“Fasten your seat belts!”
Bishop Joseph V. Brennan’s first words to the faithful as newly installed bishop of Fresno, launched a wide-ranging homily that touched on everything from his time in “the strange land of Los Angeles” to the heroic witness of the early Christian martyrs, and even the dedication of his secretaries through the years.
It was a fitting introduction to what promises to be an exciting ride for Catholics in a diocese set to be first in the country with a “bullet train.”
The 65-year-old Van Nuys native formally succeeded retiring Bishop Armando X. Ochoa as the Catholic bishop of Fresno in a May 2 Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Church, becoming the sixth bishop of a diocese much larger in territory but far less densely populated than Los Angeles, where Brennan grew up and has spent the last four decades as a priest and auxiliary bishop.
For friends, family, and fellow clergy from Los Angeles, the Thursday afternoon installation Mass and Solemn Vespers the night before served as a sort of farewell to a native son.
For the Fresno faithful it was an opportunity to give a rousing welcome to their new shepherd, filled with local flavor. Brennan was serenaded by mariachi bands, embraced by local faith leaders, grabbed for selfies, and greeted wherever he went by singing youth and families of the Neocatechumenal Way, a Catholic movement present in several parishes of the diocese.
Brennan took possession of his new diocese in the company of the local Metropolitan Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, and the pope’s representative in the U.S., Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre.
And during those 24 hours, Fresno Catholics took possession of their new shepherd, too.
Brennan pointed out at the Wednesday night vespers that it was the first bishop of Fresno — the future archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Timothy Manning — who would go on to ordain Brennan to the priesthood in 1980.
Another striking coincidence: Manning was a seminary classmate of Brennan’s uncle, Msgr. John L. Brennan, who was a major influence on Brennan’s life and priestly vocation.
During his installation Mass homily, he switched easily between English and fluent Spanish, a skill that will serve him well, with Latinos making up 65-70 percent of Fresno’s Catholic population, according to diocesan officials.
And the joyful, gregarious personality known so well to Catholics in Los Angeles made a fast and deep impression on his new flock.
At vespers, Brennan jokingly asked his predecessor, Ochoa, and Pierre if formally taking possession of the city’s cathedral also included the bishop’s residence.
“All you need to know is, rent is due on the 15th of every month, cash only, no checks, no credit cards here in Fresno,” Ochoa replied to roaring laughter.
In his inaugural homily, Brennan was quick to deploy some of his own customary self-deprecating humor: “Well, you’ve learned something about your bishop: He’s a crybaby,” he quipped at one point, referring to his visible emotions during several parts of the Mass.
“I love the joy that he has, and how he is not afraid to be himself,” said 36-year-old Lucy Gomez, a youth minister at St. Joachim in Madera. “I love that, and I know the youth are going to love that.”
Speaking to Angelus News after the Mass, Gomez said she knows how much young people need a shepherd “who is not uptight.”
“When somebody makes you laugh, it just breaks down the barriers,” she said.
Everybody’s brother now
That sense of humor was just one of the fruits of growing up as one of 10 children in a working-class family in the San Fernando Valley, Brennan’s brothers and sisters told Angelus News.
Franny O’Malley, the sixth of the Brennan children, said the example their parents gave of putting God “always first … without saying a word” was the most important influence on their brother’s vocation.
“We went to church because we had a deep love of God. We went to church first, and then we did whatever we needed to do after,” O’Malley told Angelus News.
That’s not to say Brennan’s character wasn’t tested from an early age.
“He had a lot of sister-in-laws and sisters to contend with, and we all got along. Nobody fought with him. I mean, he just got along with everybody,” O’Malley recalled.
As he matured and eventually answered the call to the priesthood, Brennan became a source of support not only for parishioners but for his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and their children, as well.
“I’ve seen him, when we all faced really difficult things,” said Helen Mary Fisher, the seventh Brennan. “He never raises his voice, but he has that resolve, the same resolve that we saw in our father, where tough decisions have to be made, and he was always ready to do the right thing. He always knew what was right.”
Brennan’s twin brother, Terry, lives in Frazier Park, near the southern edge of his brother’s new diocese. He is learning that as a bishop, his brother is “everybody’s brother at this point,” he said.
“I’ve had to learn to accept the fact that I have to share him with tens of thousands of people now, and I’m OK with that,” he said.
Terry believes that beyond all the “bells and whistles” that come with the episcopacy, the people of Fresno would still be getting a “padre.”
“I don’t know how much he really wants something like this,” said Terry. “He’s just down to earth. He’d rather be with the people. And I think the people of Fresno will find that out very quickly.”
A different valley
Brennan has now officially swapped his native San Fernando Valley for the San Joaquin Valley, also known as the “salad bowl of the world.”
“I’m very happy to still be a ‘valley boy,’ just a different valley,” he said in his inaugural homily.
Although only separated by a couple of hours on the 5 Freeway, the two regions present different challenges for evangelization.
Often called “the Appalachia of the West” for its poverty, the Fresno Diocese is more than seven times the size of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, but contains just a quarter of as many Catholics.
“In our 35,000 square miles is a diocese that is rich with possibility, but it also has many, many challenges,” said Jim Grant, who directs social justice ministry for the diocese. “We need a bishop to help us reach out to the “periferia” that Pope Francis has been challenging us to do for six years now.”
In recent years the area’s residents have faced drought and water supply controversies, immigration-related issues, poverty, and both air and ground pollution, added diocesan spokesperson and Chancellor Teresa Dominguez.
Then there are the prisons.
The Diocese of Fresno has more detention facilities and more people living behind bars than any Catholic diocese in the world, according to diocesan officials.
“That is a huge, huge area of concern for us because it’s not just the inmates, but also their families,” said Dominguez. “Because a lot of times the families will follow them. It’s not just the crime that has taken place in our area — this is a place where inmates are shipped to on a national basis.”
It is a daily challenge for parish leaders ministering to families.
“In my program, I have kids who are being raised by the 70, 80-year old grandparents, because one of their parents might be dead, the other in prison,” said Gomez, the Madera youth minister. “That’s a reality we face here.”
Along with the work being done to minister to the men and women behind bars, Dominguez said the diocese is looking to establish a “reentry” program to help marriages after a spouse comes home from prison.
Once the formalities of his installation had been completed, the new bishop made sure to squeeze in some unscripted parts into the May 2 Mass.
During his homily, he invited four women — three former secretaries from LA, plus a “brand new” one in Fresno — to come forward.
“I know, I know, I’m doing it again,” Brennan joked. “So just get used to it.”
“You represent all of the women in our Church who work so beautifully with us, who keep us in line, who keep us on track,” Brennan told the women standing before the assembly.
Later, just before the final blessing, Brennan invited two more guests to come forward: Clem and Maureen Linnebur, his longtime friends since his time as a parish priest at St. Linus in Norwalk.
He hadn’t forgotten that they were celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary that day. So in front of more than a dozen bishops and hundreds of new faces in an unfamiliar church, Brennan insisted on having them renew their vows by simply repeating them after him.
“To bring up a couple for 55 years of marriage — it let us see in that Mass that we’re not just celebrating priests and bishops, we’re celebrating faithfulness,” remarked Grant after the liturgy.
“If that’s a harbinger of the way that he is able to do things that include so many people, and also, I must admit, his facility in Spanish and English, singing and preaching, he is already engaging us in the moments we’ve had him,” Grant added.
Nineteen-year-old Fresno native Rebecca Higuera said she was touched by Brennan’s preaching about God’s refusal to “ration” out his free gift of the Holy Spirit, and saw it as an “inspiring” encouragement at a time and place where it’s not always easy to witness to the faith.
“Being Catholic is different,” explained Higuera, who belongs to a Neocatechumenal community in Fresno. “When I see my life compared to my friends from school, we have the same problems, but we deal with them differently. My friends don’t have the Church to look at to help them.”
Here in Fresno, “we need a bishop who helps young people look at a different way of life,” she said.
After attending the Installation Mass — which included an impromptu performance of “Holy Is His Name” (a family favorite, according to the Brennans) with his longtime friend and duet partner Anna Bettencourt — Lina Gamez said that she’s thankful for a new shepherd who personifies “the joy of Christ” that’s expected of Christians.
“He’s a warm person, and this is definitely a very warm area,” Gamez chuckled. “I think we’re going to love him.”
Dominguez saw Brennan as already bringing “an uplifted spirit” to the diocese on Day One.
“I think he’s going to help all of us. We’re very, very serious, because we have so many challenges,” she said following Brennan’s rousing rendition of Mexican singing legend Vicente Fernandez’s classic “Volver, Volver,” on which he was accompanied by a mariachi band at a post-Mass reception.
“But I think he’s going to help us balance that out. And remember to go back to the source. The Lord wants us to be fully human, and to be joyful. And I think that we can lighten up a little bit and still get all our work done.”