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New Jersey Bishop Returns to Service After Leg Amputation

Bishop O’Connell

CC-Jeffrey Bruno

John Burger - published on 04/06/15

Former president of Catholic University, David O'Connell, reflects on journey of fear, faith and healing

The predominant theme of this past week—resurrectionhad a special meaning for one Catholic leader, Bishop David M. O’Connell. On Palm Sunday, he returned to the public celebration of Mass after months recovering from the amputation of his left leg.

Bishop O’Connell, head of the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., has been fighting diabetes for years, and an infection in his leg got so bad that the amputation became inevitable. 

As the Asbury Park Press ( reported it,

Two weeks after the surgery, in a video released by the diocese, O’Connell expressed his hope that he would recover in time to celebrate this very Mass.

Now, after weeks of physical therapy, that hope was realized. Fitted with a prosthesis, O’Connell walked the length of the long, Romanesque cathedral, using his golden crosier — the pastoral staff that bishops carry — to steady his still-rocky gait.

A series of steps waited for him at the foot of the altar. Up he went, one hand resting on the shoulder of his assistant. Then more steps, to reach his high-backed throne.

For Bishop O’Connell, the former president of the Catholic University of America, the ordeal has given him a deeper sense of "the value of faith, the power of prayer, and what it means to suffer," the article said. It began the day he arrived in Trenton, in 2010. He was in considerable pain from an ulcerated foot. A hospital visit led to many more trips there, and a doctor finally gave him the bad news that his leg would have to be amputated. 

"As a priest, you preach your whole life about the importance of faith and the belief that when this life is over, we have another life, an eternal life, to enjoy," he said.

"But when it’s your turn to confront the reality, that’s really a challenge."

Bishop O’Connell’s experience, which has become publicly known through media reports, has given those suffering similar disabilities hope. In one case at least, that of a diabetic man who was anguished about the prospect of losing a leg, the 59-year-old prelate was able to offer direct encouragement. He invited the man to his residence in Hamilton.

O’Connell showed the man his leg, let him handle the prosthesis.

"I said, ‘You know, the decision you have to make is, do you want to continue the pain?’" he said.

"It was an opportunity for me to reach out to someone who was really worried and really fearful," he said. "He just needed someone to tell him it was OK."

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