Five years ago today, June 4, 2010, I stood here in the Bishop Ahr Conference Room of the Chancery and was introduced to the Diocese for the first time as its new coadjutor bishop by Bishop John M. Smith. To say I was a bit nervous is an understatement, since you only get one chance to make a good first impression. A little humor always helps.
I received the news of my appointment from the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi, at the Apostolic Nunciature (Vatican Embassy) in Washington, D.C. on May 24, 2010. I was friendly with Archbishop Sambi so it was not unusual to receive a call from him or even to be asked to come to the Nunciature for a conversation with him. I had no idea what he wanted to see me about so I just appeared at the Embassy door and was whisked off to his room rather than his office.
After a few minutes of humorous banter --- he was quite funny --- he pounded his hand on the arm of his chair and said, “Well, Father O’Connell, the Holy Father wants you to be the Bishop of Trenton …and he’s not asking, he’s telling you, so write him a letter saying “yes” today and let’s go eat lunch now. And that’s what we did.
We returned afterwards to his quarters and he provided me with a great deal of information about Trenton, indicating that I would be a coadjutor bishop for a short time with the right of succession when Bishop Smith’s resignation at 75 was accepted. We decided to ask the Holy See to make the official announcement on June 4, two weeks later.
It wasn’t easy keeping this secret as I was instructed --- “you may tell no one”--- and since I was leaving my post at Catholic University, people were constantly asking me “what will you be doing after this?” I avoided a direct answer.
June 4, 2010, a beautiful, sunny day arrived and I came to the Chancery to visit my “new surroundings” for the first time. The Nuncio and I originally planned on an August 6 installation day and the press releases had already been prepared. Before heading out for the press conference, I received a call from Archbishop Sambi saying “you can’t have that date, Rigali has it reserved. Call him in Philadelphia.” Needless to say, I had to change my plans so it became July 30.
June 4 was a most memorable day in my life, the beginning of what I hoped and prayed would be a new opportunity “to serve and not to be served.”