People of Faith - Former archbishop’s future still full of hope

  • Written by Greg Magnoni
  • Published in NW Stories
Archbishop Alexander Brunett. Photo: Stephen Brashear Archbishop Alexander Brunett. Photo: Stephen Brashear

As he continues therapy following a 2013 stroke, Archbishop Brunett looks for opportunities to serve

About half of his “parishioners” are in wheelchairs as Archbishop Emeritus Alexander Brunett preaches a homily Sunday, Dec. 21, at Aegis on Madison, an assisted living facility. Archbishop Brunett, who is a resident at the facility and himself seated in a wheelchair, is offering a reflection on Luke’s account of the Annunciation. He reminds the 11 staff people and residents gathered about “expectations, fulfillment, joy.”

“The future is filled with expectation, and we have to realize that we are the ones who have to make it happen,” he says with an emphatic nod of his head.

With the help of Father Don Perea, a hospital chaplain he ordained in 1998, Archbishop Brunett began celebrating Mass in his apartment last spring. After the second Mass celebrated there, “He said, ‘I feel like I’m able to share in the church’s prayer again,’” Father Perea remembers.

Lloyd Yates, a Catholic resident at the facility, learned of the Mass and began attending. “Lloyd was our first parishioner,” Father Perea jokes. Soon the idea of opening the liturgy to others was proposed, and Aegis agreed to let the archbishop and Father Perea use the facility’s movie theater for Sunday Mass.

Archbishop Brunett suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side while playing golf Sept. 12, 2013. After surgery and several months of intensive care and physical therapy, he moved to his current home.

Born in Detroit in 1934 and ordained in Rome in 1958, he was the eighth bishop and fourth archbishop of Seattle from 1997 to 2010. Within five years of his arrival after serving as bishop of the Diocese of Helena, Montana, he was forced to deal with a deepening economic downturn and the scandal resulting from past incidents of clergy sexual abuse.

Despite the challenges, his vision statement for the church in Western Washington, “A Future Full of Hope,” outlined an ambitious action plan and became emblematic of his episcopacy.

Although Archbishop Brunett was already nearly two years past the usual age limit for bishops when Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation in 2010, the Holy Father called him out of retirement in October 2012 and appointed him apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Oakland, where he served for more than seven months.

The archbishop was interviewed Dec. 9 by Northwest Catholic editor Greg Magnoni. The interview has been condensed and edited.

How are you feeling since your stroke?

Well, generally I feel well, but most of the time I feel kind of rundown where I need to get some more rest or sleep, or take a nap. I don’t know where all my energy has gone — I used to have a lot of energy. I don’t have that energy anymore.

How do you spend your days? What do you do?

Depends on what day it is. On Sunday we have Mass and the rest of the week I go down and have breakfast, chat with a number of people, a number of residents, and then I go to what’s called brain fitness. It is a computer program for your brain to avoid dementia — short-term memory, long-term memory. That is very important. I am faithful at doing that.

What about your physical therapy? What are you working on these days?

Some days I have a massage on my back and shoulders and usually after that I have therapy which is down in the gym they have here. This can be very intensive at times.

What kind of things do you work on there?

Mostly my feet, shifting my weight to my left leg. That seems to be the critical thing. I can’t get my weight to shift to the left leg. I don’t have the ability to stand up. The left leg can’t support me.

Do you stay in touch with your friends here in the archdiocese?

I try to. Before, I used to write a lot and answer every letter I got, but I am way behind. It’s the mechanics of it that slows me down. It frustrates me. I don’t have the mechanical ability to do those things — opening a letter, as simple as that — because my left hand is paralyzed. If I can get the use of that back again then I will be answering all the letters and acknowledging them. I am very grateful for them. I keep telling people: One of the great therapies is friendships and people that support you. The kindness of people is marvelous.

Archbishop Brunett celebrating MassArchbishop Alex J. Brunett, who turned 81 on Jan. 17, is living in Seattle, maintaining a regimen of physical therapy and celebrating Mass whenever possible. He is pictured celebrating Mass with Father Don Perea, whom the archbishop ordained in 1998. Photo: Stephen Brashear

You mentioned the Mass you celebrate here. When did you start saying Mass on Sundays?

Well, after about my second month here I realized, here I was sitting in my room on Sunday morning while a lot of priests are doing two or three Masses. They had no religious service here, so with the help of Father Don Perea, who works in the hospitals, we decided to give it a try.

Do you get out from time to time and do liturgies in other places?

If I can work it into my schedule and coordinate it with the transportation here. I like doing those things — it is very difficult, but I enjoy doing it. I went to the ordination [of Fathers Dean Mbuzi and Brian Thompson in September 2014] and that was a joyful thing to do. I don’t like to sit around all day, I like to learn and to seize the moment, seize the opportunity to help people.

What are the times of your life that you have enjoyed most?

Well, I enjoyed being a priest. What is better than to make a difference in the lives of other people, to celebrate liturgy with them and the wonderful experiences that I had? One of the good experiences I had was in Oakland. I found that diocese very, very rewarding. I have been very fortunate between Seattle, Montana and Oakland — the priests have been very dedicated, caring and spiritual.

Was it a surprise to you when you were asked to go to Oakland as apostolic administrator after your retirement?

It was. I wasn’t expecting that. I would go back tomorrow if they asked me again because I thoroughly enjoyed that experience.

What are some of the things as archbishop of Seattle that you consider your greatest accomplishments?

I spent a lot of time opening homes for homeless and the feeding of the homeless and to do whatever we could for them. I was very proud when we opened a new home or obtained a new service for them. The other was schools and education. I was just speaking with the people down in Olympia about [Pope John Paul II High School]. It just amazes me how far they have come in five years. They want to move on and get the school built — an amazing commitment for the future. That is why I started the Fulcrum Foundation to build a support system to allow those schools to function normally while they raise money. It is just exhilarating to hear of the things going on in the schools that I opened. These are the things that are important in life.

Your vision statement for the archdiocese was “A Future Full of Hope.” What gives you hope these days?

Hope for me is that I am alive and living and I’ve got my mind and I can do things. I can think and I can write and I can talk to people. Priests bring me Communion which gives me a chance to talk with them about the meaning of priesthood. I talk to people a lot about hope because if you don’t have hope, you don’t have any future. You just struggle on from event to event like an ongoing thread that goes through your life to grab onto.

When you were archbishop, you faced a lot of challenges. Are the challenges you are facing now the toughest challenges you ever faced?

Not really, no. They are challenges, but everybody has them, everybody. The thing I most can take away from that is hope for the future. Through hope for the future comes a positive attitude for change, for whatever needs to be changed in your life. We can accept pain that comes with a stroke. It is a day-by-day thing, and you take one day at a time.

You always tried to find joy in life. What brings you the greatest joy these days?

I still have the same feeling. The joy comes from the choices of how I live my life, accepting my suffering, my struggles. It brings great joy when you can accept all things and move on and then accomplish something with your life.