While some worry that the stunning death of Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell could cast a shadow over the season of Lent for Southern California’s Catholics, others believe that the parishioners, though they feel the tragedy deeply, will seek solace in their faith and immerse themselves in the annual 40 days of preparation and renewal.
“These tragedies happen and they are to be lamented,” said Armando Garcia, a parishioner from the Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Pacoima, in Spanish, “but what we can do is come together and support one another, and pray especially for those in the San Gabriel Valley.”
Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell was found with a fatal gunshot wound Saturday, Feb. 18, at his home in Hacienda Heights. The death is being investigated as a murder, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department announced on Sunday.
Ash Wednesday Masses will continue as scheduled for churches in Hacienda Heights and elsewhere in L.A. archdiocese, officials said Sunday.
O’Connell had a prominent role in administering the church’s message and managing resources in the San Gabriel Valley region of the Los Angeles Diocese, reporting to Archbishop José H. Gomez, and was regarded as a peacemaker and a voice for people on society’s margins. O’Connell was named an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles by Pope Francis in 2015.
Parishioners and clergy in Southern California and elsewhere are mourning O’Connell, who they described as approachable, funny and “cool” — and passionately devoted to caring for low-income communities, immigrants and others in need.
“Hearing the news was very impactful because he was part of the church and community,” said Fabiola Montes who came from San Fernando to attend 10 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Downtown L.A., which was dedicated to O’Connell, with the Archbishop as celebrant.
“I think it will affect the beginning of the Lent season because we look up to bishops and priests as guides of our faith and what to do during these types of celebrations and devotions to our faith,” Montes said in Spanish.
Homilies at churches all over Southern California on Sunday included heartfelt tributes to O’Connell, from priests who knew him well to others who only knew of his good works. But priests’ messages also focused on Biblical readings that revisited pre-Lenten lessons on forgiving ones enemies and aspiring to the life model forged by Jesus Christ.
Lent is a season of prayer, fasting and reflection that begins on Ash Wednesday – which will be on Feb. 22 this year – and ends at sundown on Holy Thursday, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in preparation for the celebration of Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar. By observing the 40 days of Lent, Christians replicate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for that period.
When a cross is marked on worshippers’ foreheads with ashes, it represents mortality and penance for their sins.
“Even on Ash Wednesday, we hope that Bishop O’Connell’s passing will be acknowledged again in the homily, to continue giving him the respect he deserves,” said Pacoima parishioner Garcia, who worshipped at the Downtown L.A. Cathedral before attending a retreat there in the afternoon.
Although the death of O’Connell has jolted the community, some believe that the tragedy will propel more people into churches to participate in Ash Wednesday and other Lenten ceremonies.
“I expect more people to show up,” said Javier Marquez, from Gardena. “I think the reality of having somebody of such a rank as his pass away, it makes it more personal and more real. That’s why I expect more people to become closer to their faith, I wouldn’t expect the opposite.”
Acknowledging that they were shocked to hear the news, some said that recent acts of violence — including the January dance hall shooting that left 11 people dead in nearby Monterey Park — will make it difficult to stay optimistic this year.
Others said that it will be even more important to gather together and provide support to people in the San Gabriel Valley.
“There have been so many acts of violence lately, like in Monterey Park and other places of worship and schools,” said Martha Orozco, from Pacoima, in Spanish. “It’s a lot of tragedy.”
She added: “but if we keep coming to church, praying and leaving it in the hands of God as we do as Catholics, we’ll have the strength to keep pushing forward.”
O’Connell’s legacy fits in well with the Lenten message, said Therese Funk, Executive Director of Counseling Parters of Los Angeles.
“Well beyond his parishioners, well beyond Catholics, he brought people of all faiths closer,” said Funk. :How many people he connected to each other, how many lives he touched, how many people whose lives are better, whose outlooks on life are better because of his calm, kind, positive energy.”
“On top of that, he was an instrument of change, inviting donors to worthy causes “just to see what was happening” who often wanted to give to these causes, Funk said, ” because they were so worthy and because of the incredible positive impact that “investment” would provide.”
She added: “To me personally, the legacy I want for him is for us to love everyone with an open heart, to see every person as worthy of love and deserving of our help to ensure a bright future.”
Staff writer Clara Harter contributed to this report