Father Joe Breighner

Dec 10, 2017 by

Father Joe Breighner

Father Joe Breighner uses his wit to spread the word of God The Populist Priest…


December 21, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

On the second Sunday of Advent, the Church of the Annunciation in Rosedale is filled with more than 300 parishioners for the 10:30 a.m. folk mass. Most are here for one reason: to hear the corny humor and self-effacing wisdom of the Rev. Joseph F. Breighner.

Father Breighner, an itinerant priest whose radio show and weekly newspaper column have made him a local phenomenon, doesn’t disappoint the crowd.

Standing before the pulpit, he cracks a couple of jokes about holiday weight gain to warm up his audience. His head bobs, Big Bird-like. He wrings his hands in apology for excruciating puns. And then, Father Breighner segues into his homily, a meditation on waiting.

“There is a God in each of us,” he explains. Just as a pregnant woman dotes on herself in order to nurture the babywithin, “we take care of ourselves, we don’t loathe ourselves.” And thus, “We give birth to God,” he says.

After Mass, the 49-year-old priest is surrounded by fans.

Parishioner Shirley George, 38, of Rosedale, carries a copy of his new book, “Father Joe: A Year of Wit, Wisdom & Warmth” so he can autograph it for her. The newly separated mother of two has just started her own business, and depends on Father Breighner’s spiritual guidance. “He’s such a help with keeping my sanity,” Ms. George says.

Another Rosedale parishioner, Edna Jones, credits him with “reaching the hearts and minds of the men in our lives. So many men won’t come to church because they have to sit still. When Father Joe conducts Mass, they aren’t fidgeting. He makes them laugh. He says things that are human. He’s not stuffy.”

With a bottomless store of jokes, anecdotes, parables, spiritual citations, self-help adages and homespun homilies, Father Joe Breighner has become the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s populist priest, with a congregation that cuts across parish, generational and class boundaries. Though he has ruffled some feathers in the Catholic hierarchy with his support for the ordination of women and marriage of priests, he remains immensely popular with Catholics of every theological stripe.

His book, a newly published collection of columns written for the archdiocese’s weekly newspaper, the Catholic Review, is selling briskly through the archdiocese and local bookstores.

His WPOC (93-FM) radio show, “Country Roads,” which twins inspirational thoughts with country music tunes, is syndicated on 100 stations around the country.

His workshops that minister to the widowed and the divorced inevitably sell out.

And when Father Breighner offers Mass, pews overflow with worshipers drawn to the plain-spoken priest with the humorous spirit and embarrassed manner. Think Red Skelton in magenta vestments.

‘He is really different’

“In a world that’s become totally vanilla, he is really different,” says Andrew Ciofalo, a Loyola College professor and board member of the Catholic Review, who describes Father Breighner as a “national phenomenon waiting to happen.”

For Father Breighner, such acclaim would have been impossible to imagine 40 years ago, when he was a solemn, nearsighted child from a fractured Essex family.

“I see Joe almost as an embodiment of Christ himself,” says his older sister, Helen Eder. “Christ taught a very simple message. That’s what Joe does. He has a great, great following mostly among the little people because they understand what he’s saying. Sometimes the very learned tend to complicate things.”

Father Breighner was the youngest of four siblings, abandoned by their father at his birth. His mother worked punishing hours as a waitress, and the Breighner children often had to fend for themselves.

Joe Breighner “always felt he should be able to fix things for Mother and for our family,” Mrs. Eder says. “Of course, that wasn’t a possibility. He was the baby.

From the beginning, Joe, shy and disenfranchised, identified with the underdog.

“My favorite Oriole was Chuck Diering,” Father Breighner says. “I liked him because he wasn’t any good.”

He also identified with an underdog named Jesus Christ. “Looking back and seeing where God was, it was so clear. Out of broke-ness and poverty, came a wonderful gift,” Father Breighner says.

The one constant in the Breighners’ lives was Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Eastern Avenue, where the children attended school and their mother sang in the choir, played the organ at Sunday Mass and helped run the Altar Society.

Although she would not come out and say it — “she expected her children to be able to read her mind,” Mrs. Eder says — Mary Breighner made it clear that she would be very proud if her youngest son entered the priesthood.

Entering the seminary

At 14, he fulfilled his mother’s dreams, entering St. Charles Seminary, currently the site of Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville.

“It validated Mother’s life,” Mrs. Eder says. “The fact that she had persevered and produced a child who would become a priest, that was a marvelous blessing to her.”

Father Breighner spent his last two years of college at St. Mary’s Seminary on Paca Street and went on to St. Mary’s Seminary in Roland Park. He was ordained in 1971 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

Soon, Father Breighner began writing a column for the Catholic Review. From the beginning, he generated an ardent readership with his words of comfort, guidance and sly humor. (One tongue-in-cheek column on inviting priests to dinner advises: “While comparison with God is always commendable, occasionally comparison with one of the apostles is acceptable. For example, ‘Father, you remind me of James the Less.’ “)

In 1976, WPOC invited Father Breighner to participate in an ecumenical broadcast with other clergy. The production quickly evolved into “Country Roads,” his own half-hour program that finds wisdom in the songs of Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and other country stars.

Syndicated by Paulist Communications, the program generates a stream of grateful letters, from the man in Montana slapped with a restraining order, to the Californian who thought twice about suicide after tuning in, to the divorced woman in Chicago working two jobs to make ends meet.

Out of a job

After associate pastor assignments at the Shrine of the Little Flower in Baltimore and St. Charles Borromeo Church in Pikesville, Father Breighner became coordinator of evangelization outreach for the Baltimore Archdiocese in 1979. In that capacity, he sought to gather people into the fold by “convincing them of their goodness,” he says. But by 1989, when the division was restructured, he was out of a job.

Father Breighner knew he wanted to continue the work of evangelization, “of [making] God believable.” That was where his strengths lay, he says.

Though it is customary for a priest to be assigned to a parish, the archdiocese has allowed him to continue spreading God’s word through the column, radio program, missions, workshops, lectures and counseling sessions. Modest stipends from these various jobs pay his room and board at the Cathedral rectory.

In its steadfast simplicity, the message Father Breighner brings to his scattered flock occasionally clashes with church dogma.

‘I don’t write people off’

He reaches out to loyal Catholics who feel that divorce has alienated them from the church. He also believes that women should be ordained as priests and that priests should be allowed to marry.

Although opposed to abortion, Father Breighner tries to help women who have had one “give up their child’s life to God,” in order to heal their psychic pain.

“Every oppositional stance comes from identifying with the pain” of “good people hurt by church teaching,” Father Breighner says. “I don’t write people off.”

At times, Father Breighner has been politely warned when his columns have stepped beyond opinions acceptable to the archdiocese. But the hierarchy does not view him as an ideological renegade.

“He is genuine, honest and straightforward,” says Dr. Ronald Valenti, secretary of Catholic education and superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. “There are no hidden agendas.”

In fact, says Daniel Medinger, editor of the Catholic Review, “It’s amazing to me that the appeal [Father Breighner] has is among a lot of very traditional, conservative Catholics. Somehow he has found a way to bridge what is a political gap in our church between left and right, conservative and liberal.”

He also encourages Catholics to look for common ground with Jews, sprinkling his columns and sermons with anecdotes about rabbis and references to the Holocaust. “You can’t be a Christian without knowing your roots,” he explains.

And then, there is a delightfully frivolous side to Father Breighner. More than anything, he loves to shop.

On a trip chartered by the Catholic Review to the Holy Land last summer, “He was always the guy we were looking for when we were trying to get back on the bus,” Mr. Ciofalo says. “He was buying trinkets for all of his friends back in Baltimore. Bags and bags of stuff he wanted to give away when he got back.”

A simple life

Father Breighner doesn’t need much himself. His single room at the rectory is cluttered with books, tapes and writing materials and decorated simply with religious pictures and family photos,” says his brother-in-law, Mike Eder.

This Sunday, when his Christmas responsibilities are finished, Father Breighner will drive to the Eders’ home in Bel Air.

“That’s when he’s really at his best,” Mr. Eder says. He will have “something special for everybody,” and will tumble joyfully with the Eders’ grandchildren.

“Joe is the happiest now that I’ve ever known him to be,” Helen Eder says. “I’ve come to think that his being a priest is exactly what he should be. . . . Up until [Mother] died, it was mainly for her. In the years that have passed, it was for him, too.”


Here are several excerpts from “Father Joe: A Year of Wit, Wisdom & Warmth.”

A soap opera lover’s prayer: “O God, ‘As the World Turns,’ help us to remember that you have said, you are ‘All My Children.’ As your children, we ask you to be our ‘Guiding Light’ whether we live in ‘Santa Barbara’ or spend time in a ‘General Hospital.’ Since we have only ‘One Life to Live,’ may we realize that life does not belong to ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ or ‘The Days of Our Lives.’ Bless us through all ‘Generations’ and lead us to ‘Another World’ with you. Amen.

Father Breighner’s eulogy for his mother: “My mother died with so few possessions that it would break the heart of the worst scrooge. My mom spent her life giving herself away instead of storing things up. Even in death she gave away her eyes. Yet my mother died with a treasure that a king or emperor or pharaoh would have envied. She died with a wealth of friends. She died in the friendship of people who had known her most of her life or for only a few years or weeks or days.”

On loneliness: “We need to learn the art of creating new ‘families’ wherever we are. We need another model for men and women to interact with each other, other than the sexual model. It is not by accident that the United States is the loneliest nation on earth. We often isolate ourselves from others and then expect our spouse to meet all of our needs. When he or she is not able to be all things to us, we often become frustrated.”

On power and powerlessness: “The powerlessness of an infant and the powerlessness of the cross let us know that love was the only power Jesus shared because love was the only power he had. It is only when we love each other and allow ourselves to be loved by each other and by God, that pain is overcome, that defeat turns to victory and death becomes life. Had Jesus been a god of imperial power, no doubt he would have chosen to be born in imperial Rome. The church, which sometimes exerts imperial power, chose to settle in Rome. Therein lies much of the tension between a powerless god and a powerful church.”

Article written:
December 21, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

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