Jesuit Fr. William Brennan, penalized for liturgy with woman priest, dies

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Jesuit Fr. William Brennan, a former missionary to Belize who made social justice his life's work, died Monday at St. Camillus retirement home in Wauwatosa, Wis. He was 94.

Brennan, who was a Jesuit for 75 years and a priest for 63 years, spent the last two years of his life under restricted ministry because of participating in a eucharistic liturgy with a Roman Catholic woman priest in November 2012.

His death was announced on the website of the Wisconsin Province Jesuits.

Visitation will take place at 6 p.m. Aug. 18 at St. Camillus, followed by Mass of the Resurrection at 7 p.m.

Brennan had a long history of activism for social justice, especially in the Latino community and in issues related to Central America. Into his 90s, he regularly joined annual protests against the U.S. Army's training school for Central and South American military personnel at Fort Benning, Ga.

Joining a November 2012 eucharistic liturgy celebrated by Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a woman ordained in the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests movement, caused him to be sanctioned by his Jesuit superiors and the Milwaukee archdiocese, where he lived.

His priestly faculties were suspended, and he was prohibited from leaving Milwaukee without permission and from appearing as a Jesuit at any public gathering, including protests and rallies. He was also ordered not to contact the media "through phone, email, or any other means."

In 2012, when NCR contacted him to ask about his sanctions, he was hesitant to confirm the news. "I'm risking my existence in the Jesuit order by talking to you," Brennan told NCR.

A Wauwatosa native, Brennan spent his regency, a period of formation for Jesuits that follows initial studies, in Belize. He would go on to spend 17 years in Belize. Following that, he served in Milwaukee-area parishes, primarily with Latino communities.

"Bill was a great-hearted man who remained amazingly active even after he turned ninety and his body began to fail him," the notice on the provincial website says. "He did not mind controversy and loved to campaign. He lived his life with passion. He was a people's priest."

The question of joining Sevre-Duszynska at the liturgy was a "real, genuine conscience problem" for him, Brennan told NCR in 2012. Before joining the liturgy, he discussed it with his provincial, Fr. Tom Lawler, who told him not to attend.

The Catholic church teaches that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood and that attempting to do so is a grave offense that results in automatic excommunication. Pope John Paul II's 1994 letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis effectively forbade discussion of the issue, saying the church's teaching on the matter was to be "definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

"I'm not trying to defy the church," Brennan said he told Lawler, adding that he saw women's ordination as a legitimate question. "Why is it that this privilege of celebrating the Mass and preaching, why is that exclusively a male privilege? Where do we get that? Isn't that worth discussing?"

"I just felt this was an earthy issue, and you can't cover it over with spiritual or authoritarian dictates," he told NCR.

"He was a remarkable man and true to his convictions and fighting till the end for social justice for immigrants and poor people all over the world," said Nancy L. Brennan, a niece of the priest.

"He is now in heaven raising holy hell with God about what is going on in the Catholic church," she told NCR.

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 12-25, 2014 print issue under the headline: Jesuit penalized for liturgy with woman priest dies.

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