Updated: July 23, 11:40 a.m.
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Pope Francis has appointed Auxiliary Bishop Mark E. Brennan of Baltimore to head the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.
A native of Boston, Bishop Brennan, 72, has been a Baltimore auxiliary since his episcopal ordination Jan. 19, 2017.
In West Virginia, he fills the vacancy left by the resignation of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield last September; he turned 75 Sept. 8, 2018, the age at which canon law requires bishops to turn in their resignation to the pope. When Pope Francis accepted his resignation Sept. 13, 2018, he left under a cloud of allegations of sexual and financial misconduct. The same day Pope Francis named Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori apostolic administrator of the statewide diocese.
Bishop Brennan’s appointment was announced July 23 in Washington by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican nuncio to the United States.
He will become the ninth bishop of the diocese, which had been the Diocese of Wheeling from its founding in 1850 until 1962, when it became the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. His installation Mass will be celebrated Aug. 22 in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling.
Archbishop Lori offered his “deepest gratitude” to the pope for appointing Bishop Brennan, adding: “The Archdiocese of Baltimore has been blessed these past two years by his service as auxiliary bishop. During that time, I have witnessed his pastoral love for the people of God, who have accepted and embraced him for his kindness, humility and joyful witness to the faith.”
“These gifts and so many others will bring healing and hope to the church in West Virginia, which deserves a shepherd who bears so many of the qualities possessed by Bishop Brennan,” the archbishop said in a statement. “While we are saddened to lose him here in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, we extend our gratitude and prayers to him in his new role.”
Bishop Brennan said, “I am deeply honored to be appointed the new bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and am grateful to the Holy Father, Pope Francis, for his confidence in me to now lead the Catholic faithful here in West Virginia in a spirit of true Christian service.”
He noted that his parents, now deceased, retired to the state, so “I am no stranger and, in fact, a great admirer of the beauty of its landscape and people.
“Even as we work toward bringing about true healing and renewal here in this local church — work begun so well by Archbishop William Lori — I am full of hope and confidence for what we can accomplish together,” he said.
Bishop Brennan said he was “very, very surprised” upon hearing the news from Archbishop Pierre that he had been selected for the post.
He said, “My reaction was: I grew up thinking lightning never struck twice in the same place.” But for him it did. “Once was an old dog like me being made a bishop. But it happened again. Bishop of a diocese? Who can believe it?”
He said he asked the nuncio if he was sure that he was the choice, and the archbishop confirmed it.
Bishop Brennan talked with Archbishop Lori at length after receiving the news and the archbishop noted that priests and bishops have to put personal preferences behind the needs of the church, and the diocese needs someone who can go there soon. “It’s been dragging on a long time. … The archbishop is willing that I go,” he said.
“I’ve accepted it,” Bishop Brennan added. “I’m going and I’ll try to go with a good spirit and do the best I can.”
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston has about 78,000 Catholics, or 4 percent of a total state population of over 1.8 million people.
Bishop Brennan will face important issues as the diocese’s bishop. He acknowledged that West Virginia is an epicenter of the nation’s fight against opioid addiction. It also is home to some of the poorest people in the country.
In addition, he follows Bishop Bransfield, who will be prohibited from living in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and prohibited from presiding or participating anywhere in any public celebration of the liturgy. He also is obligated “to make personal amends for some of the harm he caused; the nature and extent of the amends to be decided in consultation with the future bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston.”
These disciplinary actions were imposed by Pope Francis and announced July 19; they were based on the findings of the investigation into Bishop Bransfield overseen by Archbishop Lori as apostolic administrator.
In March, the archbishop announced the results of the investigation had been forwarded to the Vatican. He also announced restrictions on Bishop Bransfield, saying he was not authorized “to exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry either within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston or within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.”
Bishop Brennan understands that an important part of his ministry will be healing.
“I hope I can be a bishop who listens to people and tries to help them make sense of their experience and honors what they’ve gone through, and who works with them to try to get to a better place,” he told the Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan news outlet.
“Can I personally bring healing? I don’t know — and I believe God’s the one who brings healing — but can I be an instrument in doing that? I hope and pray I can,” he added.
Bishop Brennan earned a bachelor of arts degree from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1969. He pursued seminary studies at Christ the King Seminary in Albany, New York, 1969-1970. In 1972, he received a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, 1972; he also earned a graduate degree from the Gregorian in 1974.
He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington May 15, 1976. He spent 14 months in 1985 and 1986 studying Spanish language and culture, principally in the Dominican Republic and Colombia. He also speaks French.
He has spent a lot of his time addressing the needs of immigrant communities. During his 13-year tenure as pastor at St. Martin Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in the Washington Archdiocese, he was involved in welcoming people of many cultures and reaching out directly to the poor and marginalized.
In 2016, reflecting on his vocation when he marked the 40th anniversary of priestly ordination, then-Msgr. Brennan told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese, that he felt an “overwhelming sense of God’s faithfulness. … The Lord is always there for me, giving me the help I need.”
When he was named an auxiliary bishop for Baltimore in December of that year, he said he was humbled by the appointment “at this stage in my life and being simply a parish priest.”
His episcopal motto is “Docente omnes gentes” (“Teach all nations”).
At a reception following his episcopal ordination as a Baltimore auxiliary, friends and parishioners from St. Martin recalled the bishop’s pastoral nature.
Deacon Kenneth Barrett, whose family was for a time one of two African American families at the parish, called him “a people’s servant.”
Tina Kent and her husband, Leo Motter, brought four of their five children to the ordination. Kent said Bishop Brennan had a profound impact on her faith, leading her to be received into the Catholic Church.
“He taught me a lot about Catholicism, the Eucharist and confession,” Kent told the Catholic Review, noting that then-Father Brennan presided at their wedding.
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Contributing to this story was Christopher Gunty, associate publisher/editor of Catholic Review Media, the media arm of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.