COLUMBUS, Ohio — After Bishop Robert Brennan celebrated Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral Sunday morning, Noreen Buckley fanned her left hand in front of her eyes to keep tears at bay. The reaction was prompted by a question about Bishop Brennan’s impending departure.
“He meant a lot to the diocese,” Buckley said. “He will be sorely missed.”
Soon after, four parishioners standing near the cathedral entrance could be overheard discussing the situation. Almost in unison they expressed their sadness about his leaving, with one chiming in that “we’ll all have to go see him in Brooklyn.”
At that moment Bishop Brennan walked back in through the cathedral doors after wishing attendees well at the end of Mass. The four parishioners expressed their sadness to him, and he expressed his sadness back.
Bishop Brennan’s eyes welled with tears after they left.
“When I was asked to leave, there was heartache. I’m sad to leave this place behind,” Bishop Brennan told The Tablet. “From the very beginning, this was an easy place to feel at home. I’ve greatly enjoyed being a part of the Diocese of Columbus.”
It was Bishop Brennan’s first Sunday Mass since he was named the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn on Sept. 29. His installation is set for the end of November. Before the Mass ended, he had a brief message for the parishioners, thanking them for their prayers and well wishes and reiterating his love and gratitude toward the diocese.
The sentiment is mutual. “Heartbroken” is the term that most often comes up when Bishop Brennan’s departure is mentioned. Parishioners and religious in the Diocese of Columbus speak of his two-and-a-half years in the diocese as if he has been there a lifetime. They revere his tireless work ethic and credit him with re-energizing the diocese’s Catholic community.
“In the short time he was here, he immersed himself with all different ethnic groups,” Josephine Yang said. “He rarely ate at gatherings because he always went to the people. He was always the first person to extend a hand to talk.”
Aureus Griffith marvels at his availability.
“I’m always happy to see him, but I’m surprised to see him so often,” Griffith said. “I don’t know how he does it.”
Bill Messerly, the executive director of the diocese’s radio station, called it “refreshing” to have his “joy, energy, and enthusiasm.”
Messerly said from the day Bishop Brennan arrived, he took advantage of the St. Gabriel Catholic Radio station to communicate with parishioners. He came on regularly to have dialogues on the faith, and he made daily appearances through the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic to update parishioners.
“It’s been exciting to see how he’s just so full of energy and genuinely wants to be connected and keep the community connected,” Messerly said.
“Humble” is another word Messerly used to describe Bishop Brennan. That quality was evident when Bishop Brennan was recently asked about his accomplishments. He responded, “A lot of the things you might say that I accomplished, I didn’t really accomplish. I just threw a little oxygen on the fire.”
The native New Yorker says he hopes he was able to “encourage” the Catholic community around Columbus and “give people a sense of confidence and hope.” He is also proud of the “Real Presence, Real Future” initiative — a comprehensive strategic process he began to help shape the future of the diocese. Other actions he points to include having welcomed new religious communities and conducted outreach to universities.
Father Adam Streitenberger, the coordinator of evangelization in the Diocese of Columbus, touts Bishop Brennan’s evangelization efforts as second to none.
“Bishop Brennan was really able to call out this real spirit of evangelization in the diocese,” Father Streitenberger said. “He’s really been able to support [different apostolates and lay movements] and be their big cheerleader, which has given a sense of unleashing the Holy Spirit.”
Something else Bishop Brennan made a priority in his stint in the Diocese of Columbus was reaching out to community leaders. Msgr. Joseph Hendricks, pastor of St. Brigid Kildare, remembers that when Bishop Brennan first arrived in Columbus, he went on an eight-month tour to visit corporate and civic leaders.
He led collaborations to address violence, racism, COVID-19 vaccine accessibility for the poor, and workforce development, among other priorities, according to Msgr. Hendricks, “to help people move forward — and always with his eye on evangelization, always with his eye on the future.”
Bishop Brennan said that while the big things, like “Real Presence, Real Future,” are in a good place, it’s the smaller projects he wishes he had more time to finish, like getting to complete another round of visits to every parish in the diocese.