Some will say that West Virginia’s new Catholic bishop came out of nowhere. The pope’s selection of Baltimore auxiliary bishop, Mark E. Brennan, was a surprise to Vatican observers who look for patterns in papal appointments as if they were tea leaves.
Brennan, who introduced himself Tuesday in Wheeling, was off their radar screen. Pope Francis made him a bishop only in 2016 at an unusually advanced age for an appointment. At 72, he is one of the oldest priests to be named to an open seat in the United States in recent memory. He speaks Spanish and passable French, languages rarely uttered among West Virginia’s 75,000 or so Catholics. He is a graduate of Brown University, an Ivy League institution about as remote from St. Peter parish in Welch as you can get.
Yet, a man of his profile makes sense, in the wake of the fiscal and moral lapses of his predecessor, Michael J. Bransfield.
Brennan is surely a contrast. He is known to be pastoral, quiet, plain-speaking, abstemious. He enjoyed a long career as a simple parish priest, toiling in the fields, as they used to say. Brennan served a number of churches in Washington, D.C., before he was made a bishop for Baltimore. He seems to be fit and healthy. He will be able to travel the lengths of our mountains and valleys to visit its 100 parishes and its scores of scattered missions, chapels, schools and institutions, a regimen that Bransfield could not sustain.
Among the Catholic hierarchy in the world, or even the United States, a vacancy in and then appointment to a rural bishropic normally would be a yawner. But the diocese has been roiled with revelations of a pattern of Bransfield’s moral and fiscal misconduct. Last Friday, after nine months of investigation into the matter, the pope issued a stark decree of exile of the state’s former bishop who, at least for the time, may not live here.
Adding to this mix of institutional woe and personal defect, many outsiders, including reporters from The Washington Post, were shocked to discover something that, for decades, has been well known to the regular Mountaineer Mass-goer. The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, unimaginably, is one of the wealthiest in the nation, endowed by a New York heiress who, more than a century ago, gave the state’s stately, British-born bishop untapped Texas oil land that soon would finance the Church’s spectacular growth in the 20th century.
The diocese’s largesse is eye-popping. But its existence isn’t exactly news.
The bequest of Sara Tracy is fascinating to outsiders, all the more because West Virginia is a poor state, as they like to remind us with regularity. It is true that there probably has been no larger gift in the state’s history to any religious or charitable institution, including to the ubiquitous Benedum Foundation of Pittsburgh that is mostly devoted to West Virginia philanthropy.
They call the diocese’s temporal wealth unusual, but I don’t know why it should be rated as such. Money, even lots of it, is just money. For a church, it is only useful when it is deployed to evangelize, to illuminate, to heal and to feed and clothe people, as its founder, Jesus, commanded. For Catholics, money should be only notable when it is misspent.
Money confers no status on Catholics because of its existence, and it shouldn’t. Money can tempt anyone, including a Catholic bishop, to improper ends. It is bet-worthy to predict that Bishop Brennan will not succumb to its wiles.
His concerns, as he stated with direct simplicity in Wheeling, are the diocese’s spiritual health. In that department, Brennan is being handed a bouquet. They who claim to be Catholics in West Virginia remain a pretty hardy bunch, perhaps because it is counter-cultural to be so. Being an adherent in West Virginia, only 3 percent or 4 percent Catholic, isn’t exactly a path to social stature. Brennan should be grateful that, at least until recent events, regular Mass attendance in West Virginia was much higher than in many larger, more Catholic regions.
But recent events also have come to a close. What the now-ended Bransfield era discloses, among many things, is that the growing calls for transparency in finances and administration should be heard. As all Catholics do, those in West Virginia now more than ever deserve accountability. Yet, to be blunt, West Virginia’s Catholics, including me, have an obligation greater than the bishop’s. They need to redouble their focus on the institution’s ancient and unchanging mission, once inhered in the heart of every child: to know and to love God, to serve Him in this world and to be with Him in the next.