In an interview, Father Joseph Patrick “Joe Pat” Breen once said, “Getting to know all kinds of people makes your life more enjoyable. And hopefully by being nice, you’ll have more people at your funeral.”
His comment was prescient as family and friends filled Christ the King Church, Father Breen’s childhood parish, for his funeral on Friday, May 27.
“He loved being around people and he’s probably looking at us from above and thinking this is quite a celebration,” said Dr. Mark Williams, Father Breen’s nephew, in remarks at the start of the funeral Mass. “The bigger the audience, the better.”
Father Breen, a native of Nashville, died on Friday, May 21, after 60 years as a priest for the Diocese of Nashville, including 30 years as pastor of St. Edward Church where he befriended scores of people, high and low, and became one of the city’s best-known Catholics.
“Our family heard many stories during last evening’s visitation from individuals telling us how Joe Pat impacted and changed their lives,” Williams said.
“He literally had an unlimited capacity to love and to connect with people to make each one of them feel special and unique,” he added. “The respect and dignity that he afforded the most influential and wealthy was no different than the respect and generosity that he shared with the ordinary, disadvantaged or marginalized among us.
“He made everyone feel special and worthy of being loved by others and worthy of God’s love,” Williams said.
Father Breen spoke out often on issues of justice and equality, noted Father Charles Strobel, his friend who gave the homily, including “ecumenical relations, immigration rights, equality, poverty and those related issues of education and living wages, fair housing and ultimately the words of Jesus Christ on Christian unity as we heard in the second reading that remind us to make every effort to keep the unity of spirit through the bonds of peace.
“He had what I call a divine disconnect, a divine discontent,” Father Strobel said of Father Breen. “It is that feeling of dissatisfaction inside of us whenever we yearn for a world without war, a nation without poverty, a city without homelessness, a family without abuse, children without empty stomachs, and an economic system without greed.
“We each of us experience this dissatisfaction because we know that we have not created a world that God imagines. We have not created a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven,” Father Strobel said. “Joe Pat understood this.
“He would say … we should take heart that we can imagine a better life for everyone in a community in which all are welcome,” he added. “For when we do this, perhaps even without knowing it, the story of God’s divine discontent becomes more and more of our own.”
Father Breen’s sense of “divine discontent” often placed him in controversies, Father Strobel said. “And when he’s gotten into trouble the most is when he’s spoken out boldly and clearly on these … issues on Christian unity.
“He would not understand why some would have trouble with what he said because he believed so strongly that everyone would know we are Christians by our love one for another,” Father Strobel said. “The words of Jesus ‘love one another as I have loved you.’ Those words were so evident to him it puzzled him that it was not so clear to others.”
“His message, and motivation, was one of inclusion and assuring everyone was welcome to know God’s love and to participate in their spiritual growth and salvation within the Catholic Church,” Williams said. “The most important thing to Joe Pat was giving everyone the opportunity to participate in our Church community and experience God’s love, and that was truly everyone.”
Father Breen was ordained on Dec. 20, 1961, in Rome, where he finished his seminary studies at the North American College.
“Joe Pat loved being a priest. He loved celebrating Mass,” Williams said. “He was a fierce guardian of the Catholic faith, and he wanted everyone to share in the joy of knowing Jesus Christ.”
Williams recounted some of his uncle’s favorite sayings, including his admonition to students at St. Edward School to “Do what is right and do your best,” and the three things everyone should focus on: “Faith, family and friends.”
“Faith, family and friends are on full display today as we mourn and celebrate Father Joseph Patrick Breen,” Williams said.
Bishop J. Mark Spalding, who presided at the Mass, performed the final blessing.
“We send our friend off to God with our love, a love that started with God, went through his son Jesus Christ, and in that love, Joe Pat lived all his days,” Bishop Spalding said before the blessing. “Now, in this wonderful way of our Church, we send him to the loving and merciful arms of God.”
Father Joe McMahon, pastor of Holy Family Church in Brentwood, was the main celebrant of the Mass. Priests who were concelebrants included Father Pat Connor, Father Mike Johnston, Msgr. Owen Campion, Christ the King Pastor Father Dexter Brewer, and other priests in attendance.