Friday, June 04, 2010

DC Makes, Trenton Takes: For Bishop David, a "Great Diocese"

As Pope Benedict arrived at the Catholic University of America to address Catholic educators during his 2008 visit to the East Coast, just before the speech the Secret Service's tightly-scripted plans had the school's president riding alone in an elevator with the pontiff.

Even most cardinals haven't experienced a moment of the sort. And for months, the thought weighed on David O'Connell's mind....

What would he say?

So the story goes, though, the guest of honor took care of the speaking.

"Father, I know what you have done here," Benedict told his host, "and the church is grateful."

And then, the doors opened.

Already set to depart CUA's helm this summer after a transformative 12-year tenure, this morning the pontiff ratified the sentiment, naming the 55 year-old Vincentian as coadjutor-bishop of Trenton.

The move hits the posts on a number of fronts. Personally, it's a homecoming for the son of Philly who once told an interviewer that he "found [his] vocation on a SEPTA bus," seeing an ad for the Vincentians on the next seat. A wild-haired religion teacher in the 'burbs in his first assignment as a priest, O'Connell attended high-school in Princeton, his boyhood parish just a 20-minute drive across the Delaware River from what'll soon be his cathedral.

Ecclesially, meanwhile, for a diocese with an unusual amount of energy and vitality among its peers in the decline-ridden Northeast, a keen affirmation arrives in the form of a top-flight talent -- a driven, charismatic, fun-loving figure and public-square star who's won plaudits across the global church as a leader in ensuring and reinvigorating Catholic identity in Catholic education, and who comes to the bench with an enormously outsize profile and standing for a "baby bishop," both at home and abroad, inside and outside the church alike.

Above all, though, O'Connell is his mother's son, and having written of his heartbreak at moving his 83 year-old Mom (now suffering from dementia and lack of mobility) into a nursing home earlier this year, he's been given not just the gift of a great diocese, but of being a stone's throw away from her side. Considering that this morning's announcement comes just days before the fifth anniversary of his Dad's death, the homecoming's emotional factor is of no small significance.

All of 42 when he took Catholic's helm in 1998 -- a return to the university's tradition of clerical leadership -- O'Connell made an aggressive restoration of the Brookland campus' church-cred in the spirit of Ex corde ecclesiae his overarching priority. Along the way, though, alongside a building boom, a rebirth of campus ministry and a sizable expansion of students, Catholic gained a renewed stature not just in the church, but on the capital's wider scene, thanks in large part to its president's ability to bridge the ecclesial divide and, indeed, engage the press.

As Benedict landed in Washington for the 2008 trip, O'Connell was doing color commentary on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, who he introduced to the pontiff the two days later alongside another longtime friend: the beloved Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert (above), moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, whose sudden death two months later at 58 plunged official Washington into state mourning, but birthed a sea-change moment for the US church as Russert's public and private witness was praised on the airwaves with a personal-faith coverage paralleled only by the passing of Pope John Paul II, and something of a kind rarely, if ever, experienced for a member of the laity.

A veteran of almost as many White House Correspondents' Dinners as USCCB meetings, the bishop-elect's ink trail has largely stuck to explaining the church as opposed to opining on it. In a change of tack, however, O'Connell took to the Washington Times just a fortnight ago to share share his plans to spend his six-month sabbatical on departing the President's Office to write a book about Catholic identity in the church's educational works, along the way making his first comments on the ecclesial academy's signal controversy over recent years: Notre Dame's 2009 conferral of an honorary degree on President Obama, a move protested by close to 80 bishops nationwide.

"Notre Dame didn't suffer for it," he told the Times' Julia Duin. "In fact, Notre Dame benefited from it.

"Obama goes to Notre Dame and everyone gets their pants in a twist," he said. "80 bishops pile on saying Notre Dame shouldn't have done that; the president comes and gives a speech; [the university] still turns away 1,000 students; they still get a million dollars in contributions; they honor the [papal] nuncio. ... They're back in the good graces of the church - what happened as a result of this?"

When it comes to the impact of directives on church institutions, he said, "we still have not resolved what these things mean."

As the Father-President's new turf goes, Bishop Mort Smith and his team will hand Trenton's tenth ordinary a plum.

Among other attributes, the Central Jersey church has the second-largest contingent of permanent deacons among any Stateside diocese -- some 442, according to a recently-released CARA study on the diaconate -- plus another 14 ordained last month. Tomorrow, the bishop will ordain five new priests, with seven transitional deacons on-deck for next year. Whatever one's criteria, all are top-tier numbers these days, but all the more given Trenton's mid-range size.
Elsewhere, the diocese's lay ministry efforts are nationally-regarded, and in a time when many of its peers are facing cash-flow crises and drastic calls, as one local put it, "Mort's got money in the bank." (Which, considering his successor's perceived weak-suit -- fundraising -- is no small blessing, especially these days.)

All that doesn't even scratch the surface of what's been called the Trenton church's "untapped resource" -- five colleges, led by the venerable Princeton -- not to mention another oft-delicate task for which O'Connell comes well-equipped: the political throes of a capital city, this one home to the nation's most constitutionally powerful governor (currently a pro-life Catholic Republican), and a Statehouse culture that, just over recent months, has debated moves that would pose challenges to church teaching on same-sex marriage and the rights of workers alike.

To use the appointee's phrase, "the rumors have been very strong" for years, and his appointment as a bishop was never so much a question of if, but when -- and, above all, where. Yet in the end, his name having popped up for no shortage of vacancies over time -- most prominently for last year's succession to Fort Wayne-South Bend, the diocese which encompasses Notre Dame -- perhaps the unlikeliest placement of all came to pass... but just as much, one that makes the utmost sense, and immediately raises the profile of a local church that's earned it, to boot.

With two archbishops -- DC's Donald Wuerl and Newark's John Myers -- serving as co-consecrators, the bishop-elect will be ordained in Trenton's Cathedral of St Mary the Assumption on Friday, July 30th. Pending both the approval of its board and confirmation from the Holy See, the appointment of Catholic's 15th president is expected before summer's end; as previously indicated here, O'Connell told a farewell gathering of the university community following last month's commencement that his successor would be a layman.

Asked to sum up Smith's legacy, one Trenton pastor said, simply, "He made us proud."

And for his reward, Mort and Central Jersey hit the jackpot -- as no less than America summed it up as the news broke, "a gem of a diocese is getting a gem of a new bishop."

PHOTOS: The Catholic University of America