Below is the text of the homily Bishop George Thomas of Las Vegas delivered at the funeral Mass for Archbishop Emeritus Alexander J. Brunett February 12 at St. James Cathedral in Seattle.
Today, we lay to rest a man who was complex and multifaceted; a man who served the church for six decades as a priest, pastor and archbishop; a man whose life story is not well known within the church or to the public at large.
Archbishop Alex J. Brunett was a veritable study in contrast, a living conundrum, a man who was seemingly extroverted yet painfully shy, rough-hewn yet cultured, humorous and ponderous, thick-skinned and vulnerable, conciliatory while contentious, personally frugal yet generous beyond description.
He was a walking enigma, one who served the church selflessly and well in the Archdiocese of Detroit, the Diocese of Helena, and in this archdiocese, with considerable responsibility in the life of the universal church.
It was the Romantic poet William Wordsworth who once opined, “The Child is father of the Man.” To best understand this archbishop, it is both wise and even necessary to turn the clock back for a brief glimpse into the Brunett family home, as described by the archbishop himself.
Alexander Joseph was born on January 17, 1934. He hailed from a family of 14 children, the second child of Raymond Henry Brunett and Cecilia Una Gill.
He was born in the long shadow of the Great Depression, a time when unemployment was endemic, dollars scarce, and the promises of the New Deal for “Relief, Reform, and Recovery” had yet to materialize.
Alex’s father Raymond was a plumber by trade, a poet by nature, and a humorist at heart. He was described by his son as a loving father, a savvy and self-educated man, optimistic and observant, self-effacing and self-sacrificing, accustomed to long hours of backbreaking labor, with little time for rest or rejuvenation.
His mother Cecilia was a faith-filled woman, joyful and intelligent, able to stretch a dollar far enough to feed a gaggle of hungry mouths. She was a woman who immersed herself fully into the vocation of motherhood, filling the modest Brunett home with the riches of love, laughter, music and grace.
As the numbers of Brunett children increased exponentially, “two roads diverged” before young Alex.
At an early age he chose the “road less traveled,” rejecting any hint of self-pity or entitlement. By the age of 10, he had become fiercely independent and entrepreneurial. While still in elementary school, he had discovered that his intellect and intuition, coupled with native street smarts and pugnacity, allowed him to both make money and wind his way through the rough and tumble streets of blue-collar Detroit.
While his parents were unable to provide him with many material benefits, they gave him and his siblings a solid foundation in life — belief in self, a survivor mentality, a single-minded love for Christ and the church, and the capacity not only to dream, but dream big, and to respond to the promptings of God’s grace with courage and conviction.
The poet William Butler Yeats wrote words that captured poetically what young Alex Brunett discovered a tender age. He wrote, “But I, being poor, have only my dreams … [therefore] tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.” Alex Brunett let no one tread on his dreams.
As a youngster, Alex was deeply influenced by the priests in his home parish of St. Ambrose, giving verity to Albert Schweitzer’s adage that “Example is not the main thing in life; it is the only thing.” The example of his parish priests had a profound influence on this boy, and during those elementary school years, Alex’s vocation to priesthood was awakened and came to life.
Yet, as an aspiring seminarian, his parents were unable to afford the steep costs associated with a seminary boarding school education, then normative in the Archdiocese of Detroit. And so Alex pursued his dreams the only way he knew.
Driven by sheer tenacity and self-motivation, he rode a city bus for 90 minutes one way in the predawn hours of urban Detroit. His days were filled with the rigors of academic and spiritual formation, followed by another lengthy commute home. After long hours of homework and little sleep, he repeated the routine day after day, year after year, never taking his eyes off his goal of priestly ordination.
During those pivotal years, something miraculous happened in the heart of this young man. He was received tenderly by a second Mother, a surrogate Mother as it were, described by the sainted Pope John XXIII in personal and endearing language. “[The church is] Mother and Teacher,” he wrote, “giving life to her children and teaching them and guiding them … with maternal care.” (Mater et Magistra 1)
Alex learned to love Holy Mother Church tenderly. She was loving and supportive in the springtime of his vocation. But she was also demanding, unrelenting and indefatigable.
The Gospel of St. Luke has it that “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48). It was the second Mother who recognized his uncommon gifts, untapped potential and unrivalled perseverance.
In 1955, the Archdiocese of Detroit sent this poor day student to the prestigious North American College in Rome, opening new doors and new opportunities to a young man with a single-minded quest for priestly life and ministry.
It was during those years in Rome that Alex Brunett developed his deep and lifelong love for the Eucharist, a lasting affection for the See of Peter, expansive knowledge of the universal church, theological acumen, a facility for foreign language, a cosmopolitan outlook, a highly refined palate, and a penchant for Cuban cigars.
On July 13, 1958, Alex was ordained to the priesthood by Luigi Cardinal Traglia — one of the youngest priests presented for ordination that year in the city of Rome.
Following ordination, Father Brunett was assigned to serve the people of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Detroit, where he got his first taste of parish life and became immersed in ordinary cares of pastoral ministry. But the assignment was short lived.
Once again, his surrogate Mother recognized uncommon gifts and aptitudes in the newly ordained priest, and placed a new set of demands on his shoulders.
That year, the newly minted priest was instructed by his cardinal to enroll at the University of Detroit to secure a master’s degree in secondary school administration. And no sooner had he secured that diploma, he was directed to apply for advanced studies in theology at Milwaukee’s Marquette University.
While still in studies, Father Brunett was deputed by Cardinal Dearden to serve as a theological advisor to the archdiocese, with a specific mandate to help the cardinal put into practice the emerging teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
Father Brunett helped draft a catalytic document entitled “Synod/69,” guidelines for the Archdiocese of Detroit — a response to the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. It was a pivotal project that both informed and transformed his priestly vocation forever.
In 1972, following a brief appointment as academic dean at St. John’s Provincial Seminary, Father Brunett was once again faced with a new and unexpected challenge.
The cardinal appointed Father Brunett to assist him in responding to the ecumenical and interfaith needs of his archdiocese, appointing Father Brunett as the archdiocesan ecumenical officer, an interest that remained with him for the rest of his life. In preparation for this office, he entered postgraduate studies in Israel, France and Germany, which immersed him in the traditions of the Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim religions, and exposed him to the worlds of Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Upon his return from this worldwide junket, the archbishop of Detroit coupled Father Brunett’s ecumenical duties with a second full-time assignment. He was appointed pastor to St. Aidan’s Parish, in Livonia, Michigan, where he honed his pastoral skills and built a new church while still leading the archdiocese on the unforged paths of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. That appointment lasted 18 years.
From 1991 to 1994, then-Monsignor Brunett was transferred to his final pastoral assignment in the Archdiocese of Detroit, serving as pastor at the famed Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan. While at the shrine, Monsignor Brunett received news that changed the course of his life forever.
On July 6, 1994, Alexander Joseph Brunett became the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Helena, Montana, where he cut his teeth as America’s newest baby bishop. He traversed the 52,000 miles of the Diocese of Helena, exercising a ministry already familiar to him as pastor and teacher.
In the Diocese of Helena, he was received with admiration and affection as friend to the Blackfeet Nation, shepherd to the farming and ranching communities, and advocate for working class families living and laboring in western Montana. But the assignment too was short-lived.
On October 28 of 1997, Bishop Brunett was confronted with a new and more complicated challenge, when Pope John II appointed him as the archbishop of Seattle. He was installed in this cathedral on December 18 of the same year.
He entered an archdiocese that was still in mourning, following the early retirement of Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen and the untimely death Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy. It was a church struggling to regain its equilibrium after a decade of tension, tumult and uncertainty.
Archbishop Brunett initiated his ministry by doing what came naturally — logging highway miles and meeting his priests and parishioners in the archdiocese’s highly diverse deaneries. He listened attentively to his people with the heart of a seasoned pastor.
He quickly recognized and affirmed the vitality of the church of Seattle, with its reputation for having a gifted and spirited clergy, a well-formed laity, energetic pastoral programs, collaborative ministry, innovative planning, and a commitment to shared responsibility, all values born in the heart of Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen.
Initially cautious, if not reticent, he quickly applauded the vitality of the church he was deputed to lead.
Quietly and without explanation, the newly appointed archbishop of Seattle directed new energy and resources to particular areas without explanation or consultation.
In light of his personal history of childhood poverty and economic struggle, we can now understand why certain programs and pastoral initiatives became the beneficiaries of his pastoral care and special attention.
It began with the quiet work of Sister Sharon Park, O.P., at the Washington State Catholic Conference. In no short order, the archbishop did all in his power to embrace and advance her apostolate as she ministered among legislative power brokers in the halls of Olympia. Here was a pivotal place where church advocacy could assist struggling families and underserved children through benevolent and humane legislation. In light of his own personal history of struggle, and because of the quiet competence he encountered in Sister Sharon, the conference occupied a very special place in the archbishop’s heart until his dying day.
So too, he publicly and proudly affirmed the tireless work of Michael Reichert, Irene Ward, Rosemary Zilmer, and a cast of hundreds serving in Catholic Community Services (CCS) and the Archdiocesan Housing Authority.
The Seattle Times reported that on Archbishop Brunett’s watch, CCS served more than 10 million meals to the hungry, provided 2.2 million nights of emergency shelter, opened 1,101 new units of affordable housing, and offered 21 million hours of service to the elderly and disabled.
Former Washington Governor Gary Locke called CCS “the conscience of Washington state.” In word and deed, CCS proclaimed loudly and clearly that there are no throwaway people, no cast-aside souls, and no second-class citizens. This is why Archbishop Brunett blessed and affirmed their efforts, describing CCS as the very embodiment of the Gospel made visible in our midst.
Archbishop Brunett also homed in on the Catholic schools in the archdiocese, appointing a line of gifted leaders as superintendent, including Sister Joyce Cox, B.V.M., Bishop Joseph Tyson, and Father Steve Rowan, to serve alongside a vast array of skilled teachers and administrators.
Recall that the Catholic schools of Detroit had served as the archbishop’s own passport from poverty and the doorway to his hopes and dreams. He lived and died as a devotee of Catholic schools. Through his brainchild, the Fulcrum Foundation, and the visionary work of Father Steve Rowan, Archbishop Brunett has ensured that schools in this archdiocese will remain solvent, accessible and affordable for generations to come.
Throughout his years of leadership in this archdiocese, he presided over a rapidly changing church, where new waves of immigrants were arriving daily in the Pacific Northwest. They were welcomed and celebrated with joy by a diverse and hospitable archdiocese. The appointment of Bishop Eusebio Elizondo was a special sign of the archbishop’s affirmation and love of every people, every nation, every culture that constitute the rich and colorful tapestry of this local church called the Archdiocese of Seattle.
Finally, during the busy days in this archdiocese, the archbishop still found time for significant work in the international arena of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. He remained deeply engaged in Jewish-Roman Catholic dialogue, Roman Catholic-Methodist dialogue, and also served as co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. During the years I served alongside him, he frequently quoted the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict, that “there will be no peace among the nations until there is peace among the great religions.” That was the driving force behind the archbishop’s dedicated ecumenical efforts.
Throughout his active ministry, Archbishop Brunett set a high standard for himself, and expected as much from others as he did from himself.
Angela Kison, Penny Howell, Fran Lembo, Kirk Altenhofen, Dennis O’Leary, Mary Santi, the late Mike Patterson, John Hempelmann and scores of lay friends and confidants added quality and meaning to his life, never giving up on him when the going got rough, and never turning away from him when the future grew uncertain.
Nearly seven years ago, as he entered into a well-deserved retirement, a new and heavy burden was placed upon the archbishop’s shoulders. He was stricken with a debilitating stroke which limited his mobility, radically altered his life, and made this highly independent individual entirely dependent on the care of others.
Somehow, inexplicably, except by grace, he bore this burden with equanimity and peace, never once complaining, but only finding ways to speak about the liberation that comes to every soul who accepts the weight of the cross.
The Gospel of Matthew, proclaimed today, was written for him in his hour of need: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
Each day, Archbishop Brunett was a living witness to the power and the beauty of redemptive suffering.
Among the many theologians and writers the archbishop admired most was the newly canonized John Henry Cardinal Newman. Newman wrote words that might have been penned for this archbishop in the final days of his life: “May [God] support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in His mercy may He give us safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last!”
Now, as we prepare to lay our friend to rest, we ask our Blessed Lord to free him from every burden, reward him for his endeavors, forgive him of his faults and failures, and grant him that blessed reward promised to those who serve the Lord faithfully and well.
Let him hear those words reserved for those who have served the Lord faithfully and well. “Well done my good and faithful servant. … Come, share your Master’s joy.” Amen.