PROSPECT PARK — There isn’t a single day, or moment, that Bishop Robert Brennan considers to be his “calling” to the priesthood. Instead, he attributes that call to a number of smaller moments from his early Catholic life in the New York area.
Bishop Brennan — the Bishop of Columbus, Ohio, and Bishop-designate of the Diocese of Brooklyn — was born in the Bronx and raised in Lindenhurst, New York. He describes growing up in a family where faith was important — but “not necessarily something that was worn on your sleeve.”
Bishop Brennan’s family, like many Catholic families, went to Mass on Sunday and prayed before meals and before bed. After their move to Long Island, the local parish and Catholic schools became the center of his family’s life. He and his brothers became altar servers: That was one moment that helped lead him to the priesthood.
“We all had a chance to be involved, and I think for me that was one of the great things — to see the priests up close, to see what they were doing and see how they enjoyed what they were doing, how meaningful it was,” Bishop Brennan said.
In that role as an altar server, Bishop Brennan remembers in particular a missionary priest talking in a homily about his journey to becoming a priest as especially moving.
“He spoke about his own calling and how he looked at what the priests are doing and said, ‘I could be happy doing that,’ “ Bishop Brennan said. “And that’s one of those moments that stood out in my life because I had the same thought that I could be happy doing this.”
Bishop Brennan’s role as a sacristan and participating in Eucharistic adoration were great markers as well, he said, because he remembers the strong desire that arose in front of the Eucharist.
There was never a time when he didn’t want to be a priest, he said. And toward the end of high school, he told his parents he wanted to pursue the path to priesthood.
Upon graduation, even though he knew he wanted to be a priest, Bishop Brennan attended St. John’s University to get a “university experience.”
From St. John’s, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science before studying for the priesthood at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York.
While there was no particular moment that inspired Bishop Brennan to follow that path, there was a particular priest that modeled the kind of priest he wanted to be.
That was a longtime Long Island priest, the late Msgr. James McDonald.
“He was very, very enthusiastic, joy-filled about the work of the priesthood, eager to do it,” Bishop Brennan recalled. “He was tireless in that work even to the point where, when he was sick and dying, his greatest regret was he wasn’t out there doing what he loved so much.”
Msgr. McDonald, who died in 2018, was also central in the strong support Bishop Brennan received when he made the decision to become a priest. He remembers his parents had always encouraged him to pursue whatever would make him happy, so they supported his decision. The same can be said for his four younger siblings (two sisters, two brothers).
His friends, he said, somewhat expected the decision because of his devotion to Mass through high school and college. They were strong in the practice of their faith as well, he noted, so they always provided an “awful lot of support.”
That isn’t to say his journey to the priesthood and thereafter was always easy. Similar to any walk of life, a journey to the priesthood has ups and downs. It’s in those lows that Bishop Brennan said community is paramount, especially in the seminary.
Not only are the other seminarians great for encouragement, but the spiritual director is metaphorically “holding up a mirror and reflecting back to you.” He allows “you to go through the process, to ask you the questions that you need to be asking yourself — and somebody who can be honest with you,” and vice versa.
Above all else, however, prayer was most important in getting Bishop Brennan through any hard times; he said he encourages current seminarians to lean into the practice of prayer. Bishop Brennan noted that, at the seminary, “you’re living in a situation where your life revolves around prayer, so there’s a lot of support there just by where you are.”
He added: “In a sense, it’s about friendship with Jesus Christ, and when you spend time with a friend, you’re drawn more deeply to that relationship.”