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COLUMN ONE

Taking His Vows to Heart

Working in the shadow of abuse scandals, one longtime priest presses on with untiring service to God and community.

June 22, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Parishioners, the priest says, should have more say in the running of their churches. Women should be ordained and clergy should be able to marry. "If there had been some parents in there running things," he says, "none of this would have ever happened."

In the Cabrini rectory, the priest looks for mail that hasn't come and chats with Father Anthony Gonzalez, who is the pastoral administrator. Between them, they say six daily Masses, as many as eight Saturday Masses (including weddings and quinceanera) and as many as eight Sunday services.

In a polo shirt and khakis, Gonzalez is the model of a young modern priest. Together the two men laugh ruefully about what they see as the mayor's inability to connect with the people, especially their people, about what they consider the cardinal's obfuscations. They seem to feel the same amount of distance from one leader as from another--like the city government, the hierarchy of the church is "them," the working priests, "us."

Gonzalez has been at Cabrini for four years; before that O'Connell spent several years living in the rectory alone. Two women O'Connell has known since his first parish in Downey come every Monday to make dinner for the two. But for the most part, O'Connell and Gonzalez shift for themselves, eating out of Trader Joe's containers and the microwave.

"We're so rarely in," says O'Connell. Kept in a large black date book as hefty and worn as any family Bible, his weekly evening schedule is a patchwork of meetings--with parish councils, parents groups, catechists and staff.

After lunch, he heads back to Ascension where a couple who seem very unhappy are waiting for him; he gives them food coupons and then, in his office, makes a series of phone calls.

Then at 3, it's on to another L.A. Metro meeting at nearby Locke High School. Parents in both parishes approach him daily about the state of the local schools--their children are being threatened or getting bored, the teachers are dismissive and the administration is unavailable.

"We are trying to teach people how to talk to each other again because, in conversation, solutions just occur naturally," he says. "I've seen it happen over and over again."

In the L.A. Metro meeting, there are more hard chairs and people concerned with problems that seem insurmountable. Parents, teachers and administrators describe issues of illiteracy, poor attendance, violence and a culture that seems to disdain learning.

It is unusual for the priest to have two such meetings in a day--tomorrow he will spend much of the early afternoon on the porch of a 91-year-old parishioner who can no longer attend Mass, listening to tales of life as a chef on the Southern Pacific Railroad and what it was like to be the first black family living in what was then the white section of Watts. "Imagine living through all that and still such faith, such goodness," O'Connell says as he drives down a sun-scoured section of 112th Street.

But today he is back at the Cabrini rectory by 5 p.m., where the table is set for dinner--salad, chicken and rice.

After dinner, he spends a few minutes upstairs in his study. It is a nice room, with a fireplace and two comfortable armchairs before it. The mantel is strewn with pictures of his family, especially the young children of one of his brothers. He goes back to Ireland every other year to visit them. After a week or 10 days, he says, he begins to think longingly of Los Angeles, of the weather and the peace of a solitary life.

"People think the priesthood requires a lot of sacrifice," he says, "And it does. But nothing like parenthood. You have to give so much of yourself. Ah, but look at her," he says, picking up a photo of his niece. "She's a crack she is. They're all lovely kids."

He is the third of five children. A black-and-white photo on the wall shows a straight-backed serious family; only one of the children is looking off camera with a faint grin. "The problem middle child," the priest says of himself.

O'Connell says he knew all his life he wanted to be a priest, although he still cannot explain why. Just before he entered seminary, he thought about being a political scientist, but then he met a priest who had a parish in Los Angeles, and "I thought that sounded much more interesting."

He took his vows at a time when it was the dream of every Catholic mother to have a son in the priesthood. A photo on his bookshelf shows a dark-haired woman kneeling before a young man in a cassock. "My first blessing after my ordination," he says. "My mother."

During the course of the day, he has remembered that it is his anniversary, although he still knows nothing about the eclipse. "Twenty-three years," he says. "I still can't believe it."

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