By Pat Ciarrocchi
LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J., (CBS) — Bishop David O’Connell of the Trenton Catholic Diocese has been navigating a test of his faith. In December, doctors amputated his foot. Now, two months later, the Bishop is in rehab, learning how to walk again.
Tentative isn’t a word in Bishop O’Connell’s vocabulary. His grip is tenacious – even at the parallel bars that steady him as he becomes accustomed to a new lower leg and foot. You could call it the rail at his altar of healing.
For years, the 59 year old Bishop of Trenton struggled with diabetes.
“I have to confess…I was a bad boy,” said Bishop O’Connell. “I have to tell you.. I like my sweets. So I’m sure I contributed to it a bit.”
His left foot became his enemy.
“Since the day I arrived in Trenton as Bishop, I had a problem with that foot. Ulcers.”
Ulcerations that wouldn’t heal. A classic diabetic complication. Then, on December 29th, the doctor found life threatening bone and blood infections.
“He said, you’re very sick. I started to think about a lot of things. I started saying my rosary and feel asleep and I woke up the next day and thought, maybe I got some time left.”
The Bishop describes feeling a sense of peace and gratitude overwhelming him. The doctor told him amputation was an option that would resolve the infection. After four or five surgeries on the same troublesome foot, Bishop O’Connell agreed.
“And I just said, let’s do it.”
At the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center in Lawrenceville, not far from his diocesan residence, this “man of the cloth” is quick witted, calling out to a visitor.
“There’s less of me, than the last time you saw me.”
Beata Thomas is his therapist. Wayne Lawall is the prosthetist. It’s the O’Connell come-back team for “the Bionic Bishop.”
“I have a feeling that the foot is still there,” said Bishop O’Connell. “Like right now, I have a sensation of wiggling my toes.” A sensation, but no toes.
“He’s really working hard,” said Thomas. “He’s determined… he really wants to get back to where he was before.”
Or better than that. Bishop O’Connell says he’s hasn’t walked normally in years.
“If I can say anything to people who face this decision.. don’t be afraid. You have to get rid of the source of your problem and you can get rid of it. They are all saying to me, Bishop, in a couple of months, no one will know that you had this surgery unless you tell them. Because you will be walking normally.”
Bishop O’Connell has a couple of big goals. The first comes in March — celebrating Mass, standing at the altar of the Trenton Cathedral on Palm Sunday. And then, in September, welcoming Pope Francis to Philadelphia.
His first step though… is to stand in thanksgiving.
“Thanks be to God. I was just so grateful.”
Now, walking on steel, forged by faith.