From the moment our brother announced he felt a calling to the priesthood, we knew that he would never fully belong to us anymore. The “secret” would get out, the secret we all knew about our brother — his vocation began many years before he ever entered St. John’s Seminary.
He had innate kindness and generosity of spirit. He could be a goof and we had plenty of fun, some of it not always attached to parental approval. But it was evident from the very beginning there was something about our brother that was unlike the rest of us. Then, when news came he was to be ordained a bishop, we knew we were on borrowed time…the day would come when he would be selected to lead his own diocese of his own. That day has come.
How did this happen? How did a guy from a very ordinary background, without a lot of initials at the back of his name, who never studied in Rome or hobnobbed with the higher echelon, get ordained a bishop? He came from a family dynamic not known for functioning with the precision of a German engineered sports car, and kids from Van Nuys just aren’t made bishops…until they are.
There were indicators, of course. He was the only one of us, except for our late brother Roger, who was willing to work as hard as it took to achieve at school…even if it meant hours of study and stupendously exact note taking. He was born with a “servant’s heart” and a love of God he was never too afraid to put into action. I have no doubt that when he told our parents about his decision to enter the seminary neither one of them was very surprised. From his childhood, to his teens, to young adulthood, to him becoming a man in full, my brother the bishop always demonstrated an abundance of grace and charity…not always easy in a chaotic household with multi-generational inhabitants all living under the same roof.
I’m going to stop right there. All the people in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who know my brother know all these things, and I’m positive the Bishop of Fresno would not want this article to be litany of his wonderfulness…so it will not.
Instead, it will be about the one person who probably had the most impact on his life and on the life of his nine siblings: the Grocer.
We are the sons and daughters of a grocer. To some, that may sound like irony; to others it may even sound like a put down. To my brother and his siblings, it is the highest form of praise. God may have had plans for our brother when he was in our mother’s womb, and if he did, he also made plans for shaping and forming him into the priest, and now bishop, he is today. So, if God was the master builder, his foreman on the job was the Grocer.
By the measure of all things the world values, our dad was a failure.
He battled with alcohol for most of his life. He invested everything he had in a grocery store that went bankrupt, which left him physically and emotionally devastated. He never owned his own home and never bought a new car. He ended his working life in much the same way he had started it — working as a grocer in a small independent market when small independent markets dotted the San Fernando Valley landscape as plentiful as medical marijuana dispensaries do now.
The Grocer checked all the boxes of hardship his generation was heir to: the Great Depression, a migration from the Midwest to wide open California as a boy, a world war which he did not get to participate in because of some esoteric medical condition and raising children from the 1940s through the 1970s. Throw in Vatican II and you have a very interesting passel of decades from which to keep your equilibrium.
If the Grocer had the world effortlessly glide by him, noticing him only sporadically and to pound him into the ground, it provided the same service to our mom. After all, she was “just a housewife” and a mother, and her husband just a grocer. To our mom the Grocer was a man of courage and loyalty and faith. A man who came from as different a background — Catholic big city affluence — as you could get from her unchurched Arkansas farm life. But she saw what the world did not: a man so sure and anchored to his faith that she wanted the same. She became his first convert. They built a life together and remained open to life despite economic woes and the Grocer’s continuing battle with his demons.
This was the greenhouse where they raised their future bishop and their other nine children. Dinner was always at 6 on the dot, no meat on any Friday regardless of it being Lent or not, Sunday Mass, confession, a dime store portrait of the current pope in the front hall, statues of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and St. Joseph in just about every room, and Sunday kept as a mandatory day of rest which ended with the best meal of the week. Not exactly high-end Catholic theology.
We did pray the Rosary as a family in the living room on occasion, we did make novenas, all the boys altar served, and everyone pitched in one way or another at our parish — living only a block away from church and our parish school, we were often called on by the nuns and the priests to help out with cleaning classrooms and other odd jobs.
When I hear people say how tough it is to raise a couple of kids, I reserve a private laugh for myself. Every summer the Grocer would take us all camping either in Sequoia or Yosemite National Parks (now part of the diocese their new bishop oversees). To manage that venture, the Grocer had to visit a finance company on Van Nuys Boulevard and borrow a hundred bucks every summer, so he had enough gas, grocery, and camping money.
These summer camping trips were another constant the Grocer attached to our life, though it required the use of a not-so-consistent late model station wagon hauling a utility trailer full of camping equipment down and back up the infamous Grapevine and the winding mountain roads of the High Sierras. The very act of trying to get a car of dubious mechanical pedigree up these steep inclines was a religious experience for many of us as prayers were said to keep the radiator from blowing its top. Sometimes those prayers were answered, other times not.
And when we would drive through the San Joaquin Valley, we would marvel at the fields and farms that seemed to go on forever. Did my brother look out the window as we drove through Bakersfield and Visalia and yes, even Fresno, thinking, “Someday this will all be mine!” I doubt it. But does God give us hints about our paths? Ask the apostles.
If the timing was such and our summer camping trip included a Sunday, the Grocer found a place that was holding Mass. We may not have looked our Sunday best on these occasions, but the naturalness of being at Mass on a Sunday, whether we were home or on the road, was another modeling technique utilized by our parents.
The battle our father fought against alcohol climaxed in of all places, Death Valley — who says God doesn’t know a metaphor when he sees one. Only three of his children went through it with him: Myself, my brother Terry and his twin, the new Bishop of Fresno. No need for details; rest assured it was horrible and traumatic. He had hit the proverbial “bottom” people with addictions hit. There was no lower place to go…even in Death Valley.
With the strength of his wife, who always got her strength from the Blessed Mother, incredible efforts by our oldest brother Roger and others, the Grocer had his Good Friday and Easter morning. With a miraculous act of will and never-faltering trust in God, he came back. For the last several years of his life he was sober and never healthier.
Those years were woefully short — God’s timing, not ours — the Grocer never got to see his son ordained a priest let alone a bishop. God had one more cross for him to bear and it was cancer. He fought it the way he always fought things…with immense amounts of will power and trust in God. The Grocer gave all his children one last lesson in suffering, perseverance, and faith.
The Grocer’s wife did get to see her son ordained and serve the people of Los Angeles for many years. But she joined the Grocer several years ago as well. Neither one of them died with a retirement portfolio, but they left all 10 of their children with a love for Jesus, his Church, and the Blessed Mother. That’s 10 for 10…not a bad batting average.
When the bishop of Fresno was an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, his house was adjacent to the San Fernando Mission and the Mission Cemetery. It is the place where the Grocer and his bride rest in peace. The bishop has the coordinates of these two graves on his phone and looks in that direction every night to say goodnight to the Grocer and our mom, to pray for them and to them and for our beloved brothers Roger and Ray and sister Kathy, who have joined their parents.
There is no doubt he will use those same coordinates from his backyard in Fresno after a long day of serving the people of God there. He will know he fell short of the courage of the Grocer, but he will know the Grocer and his bride smile, and his siblings who have gone before him look down with the only kind of pride God approves.
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The Installation Mass for Bishop Joseph V. Brennan, 6th bishop of the Diocese of Fresno, will be livestreamed on Thursday, May 2 beginning at 2:00 p.m. at https://dioceseoffresno.org/.
Bishop Brennan delivered a farewell homily to faithful of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles during Mass on March 28 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The homily is available for viewing here.
Please keep Bishop Brennan in your prayers as he begins his new ministry in the Diocese of Fresno.
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