On the eve of the pope’s visit to Philadelphia, Bishop David M. O’Connell of the Diocese of Trenton (my bishop) has given a long and candid interview about the challenges and joys of running a diocese in the age of Pope Francis.
He also reveals that he will not be participating in any of the papal events in Philadelphia despite leading a large diocese just across the river. He will, instead, be providing commentary for a local CBS affiliate. In his own commentary welcoming the pope, the Bishop put this down to his recent amputation.
Although my mobility issues will limit my ability to participate in some of the larger and more crowded venues and Masses, I look forward to seeing the Holy Father again as he prays with and speaks to all the bishops of the United States in Washington, D.C.. on Wednesday, September 23. As during previous papal visits, I will offer some television studio commentary throughout the rest of the Pope’s travels here.
I’ve met and interviewed Bishop O’Connell and have an immense amount of respect for him. He’s the former president of Catholic University, and an intelligent man with a background in canon law. He does a fine job in this piece of articulating the twin feelings of admiration and unease that many of us have experienced over the last two years.
Over the course of a more than hour-long interview, however, O’Connell, also spoke candidly and sometimes pointedly about the practical challenges of working for a mercurial, charismatic figure given to spur-of-the-moment initiatives and headline-grabbing, off-the-cuff comments, an approach that sometimes “makes life difficult” for him and his brother bishops in the U.S, he said.
“So far, everybody loves Francis, but there’s no difference in the pew.”
“That’s really where we’re having at times some struggle, some confusion. And he never goes back to clarify. He just puts it out there,” he said.
“He’s a good Jesuit teacher. ‘I’ll throw it out there and let the students figure it out.’ And that’s the way that he approaches things.”
The media frenzy surrounding the pope’s visit, the first time in his life he’s ever set foot in the U.S., would seem to provide the ideal conditions for more of these unscripted exchanges.
“If I had to give the pope advice, I would say to him, ‘Stick to what’s in the paper,’” O’Connell said, referring to the pope’s printed speeches.
“However, that’s not him. And so he’s got to be the pope that he thinks he has to be for the Church, and the Holy Spirit moves him to be for the Church,” O’Connell said.
Earlier this month, Francis made headlines again when he announced reforms aimed at speeding up the process of annulment, which he expects to take effect Dec. 8, the start of a jubilee Year of Mercy. O’Connell, a canon lawyer, says he’s still waiting for more specifics from Rome, but he doesn’t plan on making the process free of charge, as the pope has requested. The diocese currently asks the parties involved for a $700 donation to defray the cost.
“It makes life difficult,” O’Connell said. “You know, there was a time . . . if an encyclical or a pastoral letter or something was coming out from the pope, we would get advance copies of it so that we could read it, so that we could prepare (for) it.
“That doesn’t happen now,” he said. “I’m as surprised at times by some of the announcements as anybody else is. . . . It does make our role a little more difficult when we don’t know what’s going to be said, or we don’t know what to anticipate is going to be said. And so, if your question is, ‘Is this challenging for us as bishops?’ the answer is definitely yes.”
Here are some of the bishop’s words of welcome to the Holy Father.
As Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, I have the joyful privilege of extending to our Holy Father Pope Francis a heartfelt word of welcome to the United States of America on behalf of all the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese.
This is an especially happy occasion since it is the Holy Father’s first trip ever to our country. We hope that these few days will provide Pope Francis with the opportunity to get to know us as we embrace him with much affection and enthusiasm and as we open our minds and hearts to his messages in New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.