Bishop William Brennan 1938-2013
By Michael Costigan
GIFTED with a sharp intellect and phenomenal memory, William John Brennan, fourth Bishop of Wagga Wagga (1983-2002), made a notable contribution to his Church at both national and diocesan levels.
He was for 18 years one of the most articulate and active members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
As a young bishop, his colleagues gave him a trouble-shooting role, after they terminated the mandate of the politically controversial Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in 1987.
As one of six members of the newly formed Bishops Committee for Justice, Development and Peace, he had the task of explaining publicly the decision to replace the mainly lay-controlled CCJP with the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, an agency coming more directly under episcopal supervision.
He took the ACSJC’s chair and was involved for years in speaking out on socio-political subjects and in preparing the bishops’ annual Social Justice Sunday statements.
One of these, in 1992, was a widely discussed report on wealth distribution in Australia, calling for justice and compassion for those suffering from poverty and disadvantage.
Titled Common Wealth for the Common Good, the book-length document was discussed in both Houses of the national parliament.
Brennan had a major role in persuading his fellow bishops to undertake other national studies on young people and women in the Church.
He also steered the BCJDP, which he also chaired for a time, in the direction of what Pope John Paul II called “ecological conversion”.
The result was the creation a decade ago of a new organisation, Catholic Earthcare Australia.
At international level, the late bishop, a keen traveller, was a defender of human rights.
In South Africa, he witnessed that country’s first free elections and was an advocate for a free and independent East Timor.
Born in Arncliffe in 1938, William Brennan was educated by the Ursuline Sisters at Ashbury and the Christian Brothers at Lewisham.
He trained for the priesthood in the Springwood and Manly seminaries and at Propaganda Fide College, Rome, where he was ordained in 1960.
He had degrees in theology from Rome’s Pontifical Urban University and in arts, education, philosophy and psychology from the Sydney and New England Universities.
Brennan served as a priest of the Broken Hill diocese for 22 years, with parish appointments in Forbes, Broken Hill, Nyngan and Wentworth.
For some years he was that diocese’s director of schools.
His experiences in a huge outback diocese, covering nearly half of NSW, were to influence his work and policies after becoming the Bishop of Wagga Wagga.
He created widespread interest throughout the country when, in the face of some opposition from priests and others, he built and opened his own seminary, Vianney College, in north Wagga Wagga.
It was a time when a general decline in vocations meant that most seminaries were only partly occupied or were in some cases closing.
Bishop Brennan’s true motivation for a brave if costly decision came from his belief that priests destined to minister in large and remote parishes could be best prepared within their own diocese and in a semi-rural environment.
Two decades after its opening and after the need arose twice for extensions to be built, the seminary experiment is now judged a surprising success.
Against the trend elsewhere, Vianney College has been full for most of that time, with young men in the region answering the call in unexpectedly high numbers.
The percentage of Catholics in the diocese is 32.5 per cent, the highest in the nation.
To serve them, with the addition of a few volunteer priests from overseas, Wagga Wagga has much less of a clergy shortage than most other Australian dioceses.
His background as an educationist led Bishop Brennan to devote many of his energies to this area.
As well as the seminary, he opened a students’ residential college, St Francis’, on the campus of Charles Sturt University.
He also re-wrote the diocese’s religious education program.
In the words of his successor, Bishop Gerard Hanna, he had a strong commitment to upgrading and reaffirming Catholic identity in schools.
Bishop Brennan unified the diocese’s administrative structures, bringing agencies together in a central building, McAlroy House.
A fluent Italian speaker after his years in Rome, he liked to use that language when meeting the large numbers of Italian migrants in Riverina centres like Leeton, Griffith and Yenda.
While he could at times be a hard taskmaster, quick to correct inaccurate or mistaken assertions by others, the bishop had a firm sense of justice.
He was intent on defending what he saw as doctrinal orthodoxy, always understood in the context of the Second Vatican Council’s decrees, which, like all church teachings, he had at his fingertips.
Bishop Brennan’s activity as a Church leader and teacher came to a sudden and permanent halt in 2001 when he had a cerebral haemorrhage while leading the celebration of Mass with the other bishops in Kensington.
He was to spend the final 12 years of his life as an invalid, showing edifying patience and resignation while in the totally devoted care of Ursuline Sister Marie Therese Brennan, his sister.
He died in Vianney Villa, Randwick, on August 31 and was buried in the Wagga Wagga cathedral on September 6.
He is survived by his three sisters, two brothers having pre-deceased him.