It was one day a very long time ago when the Rev.
John Brennan was a boy of 8 or so and everybody called him Jack and his St. Louis neighborhood was alive with the cacophony of children at play, taking endless rides in a red wagon.
Up and down the hills of the then quite tony South St. Louis streets, Jack would pull these other children in that wagon until his older brother Richard, just as much a curmudgeon at 12 as he would be at 80, suggested in colorful language that Jack was a sucker for hauling all those neighborhood “punks” around without them ever reciprocating.
Jack was nonplussed at his broth-er's gruff evaluation of human nature. As the family legend goes, Jack shrugged his shoulders and said that it was okay, he didn't mind — because he was a white horse.
I never knew him as Jack. My brothers and sisters and I, all 10 of us, never knew him as Uncle John, either. He was forever and always Father John, and he was our family's own personal white horse as long as he lived.
My uncle was a jumble of contradictions — a pious observer of the Divine Office and user of language that could peel the paint off a battleship. He had the bearing of a man at ease in his own skin and he remains for me to this day the only man I have ever known who could smoke a pipe without a whiff of pretension. He had extremely strong views on just about everything, and he held fast to an incredible faith in the sacraments of the Church.
Father John Brennan was also the most profound man I have ever met. He might not have had an answer to every problem in the world people faced, but he got close. I remember one Sunday dinner discussion — or was it an argument? One of my brothers, in the throes of 1960s idealism, challenged Father John about God leaving behind such an untidy world that had room in it for starvation, Adolf Hitler and the Vietnam War. Father John puffed on his pipe — unpretentiously, I remind you — and said, “What do you expect? They crucified the boss.” If you take the time to reverse engineer that statement, it is not as simple as it might originally seem.
When I dropped out of college to the bitter disappointment of my parents, my dad went to Father John for advice and help. To further my father's consternation with me, Father John's response was to take me golfing every week during my hiatus from higher education. We never talked much about the great questions of life. No, as I recall, we were more concerned with keeping our eye on the ball, maintaining proper balance at address and having “quiet” hands when we putted. But just being with Father John and playing golf was therapy, philosophy and theology all rolled up into 18 holes of frustration.
My brothers and sisters all have their own “Father John episodes,” and I'm positive they have wrapped themselves around a memory where Father John said something or did something that brought the Gospel message to them in a penetrating and unique way.
We also learned, over time, that Father John wasn't just our white horse.
A while back, our family was invited to a dedication ceremony at one of Father John's old parishes. They were posthumously naming their new parish center in Father John's honor, something in life he would have scoffed at in mostly sailor's par-lance. But we proud nieces and nephews were glad to attend.
After Mass, a middle-aged Hispanic woman approached us. She told us she was a young child when she and her mother, fresh from a less-than-documented border crossing, knocked on Father John's door. They were alone, penniless and afraid. A large priest in his cassock opened the rectory door, took them in, showed them the hospitality of Jesus and helped them find a way. That was Father John.
Father John had an incredible ability to always cut to the truth of a given situation. Sometimes that knife cut deeply and sometimes Father John paid dearly for taking on so much of the world and its toils. His primary defense mechanism was humor. You could tell Father John the most horrible news and his first reaction was almost always to laugh. He had a keen sense of the absurdity of life and yet had only love for the producers of so much absurdity.
There were also times when all of the sorrows he carried deep within him would overwhelm him and his body and spirit would be broken. These were terrible times and they just weren't talked about much. But leave it to Father John to be able to go through these brutal periods of physical and emotional darkness and come out the other side, maybe not stronger physically but recouped emotionally and spiritually and without the hint of shame about having gone through it. Like all good saints, he was honored by God with more than his share of suffering.
Personally, I think about Father John just about every day. As a family that grew up during the climax of triumphalism, we used to feel sorry for all those “Protestant” kids who had to go to public school.
Today, much older and ever so slightly wiser, we understand our faith in a more embracing manner. But there are still times when I feel sorry for all those Protestants and Catholics alike who never had their very own white horse.
Robert Brennan is a television writer in Los Angeles.