As he begins leading West Virginia Catholics, bishop draws on roots as a Washington-area parish priest
Sep 3, 2019
US & World
Accepting the shepherd’s staff on Aug. 22 as the new bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, Bishop Mark Brennan reflected what people have described as the hallmarks of his four decades as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington – preaching Christ’s Gospel, addressing pastoral challenges head-on, and serving those in need.
Bishop Brennan began leadership of the West Virginia diocese that has been shaken by allegations of sexual and financial misconduct by the previous bishop there, Bishop Michael Bransfield, whose resignation was accepted by Pope Francis in September 2018. The pope’s disciplinary actions imposed on Bishop Bransfield prohibit him from living in his former diocese and from presiding or participating in any public Masses, and Wheeling-Charleston’s former bishop is obligated to make amends for the harm he caused.
“My many years as a parish priest and two and a half (years) as a bishop have shown me that the work of healing and renewal is the work of us all,” said Bishop Brennan in the homily at his installation Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling, emphasizing that Christ’s light leads people out of darkness.
Speaking forcefully about the abuse scandal faced by the nation’s Catholics, and the scandals that had affected the faithful in West Virginia, Wheeling-Charleston’s new bishop noted, “The scandals we have learned about have caused painful disappointment, confusion, anger and distrust of Church leaders. We have to face this situation with open eyes and determined spirits to bring about true and lasting change.”
Bishop Brennan added, “Behavior has consequences, and there are consequences to bad behavior in the past that will have to be dealt with. That is one of my responsibilities, and I assure you that I will meet it. At the same time, it is my fervent hope and prayer that we can begin to find our way forward. The light of Christ beckons us to move now from the painful past toward him.”
The new bishop of Wheeling-Charleston praised West Virginia Catholics for faithfully shining Christ’s light through the recent dark times they faced. He noted how parents there continued to teach their children to pray, how parish priests continued to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments, how Catholic Charities workers continued to serve the poor and help those addicted to opioids, how Catholic school and parish teachers continued to form the young in the faith, and how chancery staff continued to “work every day to advance God’s work in this fine state, even under trying circumstances.”
Bishop Brennan also pointed out that “a painful reality we must confront is that fact that some of our people have been so outraged or discouraged that they have stopped going to Mass or even praying. Others have certainly been tempted to do so.”
But the bishop – who before entering the seminary earned a degree in history from Brown University – said the historic legacy of West Virginia, whose people remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War, offered an example to today’s West Virginians about the importance of remaining united, and for Catholics, of keeping the faith.
“Unity with one another and with God is what the Lord wants for us,” he said.
He added that Mary showed the importance of saying “yes” to God under challenging circumstances, and he said that steadfast faith can help West Virginia Catholics bring about healing in the wake of the abuse crisis, and also help people in their state confront the opioid epidemic and chronic poverty there, and also bring hope to young people through educational opportunities offered by Catholic schools.
“We can right the wrongs of the past and move on to make Christ known, helping our neighbor in need and remain united in faith and love,” said Bishop Brennan.
Then the bishop – who when he was named by Pope Francis to lead the West Virginia diocese, had noted that his parents had both retired to the state, which led him to become a great admirer of the beauty of the state’s landscape and people – concluded his homily by encouraging West Virginia’s Catholics to cherish and share their faith, making Mary’s “yes” to God their own.
Facing the congregation in his cathedral church, Bishop Brennan said, “…Work with me and your brothers and sisters to let the light of Christ be a light brightly visible in the mountains and valleys, the city streets and country roads of this beautiful part of God’s creation, West Virginia.”
The congregation responded with loud applause to their new bishop’s call to faith and action.
Soon after arriving in his new diocese, Bishop Brennan had demonstrated his care for the poor, donning an apron to help serve breakfast to the patrons of the Catholic Charities Neighborhood Center in Wheeling. And after his installation Mass, Bishop Brennan offered a blessing from the balcony of the cathedral, then walked to the sidewalk to greet people, including some women gathered outside a nearby apartment building.
That mirrored his work as pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, from 2003 until Pope Francis had named him as an auxiliary bishop of Baltimore in December 2016, 40 years after he had been ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1976. At St. Martin’s, then-Msgr. Brennan was known for his long hours of serving people in his parish that has a large immigrant population, celebrating Masses in English, Spanish and French for his diverse parishioners, and supporting the parish’s Catholic school and its food pantry and soup kitchen.
Bishop Brennan, a 72-year-old native of Boston, graduated from St. Anthony High School in Washington, had also served as a pastor at St. Thomas Apostle Parish in the nation’s capital, and as a parish priest at three other Maryland parishes – Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, St. Pius X in Bowie, and St. Bartholomew in Bethesda. He also studied Spanish and served in Latin America from 1985-86 and was the director of priest vocations for the Archdiocese of Washington from 1988-98.
“He is the real deal. He is the loving and wise shepherd we have all been praying for,” said Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, who introduced Bishop Brennan at the installation Mass and handed him the shepherd’s staff as West Virginia’s new bishop stood in front of the cathedra – the bishop’s chair of his cathedral. Archbishop Lori knew and worked with Bishop Brennan over the years as a fellow seminarian and priest in Washington, and then they collaborated as brother bishops in Baltimore.
After Bishop Bransfield’s resignation, Archbishop Lori had served as that diocese’s apostolic administrator and conducted an investigation into that bishop’s tenure there.
The concelebrants at the Mass included Washington Auxiliary Bishops Roy Campbell, Mario Dorsonville and Michael Fisher, and also Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout, formerly a parish priest, bishop and administrator in the Archdiocese of Washington. Bishops Fisher and Knestout were ordained as priests for Washington when then-Father Brennan was vocations director there. Also concelebrating were more than one dozen priests from the Archdiocese of Washington, and 100 other priests from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
In addition to West Virginia Catholics, the congregation included some of Bishop Brennan’s former parishioners from the Archdiocese of Washington, including about 40 people from St. Martin of Tours Parish.
In an interview after the installation, Bishop Brennan said his years as a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Washington had taught him the importance of “uniting people to God and to one another… As a bishop, too, that’s what I’ll try to promote.”
His parish service, he said, also taught him the importance of encouraging people to love and serve God and one another. “We do it because the Lord served us and taught us to serve others,” he said.
Praising the Catholics in his new diocese, Bishop Brennan said, “It is a family of faith. I really admire the Catholics of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Despite the lamentable troubles at the top, they persevered in living the faith and in serving others.”
Reflecting on the theme of his homily – the importance of shining Christ’s light – the bishop added, “All these folks have been doing that. Geez, that gives me hope. We’ll find ways to move forward together.”
The latest local and global Catholic news delivered to your inbox.