COLUMBUS, Ohio — After Bishop Robert Brennan of Columbus missed the annual Bishop’s Golf Classic reception recognizing a student who drew artwork for the event’s program, he paid her a visit at school to extend his congratulations.
That late-September visit to Bishop Ready High School in the Diocese of Columbus didn’t stop there. Bishop Brennan ended up in a biology class completing a lab assignment with the students.
The visit encapsulates Bishop Brennan’s persona for education in the diocese he has led since 2019. Like parishioners and priests, students and Catholic school faculty describe him as a consistent, genuinely invested, and caring presence.
“Presence is far and away the number one thing that he’s brought,” said Dr. Adam Dufault, the superintendent of diocesan Catholic schools. “In that presence, he brought love, connection, relationship. He made the schools feel like an integral part of the diocese. He’s beloved, and we’re going to miss him.”
Another instance that stands out to Dufault was the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year when the schools reopened after closing for the last three months of the 2019-2020 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As that next school year began, visitations were still restricted. So Bishop Brennan set up a schedule and made rounds to every school in the diocese to greet students and parents outside at morning drop-off.
“Rain, snow, sun, it didn’t matter, he was out there showing support and solidarity, but also respecting the protocols,” Dufault said. “He wanted to play by the same rules as everyone else but still engage with the community and find that togetherness.”
There are 52 Catholic schools — 11 high schools and 41 elementary schools — spread across the 23 Ohio counties in the Diocese of Columbus, with about 17,000 students enrolled.
Enrollment across the diocese has been steady in recent years. Dufault said it grew 4% this year after 2% growth last year. He said there’s not necessarily a cause and effect between Bishop Brennan and the slight enrollment upticks, but “his gift of bringing people together certainly helps.”
Bishop Brennan will have far less distance to travel to get to the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn — condensed in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. The number of schools and students, however, is much greater.
The Diocese of Brooklyn has 85 Catholic schools — 15 high schools and 70 elementary schools — with about 31,000 students enrolled.
Coming to the Diocese of Brooklyn, Bishop Brennan expects a different experience — “but just as meaningful.”
He said, “I certainly intend to be hands-on and get to as many places as I can, but it will probably take longer and be more spread out than I’m used to here. But it’s just as important, so I look forward to it.”
Bishop Brennan, who will be installed Nov. 30 as the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, added that he believes Catholic schools need to be “unapologetically and enthusiastically Catholic.”
He explained, “The Catholic worldview is one that gives tremendous meaning to life, and our schools are about transmitting that.” They transmit the “experience of knowing and being known by Jesus Christ in his Church — and preparing people to share that, to live that kind of life authentically and to share that life with others.”
On the same day Bishop Brennan visited Bishop Ready High School and participated in the biology lab, he made a commitment. Kaitlyn Lancia, a student in the biology class, asked him if he would attend her Senior Night volleyball game at the end of September, to which he agreed.
He not only attended the game, but he led the opening prayer, blessed each team’s seniors, visited the student section, and accepted a gift from the school in front of the crowd. The gift: a framed caricature of him, drawn by the student who had been spotlighted at the golf outing.
“I recognize he has a lot to do so when he takes the time to come here; it means a lot to us,” volleyball player Lancia said.
The sentiment among Lancia and other students in the diocese about Bishop Brennan’s impending departure is a mix of both disappointment and happiness — disappointment that he’s leaving, happiness for his new opportunity.
“I was surprised, shocked, and disappointed, but it’s also an amazing step for him to be going to the Diocese of Brooklyn,” said Paul Rivera, a student at St. Charles Preparatory School. “And it’s great that he’s going to be able to shepherd so many people.”
Lindy Sweeney, a student at Bishop Hartley High School, said she didn’t think Bishop Brennan, as the head of the diocese, would be so involved with the students.
“I think he really embodies Christ’s mission because he made an effort to reach out to everyone,” Sweeney said. “He wanted to leave a lasting impact and make that connection with each one of us.”
Henry Riesbeck, also a student at Bishop Hartley High School, put it simply: “I’m very excited to see what he’s going to do next, but I’m going to miss him. He was very present at this school.”
Another thing Bishop Brennan provided to the Catholic schools was the confidence to carry out their mission, said James Lower, the principal of St. Charles Preparatory School.
“The biggest thing he provided St. Charles — and I imagine other schools in the diocese would agree — was encouraging us to look to the future, staying grounded in our mission and believing in our mission and an authentic Catholic education,” Lower said.