Reflections on an Episcopal Ordination

by Michael Sean Winters

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Friday’s ordination of Bishop David O’Connell as Coadjutor Bishop of Trenton was marked, as blogger extraordinaire Rocco Palmo wrote, by “warmth of emotion, the understated beauty, the enthusiasm and, above all, the out-and-out fun.” Herewith, I offer my own impressions of the ceremony and attendant festivities.

Last year, I attended the archiepiscopal ordination of Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P. In addition to the commonalities attendant upon the celebration of a common rite, the most obvious similarity between the two ordinations was the layers of friendship involved. Both O’Connell and DiNoia are members of religious orders, who turned out in large numbers to celebrate with their confrere. Both men had, in the course of their careers, developed many and various friendships, especially among young Catholics whom the ordinands had taught. The affection in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception last year and in the Cathedral of St. Mary this year was palpable, thicker than the humid summer air. This capacity for friendship seems to me to be at the heart of all Christian ministry, the ability to engage other human beings in love and respect, to welcome other people into one’s conversations and life, to extend kindnesses that are never forgotten. It has been well said that the sex abuse crisis never would have become so bad had bishops remembered they were human beings first, and responded with normal human emotions rather than with a bureaucratic view to covering up the mess. It is friendship that keeps us grounded in our humanity. “Faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love,” wrote St. Paul. The cathedral in Trenton was filled with love.

Another similarity was the high quality of the music. Is there anything more exhilirating than standing in a packed church, with everyone singing the hymns? This is not merely an aesthetic value, it is a catechetical one also. The words of some of the hymns we sang include these profound dogmatic claims: “Eat this bread, drink this cup, come to me and never be hungry,” “God we praise you, God we bless you, God we name you sovereign Lord!” “And so through all length of days, Your mercy wants on me” and “Veni Creator Spiritus.” Augustine wrote that he who sings prays twice. The music was so marvelous at the ordination service, I think the Church of Trenton prayed thrice.

The biggest difference between the two ceremonies is that Archibishop DiNoia was ordained for service of the universal Church, serving in the Roman Curia and Bishop O’Connell was ordained for service of the universal Church by serving a local church. This was a diocesan event. The diocese of Trenton is known to be a gem of a diocese and they certainly pulled out all the stops for this big day. From the choir at Mass, to the guides on the buses who handed out business cards with their cell phones numbers in case anyone couldn’t find the bus after the service, to the ushers in the cathedral, to the rows upon rows of clergy and religious expectantly listening to the words of their new bishop, the courtesy, the planning and the attention to detail was extraordinary. The open bar at the reception afterwards was a welcome sight to guests after a long day of driving. And, Bishop John “Mort” Smith brought down the house in his speech at the dinner, a routine worthy of the Comedy Channel.

When the appointment was announced, I googled images of the Cathedral in Trenton. Those pictures do not do it justice. The beauty of a cathedral has theological significance for us Catholics, as I wrote in the current print edition of NCR. Two things were not captured in the photos. First, the sanctuary is set off by a row of dark marble columns that serve to hightlight the space and focus the attention on the altar, breaking up the long lines of the walls. Second, the stained glass windows are extraordinarily beautiful, filled with shades of blue that recall Chartres. Without these two elements, the space would be monotous, as many late-50s churches are. With them, the cathedral is truly beautiful.

To get to the cathedral you pass some very dilapidated neighborhoods. St. Mary’s Cathedral was once surrounded by a vibrant ethnic neighborhood but, after years of “white flight” to the suburbs, it joins the long list of cathedrals in such cities as Fall River and Bridgeport which are located in what amounts to a ghetto. Trenton is also the capital city of New Jersey, and that state has a new governor who is a Catholic. I would not be surprised to see a combined effort by Church & State to work together to rebuild the neighborhoods of Trenton. In Boston, twenty years ago, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross was also in a neighborhood marked by poverty and decay, but now it is a vibrant urban community, with some of the best ethnic restaurants in the city, refurbished homes, and nifty shops. The streets come alive after dark, they do not become dangerous. Let us hope that the streets surrounding the Cathedral of St. Mary will be similarly filled with new life. N.B. In America, the means by which our culture and our neighborhoods are reborn has a name: immigration.

All in all, it was an auspicious raising of the curtain on what is sure to be one of the more consequential episcopal careers of our day. Bishop O’Connell’s intellectual heft alone guarantees that he will play a significant role in the life of the Church, not just in Trenton but beyond in the years ahead. But, his preaching and pastoring will begin to be felt immediately in Trenton. Amidst all the gloom and doom one hears touted in the press about the state of the Church, to know that such wonderful men as Bishop Smith and Bishop O’Connell will be guiding the church in central New Jersey gives me great hope. Friday was not just a day of celebration, it was a day of renewal in the Spirit, and the Spirit is alive and well and blowing in Trenton.

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