reflecting on his many responsibilities, Bishop O’Connell said, “I enjoy most of all being with the clergy and faithful of the Diocese, celebrating the Eucharist and the Sacraments with and for them, preaching in parishes and writing.”

The Bishop has built a veritable library of his teaching, including catechesis on the Sacraments, which can be found on DioceseofTrenton.org > Our Bishop. In addition to his writings, he regularly records videos for the Diocese – including his most recent series “Eucharistic Moments with Bishop David M. O’Connell” – and appears frequently on a radio broadcast, “The Shepherd’s Voice,” on Domestic Church Radio, domesticchurchmedia.org.

There have been, however, several challenges that came with his role as Chief Shepherd.


At the ordination of Father Rjoy Ballacillo in 2021, Bishop O’Connell anoints his hands with Sacred Chrism and wraps them with linen cloth. Jeff Bruno photo

“As far as the most trying or difficult, I have found responding to the sexual abuse crisis tops the list, with closure of schools and parishes running a close second,” he said. “Unfortunately, people do not understand or accept these decisions when they are necessary. Closing anything is never an easy task.”

Personal setbacks have included several health issues, which he tries not to dwell on often. He has faced an ongoing struggle with diabetes; in 2014 a serious infection in his left foot brought on by the disease led to emergency surgery.

“I have never made a secret about my diabetes, which cost me my left leg. I wear a below-the-knee prosthetic,” Bishop O’Connell explained. “I know that it is obvious in churches that I need assistance climbing and descending stairs as well as getting up from chairs. ... Diabetes is an insidious disease and I pray for all who suffer from it. Watch your diet, monitor your sugar and follow your doctor’s advice!”

He attributes an earlier basal cell carcinoma on his nose and face, necessitating removal and skin grafts, to time spent in the sun on the beach as a boy. More recently he developed a stomach condition known as gastroparesis, related to diabetes, making digestion challenging.

“And I think the whole world knows I suffered a ‘widow-maker’ heart attack in Rome during my recent January pilgrimage,” he observed with good-natured humor, referring to the expansive media coverage that followed. He added, “There was some damage, but I have been able to resume my regular schedule. Again, diabetes seems to be the culprit.”

The Bishop readily admits that his health problems have not been easy to deal with. But he acknowledges that he has been sustained and supported by the prayers of so many of the clergy and faithful. “I am so grateful!,” he attests. “I have managed to carry on, and I refuse to let any of these maladies drag me down – advice I give to anyone with similar health issues. As far as I’m concerned, I’m doing OK!”

Leaning on Prayer

The Bishop’s reliance on prayer bolsters his ability to take on the many different challenges of the day. 

“In the morning, immediately after coming downstairs, I make a chapel visit to Our Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I thank him for bringing me to another day as I place the many needs and intentions recommended to me before him along with the work of the day before me. And I ask God’s help to be a faithful bishop for the local Church.”


Back in the classroom to celebrate Catholic Schools Week, the Bishop engages students of Sacred Heart School, Mount Holly. Monitor file photo

Bishop O’Connell said he cannot imagine life and ministry as a bishop without sustaining a life of prayer. “Nothing means more to me,” he emphasized. “Building friendships with my priests also enables me to face daily struggles and brings me much satisfaction.

“As I look forward to the next several years before my retirement,” he reflected, “it is my hope that the Diocese of Trenton will continue to grow and prosper, that young people will become and stay connected to the Church and Diocese, that the Eucharist will be the central force in the life of our parishes, that good and holy vocations might increase and that I may be faithful in my ministry to fulfill both my episcopal mission to teach, to govern and to sanctify, and my episcopal motto ‘Ministrare non ministrari.’ This list is not exhaustive but is certainly in the forefront of my mind and heart.”

A reporter once asked the Bishop what he believed his legacy would be.

“I replied, ‘Too early to tell. I’m not done yet. I hope that folks will say he lived his faith with joy! Ask someone else when the time comes.”

The Church needs quality Catholic journalism now more than ever. Please consider supporting this work by signing up for a SUBSCRIPTION (click HERE) or making a DONATION to The Monitor (click HERE). Thank you for your support.

Have a news tip? Email [email protected] or Call/Text 360-922-3092

e-Edition


e-edition

Sign up


for our email newsletters

Weekly Top Stories

Sign up to get our top stories delivered to your inbox every Sunday

Daily Updates & Breaking News Alerts

Sign up to get our daily updates and breaking news alerts delivered to your inbox daily

Latest Stories


Pope: Humility is the 'gateway to all virtues’
Though not found on the classical list of cardinal or theological virtues, ...

Pope: Palliative care is 'concrete sign' of solidarity with those who are suffering
Palliative care seeks "to alleviate the ...

St. John Vianney softball rallies to win SCT title game
The process has been completed.

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
This Sunday, the Church throughout the world celebrates the ...

Knights' success built on founder's desire for charity
In many ways, Father Michael J. McGivney was just ...


The Evangelist, 40 North Main Ave., Albany, NY, 12203-1422 | PHONE: 518-453-6688| FAX: 518-453-8448
© 2024 Trenton Monitor, All Rights Reserved.