ALEX GRUBER | CO-EDITOR IN CHIEF
On Monday, Nov. 20, the St. Norbert Times interviewed Father Mike Brennan ’99, O. Praem., Director of the Shrine of St. Joseph and Assistant Vocation Director for St. Norbert Abbey.
Brennan spent 11 years teaching and coaching in Catholic schools before joining the Norbertine Order in 2011 and becoming a priest in May 2017.
Brennan came to SNC this fall as a member of the College of Chaplains and a spiritual resource for SNC students.
How do you feel to be back at SNC? What has been your experience thus far?
I think of coming back home. On my first visit to campus in fall of 1994, I really knew I was home when I first set foot on campus.
What made you choose St. Norbert College as an undergraduate student?
I was looking at small Catholic colleges. I was interested in the priesthood coming out of high school. My high school principal as well as my mother recommended we visit St. Norbert College.
On my first visit, we stopped at the Mobil gas station up the road – these were pre-GPS days – and asked directions.
The next day in Admissions, I spoke about priesthood, and they set up an appointment for me with Fr. Jim Baraniak. He also made me feel like I was at home.
The Campus Ministry used to be in a house, such a welcoming environment for prospective students. Fr. Jim told me his vocation story and how joyful a priest he was.
I would say principally just the feel of the campus and the welcoming people but especially that sit-down with Fr. Jim were what was significant.
How has the college changed since you were a student here?
So many buildings have been beautifully renovated or are brand new. Much has changed in terms of physical space: Campus Ministry moving from a house to Todd Wehr Hall and becoming the Emmaus Center, for example.
The campus has only improved and gotten more beautiful. The essence of the campus and how welcoming it is [haven’t] and are why I’m happy to be back here.
When and why did you decide to join the Norbertines?
I had continued to discern priesthood and had been dating up to 2010. I was out with my girlfriend at the time and she out of the blue said, “You need to do this.”
“What?” I said.
She said, “You’re the kind of priest we need.”
By Feb. 2010, I was visiting the Congregation of Holy Cross in Notre Dame, then an Augustinian community.
Then, any former workers in Campus Ministry were invited back to SNC for a parish dinner-dance. Really being part of that dance and feeling at home made me feel that this [the Norbertines] was the right decision.
I applied to the order over the next 3-4 months, and in June they asked me to wait a year. I did a year with the Norbertine Volunteer Community: that was a very tough year, a very humbling year. I entered the Order in August of 2011.
What is your understanding of heritage and mission at St. Norbert College?
With heritage, I think a lot [about] Abbot Pennings and what he had in mind when he had a couple of young guys around the kitchen table teaching them theology and Latin.
Our roots are in preparing young men for priesthood. However, early on in our history – 1903 – we started offering commerce courses, and in the 1950s we began teaching women. Our mission has widened over time.
Of course, I think of liberal arts. We’re here to teach the whole person and give them a grounding in a lot of different disciplines and make them well-rounded people.
Of course, we’re a Catholic school. We are Catholic in that we are welcoming to all people – which is the meaning of “catholic,” universal.
I am proud that our Catholic students interested in developing their faith have so many resources to do so, even more than when I was a student. We had good opportunities then, I just think that it’s really neat that we have organizations like Frassati and Chiara, Donum Ipsum, and opportunities like adoration.
The TRIPS program was a huge part of my understanding of mission of this place – the amount of service that our students do and have done as long as I have had an association with the college. It attracted me that there was a ministry and mission component to the college.
The Norbertine identity is so much stronger now than when I was a student. There was no such thing [as a Mission and Heritage initiative] when I was a student. Celebrating who the Norbertines are, who St. Norbert is and the Norbertine ideals is much stronger.
I like how much we celebrate communio, but communio is so much bigger than the Norbertines. Communio is about the Trinity and the relationship that permeates all of Christianity.
Communio is at the core of who Norbertines are and who Christians are, and I am glad to see communio so celebrated at the college.
Why are mission and heritage important to you and to the wider college community?
In many Catholic grade schools, there’s a poster that says “The reason we exist is Jesus Christ.”
I think back to Fr. Pennings forming those students around his table. His intention was to form priests to evangelize the local population. We’re no longer a seminary, obviously, but if we are no longer attached to our original mission of Christianity – knowing who Jesus is and sharing who Jesus was with the world – we are moving away from the original mission of this place.
Catholic, liberal arts, Norbertine; if we don’t stay attached to the three core values, we will be less than who we have been called to be. It’s the essence of who we are. And if we lose our essence, then what are we?
Of course, the college and I are very open to all people being educated here. We don’t educate to convert students, but we certainly hope that our Catholic-Christian education here has a positive impact on whoever comes here.
Where or how would you like to see heritage or mission incorporated into St. Norbert College in the coming year and years?
I think the Gateway program is a big step in the right direction in emphasizing our mission and heritage.
I would invite us to become more comfortable with sign of the cross at certain prayers. I would invite us to become more comfortable with having crosses and even crucifixes in classrooms.
These are outward symbols, of course. The spirit of openness and education should remain. They are not the end-all-be-all of who we are, but being a little more public with our Catholic Christianity is an idea that should be explored.
What do you see as your role on campus?
I’d say ministry of presence more than anything else.
I’m in a very centrally located spot. Students are getting more comfortable stopping in, and I’m glad about that.
I try to be at sporting events, prayer events – I try to be present. It’s been a ministry of deep listening, and that’s the most humbling part of my ministry so far – just the opportunity to sit and listen to the vulnerabilities of our students, that they know that I’m a person they can trust.
I’m overwhelmed by how much the Holy Spirit has been able to work in and through me and by how much trust I’ve been granted by faculty, staff, and particularly by students.
What is most enjoyable or affirming about your work so far?
I love getting up and coming to campus every single day. There are some days that are really tough because I deal with some heavy stuff, but I don’t feel like I’m working.
My life is so different than the life of a teacher or coach – those lives were so scheduled. Every single day is different. I have a lot of flexibility in what my days look like, but they’re structured enough that I’m never doing nothing.
It’s hard to name a single aspect that I enjoy most. Being invited into the vulnerabilities into our brothers and sisters here on campus is probably one.
And also the sacramental ministry – it has been really, really grace-filled, more so than I even anticipated. Hearing confessions, anointing of the sick, sitting down with couples going to be married, baptisms.
The moments of sitting and listening [with students] are equally grace-filled, because those are sacramental moments, too.
What is your favorite meal at the caf thus far?
I probably go to Brent at the Wellness station most often. I love the caf – period. It’s a hundred times better than when I was a student, and it was good then.
My favorite part of the caf is giving Chef Brent a hard time.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Our students need to know that they’re loved. Even in the moments when they don’t feel loved by anybody, I hope they can remember that they are loved by God, they’re loved by this community, they’re loved by family and friends.
And I hope that 20 years from now, they’ll be able to say, “I love that place. It’s my home.”
The St. Norbert Times thanks Fr. Mike sincerely for taking the time to speak with us and for sharing his thoughts and presence with us and the college community.