Friday, June 04, 2010

"You Mean, I'm a 10?"

It's not every day on this beat that a press conference begins with the words, "Before we get the party started"....

Actually, as the house memory goes, those words have never been the open for a chancery presser. At least, until today, as Bishop-elect David O'Connell got a raucous welcome in the Garden State's capital church, one complete with his nearby hometown's favorite question: "Pat's or Geno's?" (To which the freshly-named Trenton coadjutor gingerly offered a "politically correct" response: "Cheese-steak -- staple food.")

That was the mood in the room this morning at the Central Jersey chancery, as Bishop Mort Smith introduced his eventual successor, first to the local media, then the diocesan staff.

The event turned slapstick quickly -- "So much for my sabbatical," O'Connell said on taking the podium. Later, as The Mort recalled from the podium how he told the appointee that "I'm a character," O'Connell chimed back from his chair that "That makes two of us." Then, reminding the departing CUA prez that he'd become the tenth bishop of the 800,000-member church, the coadjutor replied, "You mean, I'm a 10?!"

It was the "Mort and Dave Show." And, of course, the crowd ate it all up.

The nominee turned emotional in his statement, composing himself on recalling his late father, and his Mom, "who's entering a tough time in her life" but, thanks to whose inherited qualities, "I'm never bored." (And never boring, either.) Still, O'Connell broke from his prepared text, saying that when he informed his mother of the appointment yesterday over pancakes, he reminded her of the pontifical secret and that she couldn't tell anyone -- not his brothers, not anybody -- until today.

Then, as the waitress walked past, she pointed to her son and blurted out, "He's a bishop."

Thanks to his roots just across the Delaware and his years in the diocese as a high-school student, the appointee said his charge-to-be had already been his "second home."

Following the meetings, a yellow school-bus full of diocesan employees shuttled to St Mary's Cathedral downtown for a noontime Mass, whose music -- in a fitting nod to the campus life the bishop-elect leaves behind -- was provided by a lone guitarist/cantor.

Even on six hours' notice, the 900-seat church was a third full for the liturgy. Given the size of "Davidworld" -- the wide orbit of O'Connell's friends and fans -- on top of the cast-of-thousands local crowd, planning for the 30 July ordination will make for quite the task over the next six weeks.

Given the diocesan bishop's 75th birthday later this month, some have asked why a coadjutor was appointed at this stage. In a word, it was a "Roman special" for the bishop-elect -- a sign of the Holy See's esteem -- allowing him the luxury of getting up to speed without the full burden of office, compensating for his intended year-long sabbatical by giving him time to take it somewhat easy for a while after the 12-year whirlwind of running a university before revving immediately into another demanding top slot. (For what it's worth, early indications tip the coadjutor period to last some six to nine months.)

Lastly, asked about his plans to write a book on Catholic education as reported last month in the Washington Times, O'Connell told Whispers after the presser that the idea wasn't a serious one.

"I said 'I could write a book...'" he said of the Times interview, "...but I'd have to wait 25 years to publish it," adding that he was more interested in doing essays.

A few minutes earlier, noting that the call informing him of his appointment came just after his Vincentian provincial, Fr Michael Carroll, asked him to do vacation duty -- cleaning, groceries, and the like -- at his intended sabbatical site, the community's Shore house in Cape May, the bishop-elect apologized to his superior.

For his part, Smith responded by sticking out his tongue at Carroll, turned to his coadjutor and jokingly declared, "I forbid you!"

And, well, that was the morn that was.