By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor
Members of Notre Dame High School’s Catholic Athletes for Christ received a special visitor Nov. 7, as Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., dropped by the gymnasium for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session.
“It’s a great source of pride to the Diocese to see our young people so committed to Christ and wanting to bring Christ to every area and endeavor in their lives, including athletics,” Bishop O’Connell said prior to meeting with the Lawrenceville school’s student-athletes.
Six students asked Bishop O’Connell questions during the 40-minute program in which he discussed topics such as growing up working for his father, how he decided on the priesthood, moments when he relied heavily on his faith, a student’s role in the Church and the Church’s future.
Bishop O’Connell said his work ethic was rooted in his early days, when he awakened at 4 a.m. to help at his father’s Pennsylvania gas station/repair shop during the gas crisis of 1973-74.
“That experience showed me first-hand how hard he worked for our family,” he said. “Something I might not have otherwise appreciated.”
He related that his calling to the priesthood came as second-grader, when his grandmother was dying and the parish priest came to his home.
“As a kid, it was all very mysterious to me,” the Bishop said. “There were these bells and candles and robes, and I didn’t understand it, but it intrigued me. I saw great examples of priesthood in my parish, especially my pastor, whom I witnessed ministering so gently to my grandmother in her last days. That experience influenced my vocation to become a priest.”
Explaining that he went to seminary school at age 13, Bishop O’Connell discussed his journey from that point, which eventually took him to the presidency of The Catholic University of America in Washington. He then became a bishop.
“The Pope said to me, ‘You will be the Bishop of Trenton … I am not asking you, I am telling you,’” Bishop O’Connell said with a laugh.
One of his most poignant answers came when the Bishop was asked about his most spiritually significant moment. He had three – one joyful and two grim. The first was when he was ordained a priest.
The second was when his left leg needed to be amputated due to a bone infection that left him dangerously septic. The doctor told him he would not survive and then walked out of the room, leaving him alone.
“My faith helped me turn a dire diagnosis into survival by telling doctors to remove my leg,” the Bishop said. “I put my trust in God and in the Blessed Mother. They saw me through a sacrifice, and every day since I am grateful for my faith.”
His third moment came with the death of his mother.
“I knew she would not recover from her illness, and I wanted to hold on to her,” he said. “God had other plans, and I put my faith in him. He brought her to be with him.”
Speaking about Catholic Athletes for Christ, the Bishop explained how he first learned of the program during his time at The Catholic University of America and instituted it in the Diocese upon his arrival.
“Catholic Athletes for Christ gives student-athletes the chance to see how important faith is and how it transforms our lives to make a difference in the sports we play and the lives we lead,” he said. “I don’t want to take credit for this. It’s an idea, and like many things, it’s an idea you hand off to folks, and other people make it happen.”
The Bishop’s visit was arranged by school chaplain Father Jason Parzynski, who runs the athletic prayer group along with strength and conditioning coach John McKenna. They both oversee Notre Dame’s CAC organization.
“We have a big group, and we wanted to get them some face time with the Bishop,” McKenna said. “We wanted them to sit down, look at him face-to-face where it’s not a formal setting. Where it’s a little more informal. The future of the Catholic Church is to bring our kids back into the Church.”