His Bible is well-worn, the pages are soft with use and clear tape keeps the wobbly spine intact. It’s a prized possession owned for decades and probably one of the first items that newly ordained Auxiliary Bishop Joseph V. Brennan will take out of the boxes when he moves into his new office at the San Fernando Pastoral Region this month.
“This book has been so important to me for so many years,” he says with an engaging and welcoming smile. “This is the stuff of life. This will be with me until I pass into the next life.”
With eyes twinkling and a calm demeanor, Bishop Brennan is ready to embrace new duties and responsibilities as he takes on the ring, crosier and mitre of bishop for the million Catholics who live in the San Fernando Valley.
“It’s a homecoming! Living in the Valley again!” he exclaims, alluding to his 1950s Van Nuys childhood, attending St. Elisabeth School in Van Nuys and Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks before entering St. John’s Seminary when he was 18.
“I plan to follow in the footsteps of Bishop [Gerald] Wilkerson,” he continues. “I really look forward to meeting and working with and for the priests in the region. Visiting classrooms, being there for confirmations and being with all the people, young and old. Everyone!”
Bishop Brennan’s genuine exuberance is just one of the reasons why many believe he will do well serving the San Fernando Region. Those who have called him pastor and those who have worked alongside him for the years he served as vicar general and moderator of the curia, describe a down-to-earth, humble and prayerful man who also has other gifts on his side.
“He has two talents indirectly related to the priesthood ministry, but that really do relate to service,” says Margie Fischer, a teacher at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana and former seventh grade teacher at St. Linus in Norwalk when Bishop Brennan served both as associate and pastor combined for 16 years.
“He has the most wonderful tenor voice that he shares freely. He could have easily been a professional singer. His rendition of ‘The Prayer’ with his longtime singing partner Anna Betancourt will give you chills. His voice graced so many Masses, weddings and more. It’s such a wonderful gift and he is always happy to share.”
The bishop’s other talent?
“He is a great basketball player. At St. Linus, he would come out and play with the kids at recess. They all wanted to be on his team. When he played, he didn’t hold anything back. Yes, he was ruthless — and the kids just loved him.”
Also at St. Linus, the bishop was a familiar sight during the annual fiesta. He was not up on stage, however, but as part of the clean-up crew that worked quietly behind the scenes picking up trash, cleaning bathrooms, etc.
“He was always willing to roll up his sleeves and do what needed to be done,” says Deacon Charles Baker at St. Linus. “No task was beneath him.”
Other attributes that people keep naming are the bishop’s pastoral sense and his playful humor.
“I’m sure he got both from his childhood in that big family,” says Sister Mary Elizabeth Galt, BVM, who, as senior director of pastoral services, served with the bishop on the leadership team at the chancery for three years. “I have seen him deal with difficult situations by being a good listener, calm and compassionate. He uses humor to put things in perspective — and that’s a valuable trait to have. I’m going to miss him popping into my office. He was like one of my brothers!”
Indeed, Bishop Brennan’s upbringing in a big Catholic family of 10 siblings has been recounted through a series of columns that his brother Robert has penned for The Tidings (“Shouldn’t the name be changed to the Brennan Chronicles?” he jokes.)
With his new title, however, Bishop Brennan will see his extended family getting even bigger.
“He will be in an excellent position to be with people, a wide spectrum of people in the region,” says Msgr. Padriac Loftus, who has known Bishop Brennan since he was a seminary student. “He will also wonderfully represent the Catholic Church to the community as well, modeling the humility, gentleness and pastoral openness that follows our Holy Father Pope Francis.”
“I look forward to having the bishop join me and our other volunteers as we visit the incarcerated,” says Gonzalo de Vivero, co-director of the Office of Restorative Justice, who was a chaplain for 18 years before Bishop Brennan appointed him to the position. “He really understands that this ministry is all about being with and walking with people.”
De Vivero says that recently a Mass was celebrated at Our Lady of Grace Church in Encino for the more than 200 volunteers in the ministry. It was a first, and Bishop Brennan co-celebrated with Bishop Wilkerson.
“He also delighted us with a beautiful song,” he recalls. “These little gestures mean a lot to us, especially to the volunteers.”
Now looking back at his own journey, the people he’s met, the places he’s been during his 35 years as priest in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Bishop Brennan describes the moment when he truly felt embodied in the ministry of the priesthood.
He was serving at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Los Angeles as associate pastor. A couple came to see him (“unchurched but obviously broken”) about their 7-year-old son dying of cancer at Children’s Hospital. He listened to them and finally, they asked the bishop to visit their son. So he went.
“Remember, this boy had never seen me or even a priest before,” he says. “I was at the door looking in and there he was. He turned and opened his arms to me and that was it.”
Bishop Brennan pauses to consider the moment.
“We as Church have to be there for those in need wherever they are and it’s not always inside a church building. We are called to be where we are needed and we must follow that daily.”