WHEN I first met Kevin O'Connor in September 1948 as a student at Upholland College, where we both started our studies for the priesthood in the senior seminary, we had an immediate problem - we both had the same name. We were asked to find some way by which we could be identified separately. I had three Christian names and henceforward was known by their initials, 'KPJ', and he retained his full name, Kevin O'Connor. Our sharing of the same name made a bond between us; I became totally accepted as a member of his family. I soon experienced that great ease of manner in his approach and his wish to make things easy for anybody with whom he came into contact.
These characteristies were the hallmark of O'Connor's attitude as a student, a priest and a bishop. His other deep and lasting characteristic was his ability to work with total commitment at whatever he had undertaken.
As far as his studies were concerned, he covered whatever subject he was studying in great detail, without ever letting the details themselves obscure the larger themes and general direction in which his study of any subject was meant to develop. This attention to detail made him a successful student academically as he prepared for the priesthood. It enabled him also to keep up his practical interest in music: thus he continued to develop his ability as a pianist while simultaneously teaching himself Gaelic so that he could read the works of Padraic Pearse in their original form. After ordination, he went to Rome to study for a degree in Canon Law.
Throughout his student days he prepared sincerely for living up to the ideal of priesthood which was put before us - 'Sacerdos alter Christus' ('The priest is another Christ'). He continually discussed the need for the priest to be all things to all men. It was precisely in his living out of this ideal both as a priest and a bishop, that the sincerity of his humanity and humility became apparent to all who had dealings with him.
When he returned to the Liverpool Archdiocese from Rome, he worked for 20 years in a dual role. He was a curate at Our Lady and St Bernard, Kingsley Road, Toxteth, and then St Michael's, West Derby Road, both working-class parishes, while at the same time working in the Matrimonial Tribunal of the Archdiocesan Curia.
In 1977, he became parish priest of a large inner-city parish, St Anne's, Overbury Street. Soon after this he was made Dean of the southern part of Liverpool's inner city and was shortly after put in charge of the Diocesan Curia as Chancellor, becoming a Monsignor. His work at this time began to be taken up with the lives of the clergy. They, like his parishioners before them, came to realise that they had a genuine friend who took a personal interest in them so that he was a very popular choice when in 1979 Archbishop Derek Worlock consecrated him as one of his auxiliary bishops.
This elevation of office and status did not change the man himself in any way. On the contrary, all who had any dealings with Kevin O'Connor as a bishop experienced the same qualities that those who had dealt with him as an ordinary priest had previously experienced. He remained the simple humble person he had always been.
Just as when he was a curate, his work now developed along two lines, his responsibilities within the archdiocese and the work he was given as a member of the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales. Within the archdiocese, the clergy at large came to know that whenever they needed him he was available to listen to them. The sick and retired priests in particular enjoyed his constant attention.
The tremendous workload that he undertook in the diocese left no one in any doubt about his dedication to his duties as a bishop. The strength of this dedication came from a strong life of prayer, from a deep but unostentatious love of the Mass and above all from a strong attachment to his immediate family, a brother, two sisters, nephews and a niece. They will surely miss one who was very much the head of the family, although in fact he was the second youngest. His father had died before his ordination, a brother died before he became a bishop and his mother died about five years after his consecration. These strong family relationships made him an ideal choice as adviser on behalf of the Hierarchy to the Union of Catholic Mothers. In the same way, his love of Liverpool gave him an active interest in the Apostleship of the Sea, which was more than just another duty when he became chairman of that body.
His appreciation and love of all things Irish, which stemmed from a father who came from just outside Newry, in County Down, and a mother who came from Wexford, gave him qualities that undoubtedly helped him as Chairman of the National Missionary Council and also in his untiring work over the years for the Hierarchy Commission for Justice and Peace. Recently he worked hard as chairman of the Hierarchy Committee for Migrants and Refugees.
At a time when bishops are frequently and perhaps unfairly criticised for being out of touch with ordinary people, it is a relief to know that Bishop Kevin O'Connor was regarded by all who knew him as a personal friend and has left as his testament an unquestionable reputation for humility, humanity and warmth.
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