Catholic Herald staff
Pope Francis’ call to serve those on the peripheries has prompted one retired priest to use his language skills and life experiences to address unmet needs in the Diocese of Superior.
In the Army Reserve, Fr. William Brenna, 67, was a company commander. He conducted background investigations for the U.S. Department of Defense for 30 years, and he was ordained to the diocesan priesthood as a delayed vocation by Bishop Peter Christensen in 2009.
He is now three times retired: from the Army Reserve in 1996; from the federal government in 2003; and from parish ministry in 2014.
Chronic health issues accelerated his retirement from parish work, but, as his health improved, he is working again.
“Retirement, for me, doesn’t really have a traditional meaning, where you don’t work anymore,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh, I thought you were retired.’ Yes, I did. I just started doing other things. I’m just glad I found things I can do.”
Pope Francis’ call to evangelization has a lot of Catholics “trying to figure out what it means to us as people, as parishes,” he said. “We all try to do things as we see them.”
No longer confined to a parish cluster, and with the faculties to serve God among veterans, in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and in the Diocese of Superior, Fr. Brenna has been ministering in and near the Twin Cities, where he makes his home.
Celebrates Latin Mass
Celebrating the Latin Mass, in the Diocese of Superior and as a substitute in the archdiocese, fulfills one such need.
Fr. Brenna did not realize dozens of Catholics from the Diocese of Superior were driving to parishes in the archdiocese or the Diocese of La Crosse to go to Latin Mass every weekend. When he learned of their interest, he wanted to help.
“This was just a revelation to me,” he said.
The priest’s interest in liturgy began in boyhood, when he was an altar server and student at St. Peter School, Mendota, Minnesota.
“The church has different hooks for people,” he added. “For me, that was something that really attracted my interest, especially the sacred music.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a big push to encourage participation in the Mass, he explained. Ideally, Catholics would be more invested in the Mass if they were more involved.
Fr. Brenna learned Latin in high school, but he started to learn the Latin Mass as a child. He was taught responses to the priest’s part of the Mass and learned to chant and sing with a choir; in the 1980s, he was a choir member at the Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, among others.
Decades later, choirs continue to perform Masses by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Dvorak and other venerable composers at St. Agnes.
“One of the things I miss most about being a (parish) priest is being able to sing with the choir,” he said.
In liturgical matters, his tastes are correspondingly classical.
“The things that have caused me some distress are more in the cosmetic,” he observed. “When you dress the liturgy too much, it starts to look too much like the surrounding culture. I think you lose that sign of contradiction.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI emphasized continuity in Catholicism, a teaching that resonated with Fr. Brenna.
“One of his strongest messages was, we need to be continuous, we need to be connected with what has gone before us,” he said. “I celebrate both the reformed rite and the traditional rite. I don’t have any problems going back and forth between the two. I’m just very happy to help.”
Catholics who share his enthusiasm have been attending the 8 a.m. Latin Mass Sundays at St. Joseph, Osceola. He estimates they have a community of 60 to 80 people, but sometimes 100 or more attend. Most are from the diocese, although some are summer residents or vacationers.
The Latin Mass community contributes financially to the parish, and although he is not the pastor at St. Joseph – that’s Fr. Barg Anderson – Fr. Brenna asks them to stay.
“I’ve encouraged them to join the parish, and many of them have,” he said.
Grammar schools used to instruct students on how to read music and sing chorally, but those skills are no longer taught, according to the priest.
In the Diocese of Superior, it can be difficult to find enough musicians – organists, vocalists, choir directors – to constitute a choir.
St. Joseph has sent a number of people to the St. Paul Cathedral for a weeklong music seminar to learn breathing and choral singing techniques.
“The dynamics of a group – it’s different than being a soloist,” he said.
Another musician is taking organ lessons at UW-River Falls.
“We’re kind of working toward being able to have a fun Mass on Sundays,” he added.
Ministry to fathers, sons
Another of Fr. Brenna’s ministries is to serve as chaplain for the Troops of St. George, an outdoorsy Catholic “club” for boys.
“It’s a ministry for men and their sons,” he explained. “It’s not really a different version of the Boy Scouts. There’s some overlap, but mostly it’s fathers and sons doing things together, and integrated right into that are prayer, the rosary, the Mass.”
The idea is for fathers to model Catholic traditions – saying the rosary, attending Mass – and those practices “will seem natural, will seem normal,” rather than strange or embarrassing, as they may in a secular setting.
“We’re giving them an environment in which those things are approved of, and modeled,” he added. “It’s a bond between fathers and sons. The Catholic Church does not do a good job of ministry to men, and I think it’s something that’s needed.”
Care for veterans, their families
Fr. Brenna’s third ministry is in an institution with which he’s intimately familiar – the military.
He’s a part-time chaplain at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, one of the larger veterans’ hospitals in the country.
In seminary, one of his required internships was at the facility. He now spends several days there each month, celebrating Mass, visiting patients and assisting the grieving.
“We participate in family care conferences some time,” Fr. Brenna said. “You’re there when a veteran dies; you’re there with the family.”
Even for a career military man, it’s a spiritually stretching environment.
“Just like in the Army, you serve everyone of all faiths or none,” he said. “If you are the guy on duty, you get to see ‘em. Jewish, Wiccan, Muslim, whatever.
“It’s challenging that way, and it helps you to grow in your appreciation of spirituality,” he continued. “You see people engaged in that struggle to find truth and goodness in their life and in their relationships with others. You see people have avoided it until the end of their life, and you see a lot of mixed feelings.”
The hospital draws patients from around the Midwest, including many from the Diocese of Superior. As few parish priests have time to drive long distances to visit parishioners, “I feel like I’m serving my diocese in that way,” he said. “There’s tremendous need everywhere to help out.”
Fr. Brenna is in the process of handling his deceased parents’ estate. He hopes to move back to the Diocese of Superior next year to continue serving God and the diocese to the best of his abilities.