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Taking His Vows to Heart

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 23rd anniversary of the Rev. Msgr. David O’Connell’s ordination would be marked by a partial solar eclipse. But when the alarm went off at 5:30 that Monday morning, the priest was unaware of either event.

Thudding down the carpeted stairs in the rectory of St. Frances Xavier Catholic Church in South-Central Los Angeles, O’Connell was thinking about his dog.

For years he had wanted a dog but had feared, he says, “that a priest’s dog would die of loneliness.” Then one day, a big black dog, mostly chow with some sort of shepherd mixed in, wandered onto the asphalt lot that separates the rectory from the church’s school.

All night the dog sat behind the rectory, wailing like a banshee--"Wailinlikeabanshee,” O’Connell says again as he tells the story, running the words into an onomatopoeic train as only a native of Ireland can. So finally he broke down and let the dog in. “If you want to join the priesthood,” man told beast, “it’s all right with me.”

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That was four years ago and since then the priest has begun his morning by walking his dog at dawn. It is the high point of the dog’s day and one of the constant satisfactions of the man’s.

O’Connell faces a working day that can last 16 hours in a place where the problems seem unending. At the same time, the ideal image of the priesthood--a vocation to provide spiritual guidance, strength, succor--has been eclipsed by scandal just as the sun this day will be eclipsed by the moon.

The list of priests who have abused children is horrifyingly long; the list of those who abetted them longer. Yet neither comes close in number to the majority of this country’s 46,000 Catholic priests who strive daily to fulfill their vows--men who spend days and nights aiding the poor, the ailing, the criminal, the troubled, even as yet another of their own is revealed to have abused those entrusted to his care.

Like many other priests, O’Connell, who is 48, is appalled and angered by the continual revelations of pathology and corruption, and by what has seemed like a continuing attempt by the church to defend the indefensible. But he remains a visible symbol of that church; every morning he puts on the black shirt and white Roman collar because it is the uniform of the work he still believes in--serving God and his people.

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For 14 years, O’Connell has been pastor at St. Frances Cabrini, and just recently he also became pastor of nearby Ascension. This means overseeing, not only two congregations of roughly 4,000 families each, but also two schools that between them serve about 500 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade. The parishes are less than a mile apart, but there is a language and racial division--Cabrini is mostly African American, Ascension primarily Spanish-speaking Latino.

Both neighborhoods are very poor and bogged down by issues of survival, and so are the duties of their priest. O’Connell spends a lot of time encouraging his parishioners to speak up for themselves--to fight for new stop signs and safer playgrounds, to demand that politicians keep their promises.

What O’Connell considers his failures are starkly obvious and irrevocable. Recently, in the space of one week, he said three funeral Masses for victims of gang-related shootings.

“The kids are organized,” he says. “The adults are not. We have to unite to show them a different way.”

But O’Connell is a priest, not a social worker. He absolutely believes that the answers to human failings can be found in the Gospel, that, sought or unsought, God is with us. And so on this Monday morning, 23 years after he took his vows at All Hallow’s Seminary in Dublin, the priest returns from his walk, feeds himself and his dog and spends an hour in the pale chilly silence of the church, alone with his thoughts and his God.

Then, under an overcast sky, he gets into his Saturn station wagon and heads down Imperial Highway to 8 a.m. Mass at Ascension Church.

Ascension is not a beautiful church. There are bars over the stained-glass windows, the mosaic depicting the Ascension is faded and pocked. It stands in the crook of the Century and Harbor freeways, where a soaring transition road turns north, away from the airport and toward downtown. The surrounding blocks are drab and grim, full of small motels and impound lots.

But the houses across from the school and rectory are bright with grass and roses, and inside the small chapel where morning Mass is said, the singing masks every other noise. Twenty or so people, most of them women, have gathered amid the wooden chairs, several with children in tow.

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When saying Mass here, O’Connell is often the only non-Latino in the room, but his Spanish is as quick and melodic as his parishioners’.

In his homily, he speaks directly to the people he sees before him, people he clearly knows. One has just lost a husband, another is struggling to find work, and yet they too are blessed, he says. Can they say how they feel blessed? The homily takes a turn, becoming a conversation rather than a sermon. One by one, members of the congregation admit their troubles, but also their joys--of family, of faith, of community.

“I want it to be a dialogue,” O’Connell says later. “People need to feel the Gospel is part of their lives, a real part of their lives. They need to feel this about the church as well. They need a say in it all, even the homily.”

Throughout the day, O’Connell will say similar things to many people in a variety of contexts. He believes that people have become too withdrawn, isolated from one another, and in that isolation we too often seek private solutions when the answers should be communal.

“Whether it’s violence or gangs or secession,” he says, “people would rather walk away. They have forgotten how to unite, how to even talk to one another. I have learned this, that I cannot stand separate as the priest. I have to go out and make things happen.”

After Mass, he walks to his office in Ascension’s rectory where on one wall hangs a large picture of an idyllic Irish landscape, on another a black Madonna and child.

For all his Cork brogue, silvering hair and bright blue eyes, O’Connell is not the Hollywood version of a garrulous Irish priest. He has a quiet voice and a restrained manner, as if he were pacing himself. But he is quick to laugh, occasionally because it seems the only thing a working priest can do these days.

“Were you sent by the new PR firm then?” he asks when a reporter requests an interview with him. “Ah, well, we’ll say no more about our fearless leaders and their tactics.”

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Among priests, talk of the scandals is never initiated exactly, because the conversation seems continual, inexorable, like the Earth and moon as they move toward this day’s eclipse.

The diocese’s recent decision to hire a public relations firm especially seems to rankle; O’Connell mentions it often, with wry humor that slowly wears thin until, in the evening, he will say bitterly: “We don’t need PR. We need to fix the problems. If they don’t see that now, what on earth will it take?”

But now it’s 9 a.m. and O’Connell has a meeting with other members of Los Angeles Metro in the community room at Ascension. L.A. Metro is a group of community and religious leaders from around the county who have been trying for the past 18 months to organize around various issues--immigration, education, crime and employment.

A union leader, pastors from several faiths, a social worker, a handful of organizers and activists, a nun and O’Connell all sit on metal folding chairs at long tables.

For more than two hours, the group talks of many things, but mostly about organizing the various congregations and communities to fight secession, which they see as an attempt to disengage from the problems facing the city, rather than working together to solve them.

The group wants the mayor to acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons the Valley and Hollywood want to secede, that these complaints are shared by other communities, including their own and that secession is a symptom of a larger chronic lack of governance. They do not hold out much hope that the mayor will do this.

“It is not a great time for our leaders,” Connell says after the meeting. “In the church or in the city. The bureaucracies have become too hierarchical, the people feel too removed, there is no recognition of what the people’s lives are really like. Our leaders seem quite clueless.”

He is back in the car, on his way to the school at Cabrini to attend a farewell assembly for Gilda Marchante, who has taught eighth grade at the school for 30 years. Rows and rows of children sit quietly in the gym/auditorium while various people, including O’Connell, speak of the teacher’s devotion and then shower her with gifts.

Afterward there is a hot dog picnic on the playground. Walking among the children--the girls in their blue and white plaid dresses, the boys in white shirts and blue pants--the priest’s face brightens visibly.

O’Connell is not a hugging priest, not the sort who naturally embraces in greeting or parting. But wading through the lines of children waiting for lunch, he touches a shoulder, a back or the top of a head. It is impossible to watch this and not think of the scandals, of the shadow they have thrown over this man and his brothers. Yet O’Connell says nothing has changed in his interaction with the children or their parents; he has not felt the people pull away from him, has not sensed any fear.

“I think they are angry that the church has not done the right thing,” he says. “I think they, like a lot of us, just want a simple acknowledgment that things were done wrong, a sincere apology and a promise to get to the real problems.”

Parishioners, the priest says, should have more say in the running of their churches. Women should be ordained and clergy should be able to marry. “If there had been some parents in there running things,” he says, “none of this would have ever happened.”

In the Cabrini rectory, the priest looks for mail that hasn’t come and chats with Father Anthony Gonzalez, who is the pastoral administrator. Between them, they say six daily Masses, as many as eight Saturday Masses (including weddings and quinceanera) and as many as eight Sunday services.

In a polo shirt and khakis, Gonzalez is the model of a young modern priest. Together the two men laugh ruefully about what they see as the mayor’s inability to connect with the people, especially their people, about what they consider the cardinal’s obfuscations. They seem to feel the same amount of distance from one leader as from another--like the city government, the hierarchy of the church is “them,” the working priests, “us.”

Gonzalez has been at Cabrini for four years; before that O’Connell spent several years living in the rectory alone. Two women O’Connell has known since his first parish in Downey come every Monday to make dinner for the two. But for the most part, O’Connell and Gonzalez shift for themselves, eating out of Trader Joe’s containers and the microwave.

“We’re so rarely in,” says O’Connell. Kept in a large black date book as hefty and worn as any family Bible, his weekly evening schedule is a patchwork of meetings--with parish councils, parents groups, catechists and staff.

After lunch, he heads back to Ascension where a couple who seem very unhappy are waiting for him; he gives them food coupons and then, in his office, makes a series of phone calls.

Then at 3, it’s on to another L.A. Metro meeting at nearby Locke High School. Parents in both parishes approach him daily about the state of the local schools--their children are being threatened or getting bored, the teachers are dismissive and the administration is unavailable.

“We are trying to teach people how to talk to each other again because, in conversation, solutions just occur naturally,” he says. “I’ve seen it happen over and over again.”

In the L.A. Metro meeting, there are more hard chairs and people concerned with problems that seem insurmountable. Parents, teachers and administrators describe issues of illiteracy, poor attendance, violence and a culture that seems to disdain learning.

It is unusual for the priest to have two such meetings in a day--tomorrow he will spend much of the early afternoon on the porch of a 91-year-old parishioner who can no longer attend Mass, listening to tales of life as a chef on the Southern Pacific Railroad and what it was like to be the first black family living in what was then the white section of Watts. “Imagine living through all that and still such faith, such goodness,” O’Connell says as he drives down a sun-scoured section of 112th Street.

But today he is back at the Cabrini rectory by 5 p.m., where the table is set for dinner--salad, chicken and rice.

After dinner, he spends a few minutes upstairs in his study. It is a nice room, with a fireplace and two comfortable armchairs before it. The mantel is strewn with pictures of his family, especially the young children of one of his brothers. He goes back to Ireland every other year to visit them. After a week or 10 days, he says, he begins to think longingly of Los Angeles, of the weather and the peace of a solitary life.

“People think the priesthood requires a lot of sacrifice,” he says, “And it does. But nothing like parenthood. You have to give so much of yourself. Ah, but look at her,” he says, picking up a photo of his niece. “She’s a crack she is. They’re all lovely kids.”

He is the third of five children. A black-and-white photo on the wall shows a straight-backed serious family; only one of the children is looking off camera with a faint grin. “The problem middle child,” the priest says of himself.

O’Connell says he knew all his life he wanted to be a priest, although he still cannot explain why. Just before he entered seminary, he thought about being a political scientist, but then he met a priest who had a parish in Los Angeles, and “I thought that sounded much more interesting.”

He took his vows at a time when it was the dream of every Catholic mother to have a son in the priesthood. A photo on his bookshelf shows a dark-haired woman kneeling before a young man in a cassock. “My first blessing after my ordination,” he says. “My mother.”

During the course of the day, he has remembered that it is his anniversary, although he still knows nothing about the eclipse. “Twenty-three years,” he says. “I still can’t believe it.”

He has never regretted his decision, he says, and he certainly does not now. Most of his colleagues, he says, are determined to see their church through this dark time. O’Connell believes in the power of God and community as he believes in the sun; it exists even when blotted out by human failing, and is larger and brighter than any obstacle. “It is an honor to see God working in people’s lives,” the priest says quietly. “To see people’s lives changed by God’s love, by their faith.”

The meeting of the Pastoral Counsel of Ascension begins at 7, so O’Connell leaves the rectory at 6:30 to set up. Stepping outside, he is struck by the nature of the light. The sky has gone lavender as if before a storm, and the sun shines darkly, iridescent like the inside of an abalone shell. “Ah, it’s lovely, isn’t it,” he says, turning around in the fractured sunlight as if it were a fine rain. “So strange and lovely.”

At the meeting, he leads the 20 or so men and women through reflections on Matthew 9:36-10:8 in which Christ exhorts his disciples to aid the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The light grows darker, odder, as the group discusses the reading. It is a bilingual group, black and Latino, and a bilingual conversation, with O’Connell translating when he must.

Halfway into the meeting, a young Latino man speaks of the sudden surge of faith he has felt in recent months. “I am so surprised at how much it means to me,” he says in English, “How much it makes me feel. I never thought it would. Never.”

O’Connell nods and says, “Now en espanol,” and the group laughs.

From behind the black shadow of the moon, the sun slides finally beyond the horizon. By the time the meeting is over, it is past 9 p.m., but the priest is energized by the conversation. He mentions the young man.

“You see how it works,” he says. “You see how the power of God is there when you least expect it.”

There are still phone calls to be returned now, one from a young man who wants to meet with him right away. In the priest’s office, the man makes a solemn vow to stop using drugs and O’Connell nods and tells him it was good to make such a promise but that he was not going to be able to do it alone. He gives him the numbers of several recovery groups and sees the man out.

He gets home in time to catch part of a Sarah Brightman concert on television. His dog sits beside him and sings along. “It’s extraordinary,” he says, like a parent of a child. “I don’t know if it means he likes it or he hates it, but it is something to hear.”

Then he puts the dog out back and goes to bed at 11. It isn’t until the next day that he realizes there had been a solar eclipse that made the air shine purple.

“Finally a sign,” he says laughing as he walks from the rectory at Cabrini to the school in the unbroken morning sunshine. “After 23 years, a sign. Do you think perhaps I’ve got a vocation?”


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