After completing my first assignment as a priest at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Claremont, I was assigned to be the Pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church in South Los Angeles. What a change! After four years as an Associate Pastor in a wonderful parish, I moved into the inner-city and took over a parish that had $2,636.45 in the checking account and over $7,000.00 in unpaid bills. Rather than making sick calls to elderly people who were struggling with the health issues related to aging, I was visiting young people who had been shot or stabbed and were fighting for their lives. As you can imagine, each day was a struggle and a challenge. And, there were times when I wished that I had brother priests with whom I could discuss the issues I was facing.
At the end of my first year at Holy Name of Jesus, in the middle of 2006, I received a call from Father Dave O’Connell inviting me to join his Priests Support Group that was made up of six Pastors of inner-city parishes. This is exactly what I needed! And, for the past 17 years, we have been meeting each month to pray together, to share our ideas, and to support each other in times of joy and in times of struggle.
You can imagine my shock when I found out that Father Dave, who became Bishop Dave in 2015, had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last Saturday. Initial reports indicated that he had died of a single bullet wound to the torso. On Sunday the Sheriffs announced that they were now treating this case as a homicide. A murder.
Bishop Dave was one of the most compassionate, pastoral, and caring priests whom I have ever met. He was appointed as a Bishop by Pope Francis because of his heart for the poor, the immigrant, and the lonely. As they say, he “walked the walk” and he “talked the talk.” He recognized the sanctity of all human life, from conception to natural death. And he made so many people understand that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. He sought to bring about a world filled with peace, and, along with it, a true sense of justice.
When I was going through some real struggles in a complicated situation at my previous parish, I knew that I had to have the courage to make some very difficult decisions, despite the pressure I was receiving from people who had no idea what the facts were in this incredibly complex situation. One day, when I was feeling so isolated and alone, Bishop Dave called me and asked if he could drive from Hacienda Heights all the way to Venice Beach to pray with me. Not over the phone, not by Zoom, but in person.
He arrived at the rectory that evening, and we went into our chapel to pray. And, I’ll never forget how he began. “By the power of grace I renounce the spirit of violence. By the power of grace I renounce the spirit of anger. By the power of grace I renounce the spirit of revenge. By the power of grace I renounce the spirit of depression. And, as a Bishop in the Catholic Church, I call God’s wisdom and guidance into the heart and soul of Father Paul, so that he may continue to walk as a loyal servant of our loving God and God’s holy people.” It is a night that I will never forget.
Last Saturday Bishop Dave was a victim of violence. Why? And by whom? We do not yet know. I am writing this on Monday morning, Presidents Day, and by the time you read this we may have more information. However, whatever the circumstances were, we continue to ask the question, “Why would someone want to kill someone who did so much to bring God’s love into people’s lives?” It just seems so surreal. A bad dream that has turned into a living nightmare.
Someone once told me that, “Jesus was aware, He was available, and He was approachable.” Priests are challenged to follow that way of life. And that is exactly what Bishop David O’Connell did each day of his life. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. And, I am confident that Jesus is looking into the eyes of Bishop Dave and saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” May the Lord continue to bless us always, and in all ways,
Father Paul Spellman