By Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney
Bishop Bill Brennan was one of the most individual and interesting Catholic bishops of his generation, with an influence far beyond Wilcannia-Forbes and Wagga Wagga.
Bishop Bill’s announcement in 1989 of a new seminary in Wagga, a decision denounced in an intemperate article in Sydney’s Catholic Weekly, was the first public sign that the head of an Australian diocese was ready to support Pope John Paul’s programme to retrieve Catholic life in the Western world.
The initial idea came from the then Cardinal Ratzinger and in 21 years St. John Vianney’s has produced 40 priests and one bishop.
By 1990 hundreds of religious and priests in Australia had resigned; the numbers in the seminaries were small.
Orthodox young men were sometimes refused entry to these houses of formation where discipline was often lax with an occasional whiff of corruption.
Daily Mass and meditation were ideals rather than regular events, prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction were never seen and public recitation of the rosary forbidden.
In one seminary the ancient Marian hymn, the Salve Regina, was also forbidden as divisive.
Archbishop Hickey’s revamped seminary in Perth also moved in the same direction as Bishop Brennan’s and the game was on.
Despite a dour public persona Brennan was good company and a fine raconteur.
A formidable opponent, he was personally courteous, kind to his priests and universally respected by his brother bishops for his loyalty, competence and hard work for the Conference despite the fact that a majority disagreed with a good part of his theological views and proposed remedies.
He knew that reform is never accomplished without division, incomprehension and sometimes bitter opposition.
He confronted this courageously, without any melodrama but it took a toll on his health.
William John Brennan was born at Arncliffe in Sydney on 16th February, 1938, the eldest son of a strongly Catholic family in Dulwich Hill.
His brothers pre-deceased him while two of his three surviving sisters are Ursuline nuns.
One of them, Sister Therese, lovingly dedicated herself to his daily personal care after a debilitating stroke in mid-2001 forced his early retirement.
From then on he resided at North Randwick in the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
He attended school at Christian Brothers Lewisham and was dux in his final year.
He went from his home-town of Sydney to enrol as a seminarian for the diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes where his uncle (of the same name) was a priest from 1927-1953, before being transferred to become the Bishop of Toowoomba.
He was an exceptional student of philosophy, with one philosophy lecturer of 20 years claiming he was his best ever student.
Brennan also had a phenomenal memory. He knew well Latin, Greek, Italian and French, preaching in Italian, for some reason, with a vivacity and a range of gestures he never attained in his English sermons.
He was sent to study theology at Propaganda Fide College in Rome, where he revelled in the international missionary flavour of the College; most students were Africans and Asians.
He was ordained at the age of 22, on December 21st, 1960.
On returning home he continued his secular studies and pastored in many bush parishes, becoming eventually Diocesan Inspector of Schools. He understood the necessity of Catholic content in catechesis.
This realisation was another driving force during his time as bishop, where he developed and refined a new R.E. syllabus “We belong to the Lord”.
In one of his first appointments in the diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes, the local Anglican minister asked to see the young Father Brennan, saying to him, “I know you’ve studied in Rome and much more than I have. Can I read to you my Sunday sermon each week, so you can check anything needing revision?” “So,” said Bishop Brennan reminiscing thirty years later, “for two years no heresy was taught to the congregation down the road at the Church of England parish”.
It was an encouragement to his allies when he was appointed bishop in 1984. As he had been formed before the confusion which followed the Second Vatican Council, he easily believed in obedience and the self-sacrifice he practised himself.
When a priest from the Wagga diocese wondered why he had to be sent to some isolated “God-forsaken” parish, Bishop Brennan retorted: “I went from Sydney to the remote parishes of Wilcannia-Forbes diocese to serve as a priest precisely so they would not be God-forsaken parishes”.
The bishop worked on many committees of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, but his most valuable work was in the area of justice and peace. At my first bishops’ conference in 1987 the bishops terminated the mandate of the politically controversial Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and reasserted episcopal control.
In the new Bishops’ Committee for Justice, Development and Peace, Brennan became the founding Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council.
Politically aware, well informed and committed to Catholic social justice theory, he, although a junior bishop, had the main task of explaining this decision.
On one occasion he had to give an account of developments to a hostile crowd of 300 at St. John’s College Sydney University.
A major enterprise between 1988 and 1992 was the preparation of a report on wealth distribution in Australia, Common Wealth for the Common Good, which provoked significant debate in the Australian parliament.
The free market forces did not much like the document but they had never seen the first version!
There were major consultations on the roles of women and young people and the bishop was a strong supporter of freedom in East Timor and democracy in South Africa.
In 2001 he drew attention to the plight of migrant women outworkers in the clothing industry and urged that asylum seekers should not be punished to send a message to people smugglers.
A little time before his death as his family gathered with him, the superior of the Little Sisters of the Poor explained that it had been their privilege to care for him.
She told me that when she finished she was slightly embarrassed, because he had not been speaking and probably did not understand a word. To everyone’s surprise he replied quietly “Thank you very much”.
True to himself, he died as he had lived, with grace and dignity. May he rest in peace.