The O'connell Clan Is Coming With New Bishop
The man picked by the pope to lead the Diocese of Palm Beach will begin his new mission on Sunday behind the wheel of a rented passenger van packed with family.
The Most Rev. Anthony Joseph O'Connell said he plans to drive the 12-hour route from the diocese he led in Knoxville, Tenn., to his new home in Palm Beach Gardens.
Four days later, hundreds more will join O'Connell's sister Catherine, brother Guss and 11 other family members from Ireland beneath the spires of St. Ignatius Loyola to share his installation as Palm Beach County's third bishop.
Many will meet for the first time a man with a prodigious reputation as a consensus-builder, particularly adept at relating to all types of people, a plain-spoken intellectual who seeks out ecumenical relationships and doesn't shrink from controversial issues.
On the eve of his departure, O'Connell said he expected to continue his commitment to fuller inclusion of minorities in church life, and has vowed to increase educational opportunity for needy children.
He also said he is "concerned" about the widening gap between the rich and poor, a reality in a diocese ranging from the Palm Beach super rich to the migrant farm workers of the Everglades.
He is ambivalent, grieving from his loss of the east Tennessee diocese he nurtured from inception 10 years ago while looking forward to the challenge of leading 220,000 South Florida Catholics still dazed from the sudden departure of his predecessor, J. Keith Symons.
Symons resigned in June after the stunning admission he had molested five altar boys 25 years ago.
O'Connell got the call on Nov. 6 from the pope's U.S. representative, Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan. The Holy Father wants you in Palm Beach, the archbishop told him.
"It was a shocking experience, and my instinctive reaction was to say `No, I want to continue doing what I'm doing,'" he said. ``But then as I reflected on the struggles of the great characters of the Bible, I found it very comforting to know they all struggled, and also raised initial objections to what they were asked to do ... So I don't think it's too bad I had to wrestle with it.
``I do not go grudgingly, I am going happily.''
He knows the diocese will be looking to him for healing but said the Symons scandal won't distract him from his diocesan work.
"I want to avoid the extremes -- either being a Johnny One Note, making it the only thing I deal with; or being so low-key that people think it's been swept under the rug," he said from his Knoxville office. "There may still be some people who are disappointed or hurt, or who never got the chance to say goodbye.
"... But I think for the bulk of the people, they want to move on and live out the gospel."
O'Connell said he would help by listening "to the people's hearts." He doesn't have any grand plans, hasn't decided on his first moves. His focus, he will concede, has been on saying goodbye, not hello.
Initially, he will meet with Palm Beach's seminarians, lay leaders and priests, mostly in small groups, mostly at their home parishes. He considers meeting with priests especially important. They're my first line of support, he said.
Louis Guerin, the diocese's vocations director for six years, is looking forward to meeting his new bishop at the installation ceremony. He likes what he's heard, and welcomes O'Connell's commitment to social justice.
"We have a lot of racial and religious issues in our area, but I think it's a lot like the horse on the dining room table: people like to deny it's there," he said. "If he pastorally confronts those issues, if he can come in and help people deal with these issues, he'll be doing a great service to the diocese."
It is a sprawling diocese, rich in Catholic diversity, with five counties of 51 parishes and missions, 19 schools and significant numbers of Haitians, Hispanics and African-Americans.
O'Connell said he plans to say parts of his installation Mass in Spanish and is trying to learn enough Creole to do the same.
That is just like him, said Sean Poland, a priest at St. Lucy in Port St. Lucie who has known O'Connell since Poland was a 17-year-old seminarian.
"He has a real gift of being able to promote diversity; he appreciates it, he enjoys it," Poland said. "... He has a special love for the poor, and you can be sure that justice with peace is very important to him."
O'Connell said he will also support ecumenical relationships, and will seek opportunities to address Protestant and other groups.
"I hope they'll accept me," he said. "I think good ecumenical and inter-religious activities have much more to do with relationships than with stuff in books or papyrus."
Inter-religious events are among his first official acts. O'Connell will participate in the annual celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King on Jan. 18 at St. Ignatius, which highlights the involvement of mostly black Baptist and interdenominational churches.