I’m kind of telling tales out of school with this third and I promise last article about the ramifications of a brother’s elevation to bishop, but the flood of thoughts and memories it has engendered compels me, so here goes.
On the day my brother told me of the news, he said in typical and genuine humility, that the Church had made the wrong Brennan bishop. He continued that it should have been our uncle, Msgr. John L. Brennan’s position, not his.
On that point I had to disagree.
Father John, (we never called him Monsignor or Uncle) was not bishop material. … Rather, he was bishop-making material. Several years ago, in an article written by R.W. Dellinger, retired Monterey Bishop Sylvester Ryan referred to himself as a “Catalina Boy” and that his priestly vocation was forged on the island of Catalina from a house that was just three doors down from St. Catherine of Alexandria Church.
That church was built by our uncle, Father John L. Brennan. In this article we learn “It was at St. Catherine’s, where he was an altar boy, that inspiring priests, especially Msgr. John Brennan, caught his eye and planted the seed for his own vocation.”
Later in the article, Bishop Ryan is quoted as saying “Father Brennan was a remarkable man. A good preacher, and he was charismatic with people. The way he touched people’s lives in all kinds of situations was just remarkable.”
Bishop Ryan was a “Catalina Boy” and my brother, Bishop-elect Brennan, was a “Valley Boy” and both vocations were nurtured in Msgr. John L. Brennan’s garden.
So just who was Msgr. John L. Brennan?
The best description I can come up with is not my description at all, but a story told about him when he was just a boy. The story came from our curmudgeon Uncle Rich, who, as I have written before, was kind of born old.
The story goes that when they were kids, Uncle Rich, who was five years older than “Jack,” watched from a window as his younger brother pulled a bunch of kids in a wagon up and down a hilly street. Born meddler that he was, Uncle Rich came outside and asked Jack why he never got a turn in the wagon?
Jack turned to him and just said, “Because I’m a white horse,” and went about his wagon pulling.
He grew up to become a profound man composed of many seemingly outward contradictions. He used salty language. He had specifically non-politically correct political opinions.
He was incredibly kind and compassionate and had an affinity for the poor and those on the outside looking in that I have never seen matched. He didn’t think there was a problem big enough in the world that couldn’t be fixed by either supplication to the Holy Family, a good confession and the Eucharist, a little manual labor like painting the side of a building, or concentrating on keeping your head down during a golf swing.
Unfortunately, for me, there were more than 50 years between us, so my strongest memories of Father John are of seeing him as a lion in winter. Still, in failing health, ravaged by both arthritis and diabetes, he transmitted a powerful grace and presence. Even in his weakness he was heroic.
There were times when our white horse would pull one wagon too many and his body and nervous system would shut down. These were dark times for him and I knew of these only from the periphery, yet no matter how dark his times were or how outwardly frail he would appear, he always, through prayer and the support and love of his family, climbed out and resumed his duties as our spiritual leader and wagon-puller-in-chief.
Why did God single our family out for this kind of grace?
There was nothing especially worthy about us. One could easily argue there were spectacularly unworthy elements to our family.
We sometimes didn’t treat each other with Christian love and charity; that was our default position. Yet Father John obviously never gave up on us.
Maybe God was playing the odds, figuring that with 10 of us, something had to stick to somebody in this tribe. And there were exceptions to our aboriginal rituals of pouncing on signs of weakness. …There was our oldest brother Roger … and there was the new bishop, my brother Joe.
Just as our Uncle Rich was born “old,” our brother Joe seemed to be born for greater things. He rarely, if ever, participated in the mob mentality of unkindness the rest of us reveled in, and come to think of it, he was rarely if ever a target of it.
Maybe our brother Joe would have become a priest anyway from the example of our mom and dad, and maybe the rest of us would have been a lot worse without those same grace-filled influences. Whatever the real answer, it is probably beyond my pay grade, but a couple of things are crystal clear.
Now I may not be the most impartial judge of this situation, but the two things I have absolutely learned since the announcement of my brother’s appointment is that one, he kind of belongs to everyone now so we have to share him. And two, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles got the best end of the deal.