The Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law has this to say about bishops:
Bishops, who by divine institution succeed to the place of the Apostles through the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, are constituted pastors in the Church, so that they are teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship, and ministers of governance (canon 375.1).
Through episcopal consecration itself, bishops receive with the function of sanctifying also the functions of teaching and governing; by their nature, however, these can only be exercised in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college (canon 375.2).
When you think about it, that's pretty heady stuff. While I am a canon lawyer and such definitions carry a lot of significance for me, I must confess that I consider my role in the Church rather humbling. More than once, I have asked myself "why me?" I mean, I never considered myself "destined" for the episcopacy. I certainly wasn't ambitious for it.
A look back at Bishop O'Connell's episcopal ordination
The priesthood was always the dream for me as long as I can remember and my ordination as a priest almost 34 years ago was a "dream fulfilled." I recall the provincial superior of the Vincentians telling me when he gave me my first assignment: "Your goal is the priesthood, David. Whatever else happens to you, whatever assignments you are given, is just 'the icing on the cake'." I can't find the word "icing" in canon law but I took him at his word.
It has been five years since I was consecrated bishop for the Diocese of Trenton. Prior to that time, I was a Catholic high school teacher and administrator; a doctoral student and professor of canon law; a Catholic university professor and an academic administrator in two places; finally, I had the privilege of serving as president of The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C. for almost 13 years. I enjoyed each assignment, some more than others – all "Icing on the cake," indeed. It was the final position that put me into regular contact with the hierarchy of the Church, since CUA is commonly known as "the bishops' university." During those years I often met Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger whom I eventually welcomed to the campus in 2008 as Pope Benedict XVI, one of the greatest and happiest days of my life. I never imagined where those meetings would lead.
On May 24, 2010, several months after announcing my retirement as president of CUA, I received a phone call that radically changed my life. It was a summons to the Vatican Embassy, near the university, by the Papal Nuncio, the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi. He was a marvelous man, full of life and fun – I cannot find those job qualifications anywhere in canon law! – and we frequently met on numerous business and social occasions. A call from him was neither unusual, uncommon nor a cause for particular concern. This call, however, resulted in my appointment first as coadjutor, and then as diocesan bishop of Trenton. "The Holy Father (Pope Benedict XVI) wants you to be the bishop of Trenton," he said with customary enthusiasm, quickly adding, with the wry smile I had come to know, "and he's not asking you! Now, let's have lunch."
Of course, the news was combined with a caveat that I "could tell no one." So, I kept the "pontifical secret" for two weeks until I appeared at the Chancery in Trenton for the public announcement on June 4. I had actually told my Mother the day before, with permission. The Holy See approved July 30, 2010 as the date for my consecration as bishop in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in Trenton. And it was a great occasion, to be sure. Of particular joy was walking in procession down the long aisle and seeing my Mother smiling, tears running down her face. Dementia had already begun its sad entry but she watched the entire spectacle with absolute elation and attention, as did my two brothers close by her.
That was five years ago, not too long a time but "a lot of water under the bridge" as the saying goes. You only get one chance to do anything the first time around. These years have convinced me that this was the right place, a good place to be bishop. And despite the high hat, the shepherd's staff, the beautiful vestments and ceremonies, I still find my unanticipated role profoundly humbling. Do I fulfill what canon law quoted above expects of a bishop? I try my best but I am quite sure there's much more to do. The expectations are enormous, overwhelming even unrealistic at times. Challenges and criticisms come and go and come again, no news there. But I honestly believe the Lord prepares the shoulder for all the crosses that appear in one's life's work.
In fact "the crosses" are a big part of any bishop's job ... just look at the Apostles whose successor I have been appointed to be. I also believe that there have been a few checks in the "success column" to balance it all out. God is good. But of all the things that canon law requires of a bishop, one thing not written in the Code is most important to me: love your priests and love your people as you hand on the faith. That's my first thought and prayer each day and my last thought and prayer at night. I give no consideration at all to how history will regard my tenure as bishop. I didn’t as president of CUA either. If, in the end, however, my tombstone says "he did his best,” then and only then will I consider myself worthy of God's call. I hope God will, too.
Five years later, I'm just grateful to God and to you all for giving me the chance.