He could talk with anyone at any time, he was very approachable and he was a great optimist.

These were some of the many positive attributes of Bishop Stuart O’Connell, SM, recalled by speakers at a requiem Mass at Owairaka in Auckland on August 9.

Bishop O’Connell, Bishop Emeritus of Rarotonga, died on August 2, at St Joseph’s Home in Ponsonby, aged 84.

Bishop Stuart O’Connell

During the requiem Mass at Christ the King Church, while the offertory hymn “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” was being sung, fire alarms sounded and the building had to be evacuated, leaving Bishop O’Connell’s
casket in the church.

This saw eight bishops, dozens of priests and hundreds of other people at the Mass gather in and next to the car park.

After maybe 15 minutes, it was confirmed that the alarm had been set off by some burnt food in the kitchenette — some believe it was sausage rolls — and after the Fire Service gave the all clear, people re-entered the church and Mass resumed.

NZ Catholic asked one of those who spoke about Bishop O’Connell at the funeral, Fr Kevin Head, SM, what his late confere would have made of what happened?

“I think he would have had a good laugh,” Fr Head said.

Earlier, Fr Head had spoken about the late bishop’s early life and education in the Hutt Valley, and his becoming a Marist. Teaching for 20 years in secondary schools in New Zealand and Samoa followed.

Then-Fr O’Connell served the Society of Mary by being vicar-provincial in New Zealand from 1986 to 1991 and provincial from 1992 to 1996.

It was during this time that one of his best-remembered traits — his optimism — came in useful.

Fr Head recalled one meeting Fr O’Connell attended as provincial. It was “a difficult meeting”, with raised voices and frayed tempers.

But Fr O’Connell “would have a different impression of the meeting from others who had been there, to the extent that others may have thought he was at a different meeting”.

“Stu was of the opinion that the meeting went well and the men were in good heart.”

Ecumenism

Ordained as the fifth Bishop of Rarotonga in 1997, Bishop O’Connell made a significant contribution to life in the Cook Islands. Fr Head noted that, in some villages and on some islands, interdenominational conflict was part of life.

“Stu and his predecessors . . . and Picpus priests, worked tirelessly building bridges between ecclesial communities.”

As a result, he was “highly regarded by other denominations”.

This was a point made also by Bishop Paul Donoghue,SM, the current Bishop of Rarotonga, in the homily at the Mass.

“Ecumenical relationships in the Cook Islands improved remarkably during Bishop Stuart’s life,” Bishop Donoghue said.

“He was on the ecumenical advisory council in Rarotonga. He could talk with anyone, at any time. And the Pacific bishops recognised this quality in him and appointed him to be the Catholic bishop on the Pacific Council of Churches. During his time, there was a growing sense of friendship between the various leaders of our Pacific churches.”

Fr Head noted, however, that proficiency in Pacific languages was not one of Bishop O’Connell’s greater gifts.

“I think Stu would have admitted that, although he gave the Samoan language and Cook Islands Māori his best shot, he was not the greatest of linguists. In Samoa, he once confided to a confrere that, when he got tangled up in reading a speech in Samoan, his policy was to go fast and leave bits out.”

This elicited much laughter from the congregation.

But Bishop O’Connell was no mug.

Fr Head recalled Marist theologian Fr John Thornhill, who died just a week before Bishop O’Connell, once telling him (Fr Head) “that when he first met Stu, he thought he was just an ordinary fellow in the brains department — no great shakes”.

“John said that his opinion changed when he heard Stu preaching a homily — that was when he was a bishop.”

Fr Head noted that Bishop O’Connell always used written notes when he preached.

But, all in all, “Bishop Stu lived simply and worked tirelessly for the people of the Cook Islands”, Fr Head said.

“His ease in relating to people helped win the trust of parishioners . . . . He was approachable and encouraging.”

Catechists

Bishop Donoghue picked up on this theme. He had asked catechists in the Cook Islands how they remembered Bishop O’Connell.

The catechists said he was very committed to Catholic education and rebuilt two schools in the Cook Islands.

“Many other catechists recalled that Bishop Stuart always had a welcoming approach. He trusted his people. He was humble — he was down to earth. Many of them saw him as a father or a grandfather. And he certainly was . . . very optimistic,” Bishop Donoghue said.

He recalled how his predecessor participated in the Synod on Oceania in Rome in 1998 and in the mission congress in Rome in 2000.

Bishop O’Connell’s episcopal motto was “By the light of Christ” and this points “us in the right direction of what he considered important”.

At the start of the Mass, Fr David Kennerley, SM, noted how, after Bishop O’Connell retired, he came back to New Zealand and “reconnected”.

“ . . . It has been wonderful that, over these recent years, several Marist bishops, having returned to New Zealand on active retirement, having been part of the Marist Oceania mission fields, have picked up that role of assisting the Bishop of Auckland,” Fr Kennerley said.

“I am thinking, and it is worth recording today in this context, [of] Bishops John Rodgers, Gerard Loft and, of course, Bishop [Robin] Leamy (who was present at the Mass, with the assistance of the Little Sisters of the Poor).

“Such a tireless example of supporting the Church is very much in keeping with our Marist charism.”

At the start of the Mass, Bishop Denis Browne read out a message from Pope Francis, extending condolences to the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the diocese of Rarotonga.

The bishops who celebrated the Mass were Bishops Browne and Donoghue, with Bishops Colin Campbell, Owen Dolan, Paul Martin, SM, Patrick Dunn, Stephen Lowe concelebrating. A vigil Mass was celebrated the previous evening.

Bishop O’Connell’s mortal remains were interred at Panmure Catholic Cemetery.

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