I ordinarily mine some untapped deposit of my family's past in order to feed the machine that has become this column, “An American Catholic Family.”
This one though is going to be a little different. It's not only grounded in the past, but pertains to the present and probably to the future as well.
In 1980 the national debt was $914,000,000,000. The minimum wage was a whopping $3.10. The average salary in the United States was $15,751. You could walk into a Mercedes Benz showroom, plunk down $14,800 and drive away with a brand new 280 E Sedan, and President Reagan hadn't even gotten started on the “Evil Empire.”
And in the summer of 1980, my brother Joe was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
This summer, the summer of 2005, the national debt is virtually incalculable, the minimum wage has more than doubled, $14,800 won't get you the down payment on a used Mercedes, school children actually ask “The Soviet what?” and my brother Joe just celebrated 25 years as a priest.
I have tried to quantify how many weddings, baptisms and funerals my brother Joe has presided over but always find myself losing count and having to start all over again.
Let's just say my brother Joe the priest is infused within the fabric of our family in ways that are impossible to measure.
When it came time to celebrate my brother's 25th anniversary to the priesthood, the family decided to go all out. We were going to treat it like a silver wedding anniversary.
In short order it evolved, or devolved, depending on your perspective, into one of those “Brennan” affairs. We just aren't sit-down-in-the-hotel-banquet-hall kind of people. For one thing, you need money for that, and financial acumen is an evolutionary element that has skipped this particular strain of Brennans since they left County Kerry just in front of a potato famine.
So be it. We would do this party like so many other parties in the history of this family. First, we'd get our sister Kathy to do all of the planning, all of the arranging, and 89.9% of the work. As usual, she threw herself 100% into the process and, before we knew it, there were more than 200 people coming to Joe's parish hall for a party of food, drink and a cacophony of relatives the likes of which hadn't been seen in a very long time.
It was a grand event to be sure. We had cast the net far and wide, and pulled in cousins, second cousins, friends, old parishioners, new parishioners and a bunch of people I had never seen before.
Somebody made a video collage of still photos that chronicled not only the 25 years of my brother's priestly life, but the 25 years that preceded them. In a haze of black-and-white photographs, we all got teary eyed, laughed, and took turns grimacing as we found ourselves up on the screen along with our brother. There were hair-helmet haircuts, glasses with pointy frames, and a wardrobe the Salvation Army would turn away.
It was a grand event.
Watching all of those images of my brother's life as a priest with parishioners, people he had married, baptized and buried, flash before my eyes gave me a sudden realization.
Our brother Joe didn't “belong” to us anymore.
We have had to learn how to share him and to let go of him.
He has a more comprehensive calling than just keeping his brothers and sisters in line, guiding them by his example, and loving us in that special spiritual way possessed by every good priest I ever had the pleasure to have known. Maybe it's DNA, some kind of recessive gene whose mystery some future bio-medical doctorate student will unlock some day. Whatever the organic compound is, it resides in the soul of my brother Joe, and I am grateful for it.
And so are others.
In the interim of writing this piece, very close friends of mine lost their only son to a drowning in a river. This couple was married by my brother Joe. It was my brother Joe who has helped guide the father closer to the Church. He's not all the way back, but we're working on it.
When their son was lost in the river, I was given the job of sending out the SOS and finding my brother Joe. This is not always an easy task, as the life of a parish priest can be quite frenetic. But through the grace of God and one or two collect calls to the Blessed Mother, I got a hold of Joe, informed him of the tragedy, and he went into action.
The death of a young person in these circumstances is nothing short of total devastation. Yet, there among the rubble, the despair, the sorrow, stood my brother Joe.
During the grieving process, my friends who suffered the loss as well as their friends and relatives would come up to me and tell me how much Father Joe meant to them during this time of extreme trial. I told them I had seen it all before on occasions too numerous to itemize. My brother Joe would deny it because that's the way he is, but his power to transmit the love of God and the saving power of the Church is nothing short of inspiring.
Which brings me back full circle to that 25th anniversary of his ordination.
At his anniversary party, my brother Joe spoke of the very “first” seminary he attended — our home. He spoke of the examples of many of the people I have written about in this very column: our dad, our mom, Uncle Rich, Father John.
When I attended the Rosary for my friends’ deceased son, I thought about those grainy black-and-white photographs at my brother's anniversary party, and thought again how fortunate I am to have come from the family that I do.
My friends never knew my mom or dad or my uncles, but they were being touched by them just the same.
At times, I wish I could wave a magic wand and have all my friends think and feel about Christ and his Church the way I do, the way my brother Joe and my other brothers and sisters do. But I can't.
It would be a serious miscalculation to think the tragedy my friends suffered somehow put a pall over the celebration of my brother's priestly milestone. If anything, it was an exclamation point to it and more evidence that a broken, flawed, and oh-so-imperfect Catholic family like mine can have a ripple effect on others for the good.
Of course it doesn't hurt to have a great front man like our brother, Father Joseph V. Brennan.
Robert Brennan is a television writer living in Los Angeles.