Father William Brenna’s path to priesthood
The first steps on one’s path to the priesthood are often trod in the quiet presence of Jesus in adoration, while at the altar serving Mass, under the care of parents steeped in the Faith or with the gentle guidance of a holy priest. The tenuous first steps become a steady walk and then, as the light and love of Jesus shine ever more brightly, the walk becomes a determined march towards ordination and “the sacrament of Holy Orders, by which the Holy Spirit enables [priests] to act in the person of Christ the head, for the service of all the members of the Church … an icon of Christ the priest.” (CCC #1142)
But not every path is so clearly defined or cleanly ordered.
Father William Brenna grew up in a family of nine. His dad served as a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps in Burma during World War II. Continuing his service beyond the war, Father Brenna’s father spent a career in the military and retired after 20 years. Father Brenna recalls his time at home with fondness and an appreciation for the Faith foundation his parents built for their family. “I couldn’t ask for a better example of being loyal to the Faith than what my parents provided.”
He felt pulled towards the priesthood then, but the path didn’t materialize at this phase of his life, and Father Brenna left his home when he was 18.
Army Chaplains and Monsignor Schuler
The world continued to spin, and Father Brenna’s life continued to unfold. Conflict arose in Southeast Asia, and Father Brenna suddenly found himself following in the footsteps of his father’s wartime service. He deployed to the war in Vietnam as a lieutenant.
“The liturgy represents the perfection of heaven, not in a platonic sense, but in an eternal sense.
It represents what the life of heaven is.”
Amid the brutality, death and confusion of war, chaplains administer last rites (the sacrament of anointing of the sick) to wounded and dying soldiers as they engage in direct combat with the enemy. This ministry requires chaplains to serve alongside these soldiers, directly in harm’s way, while unarmed and unfocused on enemy forces, gunfire, explosions and the chaos erupting around them. They willingly and repeatedly expose themselves to hostile fire, injury and death to minister and convey the grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit to gravely wounded soldiers facing a violent death.
These chaplains, celebrating Mass on the bases for troops and serving on the front lines in the rice paddies of Vietnam, so inspired Father Brenna that he again felt a calling to the priesthood.
And so it was in Vietnam that Father Brenna’s path became clear.
Returning home, Father Brenna sought out his local vocations office to take those steps of purpose toward the priesthood. The office listened but then recommended that Father Brenna become more involved in his local parish instead. Undeterred, Father Brenna did exactly that. Providentially, this is where Monsignor Richard Schuler entered as a main character in Father Brenna’s story.
“[St. Mary’s—Big River] is a huge family.
It is more relational than organizational, natural rather than artificial, and transformative rather than transactional. There is a sense of Faith here that is not something one encounters everywhere.”
“He was an institution,” Father Brenna says with a combination of affinity, awe and respect. “He was eloquent and passionate about the liturgy and sacred music, which were things that were not as culturally evident in the Church then.” Strikingly, Father Brenna states, “[Monsignor Schuler] was a voice in the wilderness calling for liturgical beauty.” While some perceived the liturgical reforms as a rupture with the past, Monsignor Schuler knew that the reforms were meant to be a continuation of what came before. When asked which aspect of our Faith inspires him the most, Father Brenna reflected momentarily and said, “The liturgy. It represents the perfection of heaven, not in a platonic sense, but in an eternal sense. It represents what the life of heaven is. In that sense, it provides a model, more than a model really, it is the reality of what our lives on earth should strive to be like—to emulate. That’s why it is called the source and summit of the Christian life.”
Monsignor Schuler instilled a love of the liturgy and a passion for sacred music in Father Brenna and also in so many more. A prolific fisher of men, Monsignor Schuler’s example and influence often led more men to the priesthood than any other parish in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “Several bishops credit Monsignor Schuler with having fostered or assisted their vocation,” Father Brenna shares.
‘Inspiration and Ordination’
Alight with the love of the liturgy and having been deeply involved in St. Agnes Parish in St. Paul, Minn., Father Brenna again approached the vocations office seeking a path toward the priesthood.
And again, Father Brenna was told that the time was not right.
So, Father Brenna’s life continued, and by this point, he served as a special agent with the Department of Defense’s Defense Security Service. He traveled across the Midwest to conduct investigations and training in support of national security programs. After a distinguished career, he retired in 2003 to help serve as care-giver for his aging parents.
And in this act of love, Father Brenna, in his mid-50s, felt the call again. “When you care for someone else, the focus is completely on someone else and outside of yourself.” Pope Benedict XVI’s election was the final spark that again ignited the flame. Monsignor Schuler instilled a deep love for the liturgy in Father Brenna, and the Pope’s focus inspired him.
Father Brenna’s path led to this point, and his path to ordination was now clear. Joyous time in seminary followed as he spent time learning within the Veterans Administration (VA), ministering to veterans navigating the VA health care system. After ordination, he then served as the pastor for four parishes in Ashland County before returning to the VA as a full-time chaplain.
Father Brenna’s path then led him to his current parish—Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in River Falls. Father Brenna shares that his current parish “is a huge family. It is more relational than organizational, natural rather than artificial, and transformative rather than transactional. There is a sense of Faith here that is not something one encounters everywhere.”
‘A Winding Path’
Father Brenna holds Luke 17:10 (“So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”) nearest to his heart because “it speaks to our duty and what we owe each other.” When asked if he feels he has fulfilled his duty, Father Brenna reflects and says, “I can’t say, with finality, that I have. But I think that giving without counting the cost is a challenge every human being faces—sometimes we rise to the challenge, and sometimes we don’t.”
Looking back at the winding road Father Brenna walked, a lifetime of giving is evident—to his country, Faith, parents, parish and our Lord.
God’s call penetrates. It breaks into our personal life. It bulldozes earthly obstacles and our stubbornly constructed walls. It pierces the fog of uncertainty. Like many of us, Father Brenna’s path wasn’t straight, but God continued to call him, and Father Brenna listened with patience and perseverance. He is where he is meant to be—shepherding God’s people.
Story by Erik Archer
Photography by Michael Lieurance
Published in the September/October 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine