Joe Brennan just couldn’t shake it. He’d thought about being a priest for years and the feeling just wouldn’t go away.
Growing up, his uncle — Msgr. John L. Brennan — would come over to his house every Sunday evening. He often wore a flannel or simple shirt, but wore black slacks and shoes — “a priest from the waist down.”
His uncle’s example ultimately led Msgr. Joseph V. Brennan, vicar general and moderator of the curia, to be named auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Pope Francis named Msgr. Brennan, along with Msgr. David G. O’Connell and Father Robert Barron, as auxiliary bishops for the largest archdiocese in the United States on July 21.
“I knew he did wonderful things,” Msgr. Brennan said of his uncle. “I knew he celebrated Mass. I knew … he just oozed goodness. So I thought of priesthood early because of him.”
He attended St. Elisabeth School in Van Nuys, and Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks.
He almost went to minor seminary but, feeling pushed in that direction by Msgr. Patrick O’Dwyer, decided to go the other way.
“I’m in the wrong business because when I feel pushed, I go in the opposite direction,” Msgr. Brennan quipped. “But I never lost the idea. I never forgot about it while going to high school.”
He left Notre Dame to study English at the University of Portland. His plan was to return to Notre Dame, coach basketball and get married. But the priesthood kept dogging him.
He talked to the campus minister, Father Fred Barns, about his vocation. After an hour, the priest asked Brennan to serve during Mass and to do the reading.
“The Scripture spoke to me in thunderbolt fashion,” he said. “It was from the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians: ‘As a prisoner of the Lord, I call you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.’
“And a shiver went through my body, literally. And the Gospel was the call of Matthew,” he said. “God told me where I was called in a way that I haven’t been called before and I haven’t been called since. I tried to manufacture it, but these are graced moments, you can’t create them. They are given.”
He was 18. He next spoke to Msgr. Lawrence Gibson in the L.A. Archdiocesen vocations office and wound up at St. John’s Seminary a few months later.
Msgr. Brennan was one of 13 priests ordained by Cardinal Timothy Manning on June 21, 1980 at St. Vibiana Cathedral.
After his ordination to the priesthood, he served as associate pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Los Angeles, St. Linus in Norwalk, and at the Cathedral of St. Vibiana in Los Angeles.
He also served as a pastor at St. Linus in Norwalk and Holy Trinity in San Pedro. After becoming moderator of the curia, he was in residence at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and at Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church.
“I’m deeply appreciative of the parish families that I’ve had the privilege of being a part of,” he said. “And my whole family, that so often gets left behind, because of the pastoral priorities of the priesthood, I deeply treasure them. It was the first seminary I ever went to.”
Msgr. Brennan has been a chaplain for the Knights of Columbus in California, a member of the Council of Priests and the College of Consultors of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and also sits on the Board of the Catholic Education Foundation, the Williams Charitable Trust and Together in Mission.
The appointment as auxiliary bishop came as a shock. He said he was surprised and perplexed by it.
“It was like a punch in the stomach,” he said. “I had a gut reaction that my life was going to be very different. We make our plans and God has other ideas.”
Msgr. Brennan identifies as mostly a pastor, even as he’s served in his current administrative role.
“In this position I’ve felt from the beginning that what I have — in fact all I have — to bring is the pastoral sense,” he said. “I don’t have the degrees, I don’t have the training. It’s pastoral experience that’s been the highlight of my life so far.”
In his new role as shepherd, he said, he will bring that pastoral sense as well.
“My job as vicar general has its own challenges. It has challenges everyday,” he said. “And certainly it’s a letting go. It’s a laying down of your life on a daily basis. I think this episcopacy will be the same.”