Bishop Joseph V. Brennan, 68, has led the Diocese of Fresno since 2019. He was born in Van Nuys, California, the son of a grocer and the ninth of 10 children (he has a twin brother) in a Catholic home. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1980. He served in a variety of parishes and roles within the archdiocese, and was named an auxiliary bishop in 2015. The Diocese of Fresno is in central California and serves more than two million Catholics with 187 priests in 87 parishes.
Bishop Brennan recently spoke with CWR about his background and diocese, Eucharistic revival, as well as Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry’s “I Thirst Fresno”, which will be coming to the diocese March 18.
CWR: What was it like growing up in Van Nuys?
Bishop Brennan: It was a great place to grow up. We were located in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, and at the time, we were surrounded by remnants of our agricultural past. There were still vacant lots, unincorporated areas and old barns in which we were told not to play (of course, we did play in them). My mom and dad provided my nine brothers and sisters and I a stable, loving home, sadly something many children don’t have today. It was a refuge for us kids; we were enveloped by goodness and discipline.
We were a very observant Catholic home. Sunday Mass attendance was not an option; when we were young we’d fill up a pew. All 10 of us children went through 12 years of Catholic education. That was a lot of tuition, paid for by a grocery clerk and a stay-at-home mom.
We lived just two blocks from our parish, St. Elisabeth Church, which at the time was staffed by priests from Ireland. I had great memories of them; their spirit deeply attracted me to the priesthood. I also had an uncle who was a priest, Fr. John Brennan. His parish had a pre-Vatican II Mass schedule, meaning there were no Sunday evening Masses, so he’d come over to our house for dinner on most Sundays. We always had big dinners on Sunday evenings, with 15 or 20 adults and 30 or more kids, with my mom and dad feeding everyone. He’d come, although he wouldn’t be dressed as a priest, except from the waist down (he’d always have on his black pants and shoes).
I loved my Uncle John’s persona, and I wanted to be like him. He lived a life of prayer, and was preternaturally calm and joyful.
CWR: Your interests include singing and basketball.
Bishop Brennan: Yes. My sisters played piano, and we all sang. Every year we’d drive up and down California’s Route 99 corridor to vacation in Sequoia National Park and Yosemite, both of which are in the Fresno diocese, and we’d sing all the way in the car as well as by the campfire.
Basketball was something we all played growing up. The last game I played was with our seminarians in 2019 when I was age 64, way past my prime!
CWR: What is the Diocese of Fresno like?
Bishop Brennan: We are historically a farming community, where people are grounded. We feed people, and many here have their livelihood connected to working the land. It is an extraordinary place.
CWR: In a letter written weeks before his death, Pope Benedict XVI said the main reason he resigned his papal office was because he was experiencing chronic insomnia. You have said your motto is “Give it to God and go to sleep.” How do you deal with the strain of being a bishop?
Bishop Brennan: I have that phrase on a plaque by my nightstand so I see it every night and try to internalize it. I gives me hope in my own little corner of the world. It is analogous to Pope John XXIII’s saying “God, it is your Church, I am going to sleep.”
My morning and night prayer sustain me, as everything else in between can get out of control. I do have a wonderfully set up schedule and support people to help me, including the best executive assistant in the world and a vicar general with whom I work well, and I love coming to work. But if I don’t calm down before bedtime and say my prayers I’m going to get into trouble. I also have the daily Eucharist, which is an anchor for the day.
CWR: On March 18, St. Charles Borromeo Church in Visalia will be the site of Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry’s “I Thirst Fresno,” a day-long event for which you will celebrate mass, which will also include time for prayer, music and presentations by prominent Catholic speakers. You will be there for the entire day and will deliver a presentation to the Spanish-speaking community. Why did you want to participate in this event, and have you thought about what message you plan to share with those who come?
Bishop Brennan: In the Diocese of Fresno we’re having a year of Eucharistic Revival. Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry’s “I Thirst Fresno” fits in so well with this effort. We’re going to be giving people the tools they need to be evangelists to family and friends; we’re all called to be disciples and share the Good News.
I love the content of “I Thirst”, and I especially like the online follow-up that helps people continue to grow in their faith. Recent popes have emphasized the New Evangelization, of having an encounter with Christ, and that is what “I Thirst” aims to do. It is a revival, similar to the revivals of generations past, but a Catholic revival.
CWR: You met with Deacon Steve Greco, president of Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry and director of evangelization and formation for the Diocese of Orange, about “I Thirst Fresno.”
Bishop Brennan: Yes. We had a wonderful meeting, and although I had already committed to “I Thirst”, after we spoke I became more excited about it than ever. What really sold me was that it is not a “one and one” thing, but the follow-up sessions. Also, it is part of an international “Jesus Thirsts for America” movement, which is going to dioceses throughout the country, as well as other nations.
For “I Thirst Fresno” Deacon Steve has put together some incredible speakers, and I look forward to being a part of it.
CWR: You dedicated St. Charles Borromeo Church, the site of “I Thirst Fresno”, on February 2nd.
Bishop Brennan: Yes. It is the biggest parish church in North America. When we had the dedication, the church was filled. There were four liturgies that day, filled to capacity, so we had at least 12,000 Catholics coming to Mass that day.
CWR: The Diocese of Fresno is in the midst of a pilgrimage to diocesan shrines in honor of diocesan Eucharistic revival. Next on the list is Fresno’s Shrine of St. Therese, Feb. 26 to March 5. Why did you want to launch this pilgrimage and why would you encourage people to participate?
Bishop Brennan: Pilgrimages have long been part of our Catholic tradition, from the time of the fourth century, when St. Helen was in the Holy Land making discoveries at different sites at the core of our faith, such as the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem or in Nazareth where He grew up, as well as finding elements of the true Cross.
So, just as our people have been going in pilgrimages for centuries, we wanted our folks to be able to travel from one sacred site to another in our diocese for prayer. We have five sites participating. We’ll be having Eucharistic processions and rosaries, reminiscent of what one might experience walking the El Camino in Spain. We hope our people will travel with the deeply spiritual purpose of conversion and we want to animate our efforts to encourage evangelization.
CWR: How is Fresno doing for vocations to the priesthood and religious life?
Bishop Brennan: We have 27 seminarians, which is good for a diocese of our size. We are going to ordain five new priests in May, and hope to ordain another four or five the following year. This is good, but we need to do better.
When I went through the seminary, we had a large number of seminarians, and there was a certain safety in numbers. But today, what we lack in quantity, we make up for in quality. These seminarians preparing for ordination are solid, joyful men whom you enjoy being around.
CWR: You’ve been a priest for over 40 years. What do you enjoy most about the priesthood?
Bishop Brennan: I love to preside at funerals, although in my current role, I don’t have the opportunity to do so very often. Funerals are moving moments and times of deep prayer. They are times in which we can express our incredible gratitude for a life well lived or pray for someone who needs prayer. It has been my favorite part of the priesthood.
CWR: You were a participant in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ pro-life walk OneLife LA in January. Last year, you urged voters to vote “no” on Proposition 1, which makes abortion a guaranteed right in the California state constitution. It passed, however, by a 2-to-1 margin. Why do you think that the Church’s message on the sanctity of human life in the womb is falling on so many deaf ears?
Bishop Brennan: There are a lot of deaf ears out there who wouldn’t listen to us, even if we had a message with which they agreed! It is hard to engage in the political process and be persuasive and convincing, especially when there are practical and political machinations going on behind the scenes. Calling it Proposition 1, and even the wording of it, put us at a disadvantage. We lost the narrative, and we had no control over how its proponents were going to frame the debate and communicate about it. They couched it in the language of protecting women and women’s rights, and who doesn’t want to do that? The rights they want, however, include the taking of the life of a child.
However, I am pleased to note that Proposition 1 lost among voters here in Fresno, so some people are getting the message.
CWR: What are some of the major initiatives in the Diocese of Fresno?
Bishop Brennan: The weekend of “I Thirst Fresno” we have a lot going on. On March 17, the day before the event, we have a rosary procession in the northern part of the diocese that all are welcome to attend. We also have a St. Joseph’s Table event on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, during which we’ll be collecting food for distribution to those in need.
CWR: You have a large photo of St. Therese of Lisieux in your office.
Yes, I discovered her while I was in the seminary, and I have a very deep love for her, as I do for Our Lady of Guadalupe. We have a beautiful shrine dedicated to Therese in Fresno, and she is the patroness of our diocese.
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May the Lord bless him greatly.
1 Corinthians 15:58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
John 21:15-17 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Malachi 3:14-18 You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’” Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.
John 4:34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.
Sounds like a solid, faith-filled bishop who’s leading his faithful well.
A very good bishop and a good man. Keep him in your prayers. He’s doing a very good job here in the diocese of Fresno. As noted in the article we do have a good increase in seminarians and in ordinations. Pray God for more good solid orthodox priests for the diocese of Fresno
“The rights they want, however, include taking the life of a child.”
Let’s repeat that
“The rights they want, however, include taking the life of a child.”
Repeat, repeat, repeat …………….
I worked for the Diocese of Fresno for three years after my business career ended as a Administrator/Business Manager. Bishop Brennen needs to go back into his childhood and asked himself what did his grandparents taught him about America.