DUBLIN – Irish-born Bishop David O’Connell, auxiliary of Los Angeles, believes that Pope Francis’s Aug. 25-26 visit to the Emerald Island will face a “shadow” cast by a growing number of clerical sexual abuse scandals around the world.
Partly for that reason, the pontiff may face “an impossible task,” he told Crux on Sunday.
The bishop is currently in Ireland after leading some 45 people from his archdiocese in a pilgrimage through Ireland, which wrapped only days before the beginning of the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families.
“I’ve even heard some people say maybe it just wasn’t the right time to bring the pope to Ireland,” O’Connell said. “And I feel very bad for him, because he wants to come and reaffirm the Church’s commitment to the poor and the marginalized, show the compassion of Jesus Christ, to show the heart of Jesus to the people.”
According to the prelate, a reminder of Jesus’ compassion is what the world needs most right now, but “everybody wants for him to come and talk about the terrible suffering, and it has been terrible. And it has to come out, and hopefully it will lead to some healing, and to the possibility of new life.”
O’Connell left Ireland in 1978 for Los Angeles but returned a year later, soon after his ordination, and had the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II during his visit to the national seminary in Maynooth in 1979.
Crux spoke with O’Connell on Sunday.
Crux: For some observers, the Ireland that John Paul II visited and that which Francis is visiting are very different. Do you find that to be true?
O’Connell: Yes, very much so. It’s been a dramatic change. When Pope John Paul II came, the whole spirit of the country lifted. He expressed his personal love for the people of Ireland: “People of Ireland, I love you,” and then they chanted, “John Paul II, we love you.”
It was a beautiful thing, half the country went to see John Paul II, with two million people out in the streets.
We thought this would be a revival of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which even at that time we needed. Even though the faith and practice were very strong, among many of my peers, my generation was already turning away from the Catholic faith even in the 1970s. We were hoping for a revival, and we thought that there would be.
But then of course, there was scandal and the trust broke, and now we’ve had stories coming out for a whole generation. It’s given everybody who didn’t want to go to church anymore a reason to say, ‘I’m over with all that. It’s all hypocrisy, there’s too much child abuse, abuse of people.’
It’s quite frightening the way the culture has turned.
In the countdown to this papal visit it’s hard to speak about anything other than sex abuse, with so much news from McCarrick to Chile and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury, and even here in Ireland. Do you think that casts a shadow over the pope’s trip?
It will certainly cast a shadow over the trip, but on the other hand, he has an impossible task. I’ve even heard some people say maybe it just wasn’t the right time to bring the pope to Ireland. And I feel very bad for him, because he wants to come and reaffirm the Church’s commitment to the poor and the marginalized, show the compassion of Jesus Christ, to show the heart of Jesus to the people, as it has been his life. That is what he likes to do, most of all, and that’s what is needed most of all.
But nobody is giving him a wholehearted opening. Everybody wants for him to come and talk about the terrible suffering, and it has been terrible. And it has to come out, and hopefully it will lead to some healing and to the possibility of new life. But for the pope to be able to deal with all these issues in 32 hours, obviously, he can’t.
There’s so much demand for him to address all these issues, not to sideline them, not to ignore them, that that’s what it’s going to come down to. He won’t be able to talk much about what he wants to talk about, and what this country and the world needs: Compassion, mercy, the love the Lord has brought into the world.
Many say that one reason behind the crisis the Catholic Church is facing is a lack of faith. How important is it for normal Catholics out in the pews to try to separate their faith in the institution that is human and flawed, from the faith they have in God?
To answer your question, I want to relate a story of one of our auxiliaries in LA. His brother-in-law went to a café on Good Friday here in Ireland, maybe 10 years ago, and ordered a full Irish breakfast with bacon, sausage and black pudding. And he said to the man, “Don’t you know it’s Good Friday?” And the other guy said, “What is good about it?” The answer he received was: “The Church only asks for two days of fasting, couldn’t you at least do that?”
The man could only refer to the “Church, the Church’s teaching” as the reason why you abstain from some foods on Good Friday. He wasn’t able to articulate the relationship with Jesus Christ and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I think that kind of story pinpoints what has happened to the Church in Ireland, and maybe the Church universally. For all of us growing up, it became, “if you belong to the Church, you were saved.”
People had a relationship with Jesus, but we were almost embarrassed to talk about our love for Jesus, the compassion and mercy of Jesus, we were not given that.
As a kid, I would learn Latin, I served as an altar boy, I loved going out and serving with the priest in the farms in the local areas because you would get a good breakfast, morning off school, and a coin.
Back then, we practiced our faith, but we never heard about the compassion and mercy of Jesus Christ, about the healing of his consoling love and that of the Blessed Mother. We picked it up from the people’s lives themselves, from the way they treated us. But it wasn’t talked a lot.
And when you do talk about it, Jesus’ love, and you pray with them, experience some of the healing of Jesus… I remember visiting some neighbors 20 years ago, and they asked me to give them a blessing before leaving, and as I blessed both of them, they were weeping.
Maybe the people haven’t lost the faith, maybe we’ve lost it, us clerics, because we’re very interested in trying to help the Church and we know how important it is in the world, but we didn’t begin from the beginning, from how important it is to bring the love of Jesus into people’s lives.
Tell us about the pilgrimage you just wrapped up.
I have 45 people with me, and for most of them, they had never been before, and they’re experiencing the kindness and hospitality of the Irish people, and we talk with them about what the faith growing up was like for us, and we pray together in the bus, talk about St. Patrick and share Mass. It’s become a beautiful pilgrimage retreat.
We spoke about what the faith meant for the people of Ireland when it was outlawed, when a priest was hung if he was found saying Mass. People were bereft from any consolation of the sacraments. It was praying the rosary that kept the faith alive in the Irish families, and that is perhaps a good way to close, thinking to the upcoming World Meeting of Families.
The rosary, the people’s own prayer, their own spirituality, kept the faith alive through 200 years of terrible persecution.