He was truly “Father” Brennan
I received the sad news Friday afternoon that the man who had so much influence upon all of us in our formative years at Callicoon had passed away. I share the sentiments of so many of my own classmates that Brennan was wonderfully suited for his years in Callicoon. Despite the fact that he would live on and minister fully forty years after the closing of the seminary, it seemed very fitting that Holy Name Province’s Facebook announcement of his death would observe that he is remembered by so many, in and out of the Province today, for his formative work.
Everyone who passed through Callicoon during his years will naturally have very personal recollections and impressions. In my own case, I was not particularly close to Brennan in Callicoon; it was in later years as a priest friar that I developed a warm and profitable association with him as an adult. And yet I am very grateful to him for his influence upon me and my generation in my formative years.
He was for me an exemplary priest. He was not charismatic, his sermons did not rival Fulton Sheen’s, and he was not much of one for gimmicks, trends, and junk. He was a man rooted in a deep faith whose example was that of rigorous faithfulness, personal discipline, loyalty to duty, physical fitness, scholarship, and wholesomeness. It is no mystery that he was a successful disciplinarian; he himself was disciplined. He led by example and enjoyed credibility among the students because he never told us to do what he himself was not already doing.
Over the years what has remained with me is his healthy masculinity, a virtue of his that I appreciate more and more as I observe the American Church over time. Healthy men are not much found in the priesthood today. I still smile when I think of Brennan conducting Marian devotions; he was one of few individuals who could rise above the smarminess of Marian excesses. I really miss him on the Feasts of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.
His great gift to Callicoon as an institution [and I use that word in multiple senses] was his steadiness at the helm. We all know what a wacky place the hill could be, and that some of the friars and students were ill suited for that kind of common life. One did not have to be particularly close to Brennan to profit from the stability and even handedness he brought to the seminary. In all six years of Callicoon I can never remember exerting emotional energy worrying about my interactions with him. He was level headed and constant, day in and day out. If you screwed up, it was your doing; the punishment was administered, the time done, and the slate wiped clean. I cannot recall him ever playing head games. By sixth year he trusted me with a lot of responsibility for different things. One unfortunate day just before college graduation, I forgot to clean the sixth year class room. Brennan, always a man of duty, summoned me to his office after dinner. You guys know the drill. Anyway, I stood before his desk. I was embarrassed, to say the least. But so was he. It was awkward. But he knew he had to say something, and finally he said softly, “I’m disappointed.” One of my most painful moments in Callicoon; I would have preferred ten outbursts from his predecessor, but I brought it on myself, and he paid me the ultimate compliment of being honest, not easy for either of us.
On a lighter note, I told him one day in sixth year that I had a female pen-pal in London. This puzzled him; he was still coming to grasp the new “liberality” of the times, and I really hadn’t broken any rules, but I thought I better tell him. He had to sit quietly and think for a moment, and finally he said, “Well, just don’t let this turn your head.”
If Brennan played a critical role as Prefect of Discipline from 1964 on, consider his pivotal role in earlier years when he served under his predecessor. Not to speak ill of the dead, but you-know-who was not suited for his position. He could be moody, carry grudges, unpredictable, and in my view generally counterproductive in the formation of young men toward the life of Francis of Assisi. I have no way of knowing precisely, but I have wondered over the years if Brennan’s presence on the scene kept a bad situation from getting worse. At any rate, it was a good day when he assumed the reins.
I have several funny memories of Brennan. I went out for the baseball team all six years and finally “won” a spot in sixth year as a catcher when Matt Seymour went on to join the service. Mike McCarthy also made the squad as a catcher. I took my new responsibilities very seriously, going down into town to buy the prerequisite protection for the family jewels, etc., on Brennan’s recommendation. When the first regular season game came along, Brennan said to Mike and me, “This is going to be a tough game. How about letting Buddy Ward catch this one?” It turned out that all the games were tough games, and Mike and I passed the season talking election politics at the end of the bench. Brennan approached coaching sports as Hippocrates approached medicine, his first principle being: “Do no harm.”
But over the next two decades, when our paths would cross, we always talked hockey; many discussions about the relative merits of the Boston Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres. In 1985 he and I participated in a dreadful Provincial Chapter of elected delegates in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was the kind of Chapter that violated the Geneva Conventions. Neither Brennan nor I were exactly “the meeting type.” One morning, though, he made a point to walk over to my discussion table and whisper in my ear, “Barrasso pitched a shut-out last night.” [This was a reference to Buffalo Sabres’ goalie Tom Barrasso denying the Boston Bruins a hockey goal.] First things first.
Brennan preached a mission in my mother’s parish in Hamburg, New York, some years ago. My mother’s primary recollection was that he was in great physical pain and suffered with dignity. It is my understanding that he had significant back difficulties after we had him in Callicoon. Whatever his precise ailments, it is good to know that he has passed to a new life where every tear will be wiped away.
I have spoken of my gratitude for his “predictability” as our daily leader, but I have heard first-hand accounts of his extraordinary interventions and compassion for students with personal difficulties and crosses. His was probably more complex that I ever knew, but ever the Franciscan, he probably had a little of Ernie Banks in him, “always a great day to play two” as Mr. Cub used to say.
A great part of my history has passed away. I hope I have imbibed enough of his faith to meet him again in a better place. And I pray for the Church that more of our new candidates for priesthood in the US might be cut from his cloth.