My morning with Frank Brennan


Sat down in the shocking broad sunlight recently, at the edge of a dense copse of trees, and fell into riveting conversation with the estimable Father Frank Brennan, of the Society of Jesus and of the Order of Australia.

But this delicious sunlight was in Oregon, not Canberra, the usual Brennanesque haunt, and the trees were Douglas firs, not gums and wattles, so you would think Frank would be out of his element, but this was not so, which seems worthy of note for Eureka Street readers, who may not have heard Frank in full flow, which I have, and which I do not think I will forget in this life.

So here is some of what we talked about, for entertainment and perhaps inspiration and meditation.

He talked about George Cardinal Pell's absolute personal charm being wedded harrumphingly to a peculiarly confrontational public style, and I talked about how the best spiritual leaders I have met are either remarkably liable to humour, such as the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, or absolutely devoted to working for others and not talking about it, such as Australia's first saint, Mary MacKillop, and the Congregation of Holy Cross's first saint, Brother Andre Bessette of Montreal, who couldn't read and was a door porter his whole career.

He talked about Australia's history with assisted suicide, and his quiet worry about the looming possibility of euthanasia in his native land in the near future, and I talked about Oregon's history with assisted suicide, which was voted into law in 1994, reaffirmed in 1997, and affirmed as legal by the United States Supreme Court in 2007, although only 460 terminally ill Oregonians have killed themselves by physician-prescribed medications since 1997, an average of 34 annually.

He talked about not being a particularly fanatic footy fan, despite the Collingwood Magpies cap he carried with him, as he had been a Brisbane boy before football invaded from the south and tried to impinge on rugby's sway in Queensland, and I talked about having been dragooned into being a Geelong Cats fan by none other than the late Senator John Button, by whose side I chanced to see my very first footy game ever, and so was lured into the blue and white for life, a mixed blessing.

Frank, grinning, presented me with his Pies cap, which I cannot bring myself to wear, feeling that the Senator somehow will notice and be dismayed.

We talked about Australian laws and culture and history and attitudes and apologies as regards First Australians, and Kevin Rudd's apology, which I find enormously moving and which Frank assured me was indeed written mostly by Rudd himself, and the issue of compensation, which Frank considers a separate item as yet from the necessary and moral primacy of apology, and the rise of National Sorry Day, which is unfortunately titled but a lovely gesture, and the crucial roles that Patrick Dodson and Michael Long and Vincent Lingiari have played in negotiating respect and reconciliation between black and white Australia, and I talked about how it seems to me that athletic and musical artists are often the most effective messengers from the future, perhaps because their messages lean less on words than image and memory, so that a Cathy Freeman or a Paul Kelly or a Neil Murray are more effective in changing hearts and opinions than any gaggle of senators or inertia of commissions.

We talked about health care, and about the prospects of re-election for young Mr Barack Obama of Hawaii, and about the way that John Howard held the coattails of George Bush as a hedge against a looming China, and about the day that he, Frank Brennan of the Order of Australia, went to church in Atlanta, at the church where the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King once preached before being shot in the right temple for his temerity in saying that racism was stupid and a sin.

The Reverend was right, said Frank quietly, and right about then it was time for me to go, which I did, gingerly carrying my Magpies cap and the memory of a riveting conversation with an Australian who seems to me one of the great men you have in your country. I could be wrong, but I don't think so. 

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. 

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, Frank Brennan, Cardinal George Pell, Oregon, Cathy Freeman, Vincent Lingiari, Paul Kelly



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Existing comments

I don't usually like reading eulogies about anyone who is still alive but I really enjoyed Brian Doyle's record of his conversation with Frank Brennan. I suspect I am prejudiced in favour of both the recorder and the recordee because their surnames bespeak some Irish influence in their genes.

Both men use words to offer perspective, insight, understanding and vision.
I have heard Fr Brennan preach and use his way with words to bring consolation, comfort, encouragement and hope.
I believe St Ignatius had some difficulty in getting Papal approval to have his fledgling religious order named The Society of Jesus.

None of the previous great orders, the Augustinians, the Benedictines, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, dared to claim the holy name of their divine model and inspiration.

But for an activist order like he had in mind Ignatius felt that his little company of God's commandoes should wear the epaulette of Jesus, the Word made flesh. In him speaking and acting were one.
So, it seems to me, is the case with Rev Frank Brennan, SJ, OA.
Uncle Pat | 22 June 2011

Very true Brian ,any of us having however minimal connection with father Frank ,are truely blessed .I might re-interate words I suggested at his Silver Jubilee celebration ,"Frank & father Steve & fellow Jesuits represent a " Church of Christ "& not a " church of ratzinger " or " church of pell ".Since then how that gap has become a chasm by their treatment of our amazingly Christian Bishop,Shepherd , Bill Morris .
John Kersh | 22 June 2011

An entire morning and only 11 full stops (or periods, as Americans call them). I would have needed CPR.
DavidB | 22 June 2011

I've not met Frank Brennan but find his writings interesting, inspirational and hopeful. He is aware of the dangers to the Church inherent in the intense conservatism of the church hierarchy.

In my opinion, for what it's worth, he writes as an intelligent, knowledgeable, progressive and compassionate priest.

Having studied the issue of euthanasia, I agree with Brennan's concern. Apart from other arguments,it takes no account of the common good, being based on the personal rights only of those competent to make decisions.

The problem which presently exists in Australia, though, is that people, understandably, are afraid of how they might die and know they are dependent on what doctors decide. Doctors differ in the decisions they make. There is also much confusion about what euthanasia means.

Surely it could be made mandatory that when people are in the process of dying they can be assured they will not die in pain or distress. This upholds what many doctors now practise and which is acceptable to the Church but makes it binding. Such a policy, especially if widely and carefully explained to the public, would be likely to undermine the forceful efforts to legalise euthanasia.
Maureen Strazzari | 22 June 2011

In terms of the harm done to the victim, euthanasia is at the zero end of the scale of killings, while abortion, which deprives its victims of a whole lifetime, is at the maximum end. But, as Maureen Ztrazzari implies, the real evil of euthanasia (if we disregard the offence to God) is the harm its acceptance does to the common good.
Gavan | 22 June 2011

"Elitist Catholics of late have widened their scope [ lost focus more like] to being champions of “Human Rights”.

In Oz, one Father Frank Brennan is heading up the “National Human Rights Consultation Committee” whose conclusions were opposed by his (our) own Cardinal George Pell.

In Catholic schools students aren’t taught so much about God and the necessity of the Mass, or other such anachronisms of Faith, but rather the new idol, “Social Justice.” These teachings are a heresy but are promulgated nevertheless. Young Catholics have all the enthusiasm of young Catholics of old and are channeling that energy into nation wrecking activities. Of that you can be sure."

Catholics, as Dennis has noted, were rightly treated warily in the past by WASPs because orthodox Catholicism *is* chauvinist. It necessarily must be so. The Catholic mandate was to spread the Word throughout the world,

i firmly believe the thrice defined doctrine that outside the Church, there is no salvation. I think priests like Fr. Frank Brennan should be busy trying to convert souls to the one true Faith so as to save as many as possible from the fires of Hell.

If all of the world became true Catholics, embracing the orthodoxy of the Faith, "social justice" would automatically follow. It is important for all of us to know, love and serve God.It is a great charity to brings souls to the true Catholic Faith and must be practiced by all religious and laity. I have not read much of Fr. Brennan's work to convert anyone to the orthodox Catholic faith in order to save souls.

“A man was beaten up by robbers on a road to London. He lay there, half dead and in bad shape. A Vicar came along, saw him and passed by on the other side. Next, a monk came by but also walked quickly on the other side. Finally, a social worker came along, looked at the man and said “Whoever did this needs help!”

Rather than work for Human Rights, wouldn't we be all better served by working for God's Rights and saving souls to Heaven.

Trent | 22 June 2011

Brian: You are not wrong. Frank Brennan is many things, and great is one of them.
Christine Hogan | 22 June 2011

Trent, you say: “I firmly believe the thrice defined doctrine that outside the Church, there is no salvation.” I need to inform you that your view is heretical. It’s known as Feeneyism (after the American Jesuit Feeney who wrongly taught this simplistic statement). For example, Vatican II teaches that “the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church”.
Frank Brennan SJ | 22 June 2011

Brian is right about Frank Brennan, and Trent is wrong in saying teachings about social justice are heresy. Trent, they just aren't. Try reading Re Sollicitudo Socialis.
Joan Seymour | 22 June 2011

I agree with Trent 100 per cent God bless you Trent.
Ron Cini | 22 June 2011

OH TRENT. Normally I confine myself to positive comments to the author of the article. On this occasion I wish to pose these questions to Trent:

Are you so called because your theology is Tridentine? Have you read Leo X111 'Rerum Novarum'? Have you read John XX111 'Mater et Magistra'? Have you read Paul Vi 'Populorum Progressio'? or Vatican 11 'Gaudium et Spes'? Remember that Jesus is God incarnate: that's how much God cares for we humans in our everyday situations. So remember Matthew chapter 25 'Blessed are you for when I was hungry....' To quote you, admittedly with a twist, 'If all the world became true Catholics'...then they would do so attracted by those who live Jesus words: 'Love one another as I have loved you.'
Ern Azzopardi | 22 June 2011


Second Catholic priest in Rome affirms Cantate Domino, Council of Florence, on extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation)

A second priest in Rom within a few weeks affirms Cantate Domino, Council of Florence pointing out that there is no baptism of desire that we can personally know of.

A Rossiminian priest from South India Fr.George Puthoor said yesterday, Sunday morning, that there is no baptism of desire that we can know of.

He was speaking with me at the Basilica Santi Ambrogio e Carlo, Via del Corso, Rome where he was to offer Holy Mass in Italian at 12 p.m on Trinity Sunday.He gave me permission to quote him on this blog.

Since the cases of non-Catholic saved with the baptism of desire or in invincible ignorance are de facto unknown to us and can only be accepted in principle it does not contradict the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus he observed.

If there is no case of the baptism of desire or implicit faith that we know of then Vatican Council II does not contradict the dogma Cantate Domino.

Lionel Andrades | 23 June 2011


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