Pope names former Catholic University president next bishop of Trenton Diocese

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010

When the Very Rev. David M. O'Connell announced his resignation as president of Catholic University last fall, he said he had no set plans: "I'm waiting for God to show his hand."

The wait ended Friday, when the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had named O'Connell the next bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.

O'Connell, 55, will be ordained July 30 as coadjutor bishop-elect. The title signifies O'Connell has the right of succession upon the retirement of the current bishop, John M. Smith, who is bound by church law to submit his resignation upon his 75th birthday, June 23. Pope Benedict can accept it at a time of his choosing.

In 12 years as president of Catholic University, O'Connell earned props among fellow clergy for reinstating Catholic values at the Northeast Washington campus. Catholic, the national university of the Roman Catholic Church, reports directly to the Vatican. The share of students and faculty self-identifying as Catholic rose during O'Connell's tenure. He hosted the pope during a 2008 visit to Washington.

Although the Catholic University presidency is a high-profile job within the church, O'Connell said he was reminded by a superior that the new job makes him "responsible for the souls of 805,000 people" within the Trenton diocese. "And that's a different level of responsibility than at a university. It's an awesome responsibility."

The diocese is near O'Connell's childhood home of Langhorne, Pa., "10 or 15 minutes from my mother's front door," O'Connell said. "This was a great gift to me, and a very good assignment."

O'Connell said he learned of his appointment two weeks ago. It was a surprise: He had been offered a sabbatical by his religious order, the Congregation of the Mission, and had planned to take it. Instead, O'Connell will lead a diocese of 211 priests and 111 parishes, centered on the New Jersey capital. The bishop-elect read a prepared statement at a news conference in New Jersey, telling how he had related the news to his 83-year-old mother, who said it was "nice" but asked, "But do you think they'll ever make you a monsignor?"

O'Connell alluded to the sex-abuse scandals that have shaken the church in recent years. "All of us know that this year and the years before it have contained some dark and difficult moments for bishops and priests," he said. "But darkness always gives way to light, night always gives way to morning, clouds and fog always give way to the brightness of a new day."

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