Msgr. Brooks shares his joy for life with others
By Amy Moraczewski
Fifty years ago, Msgr. Bill Brooks, now pastor of St. Theresa Parish in Austin, took his assigned seat next to a Jesuit priest for a class at Xavier University in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. After several weeks of class and conversation, his neighbor turned to him and said, "You really want to become Catholic? I’m not going to tell you about it. You’re going to have to find out for yourself." And with that, the young man began a year and a half of intense studies and discussions before deciding to enter the Catholic Church.
"What really got me to become Catholic was curiosity," Msgr. Brooks said. Five years after his initiation into the Catholic Church, he joined the Franciscan order, which he later left when he relocated to Austin from New Orleans in 1974. Curiosity led Msgr. Brooks to Catholicism, and joy led him to the priesthood. Msgr. Brooks was ordained a deacon and a priest while serving the faith community of St. Louis Parish in Austin. The desire to share the joy of our faith drew him to the priesthood, he said.
"I always feel people take their faith too seriously. I think our faith is a joy. We can always show the heaviness; I think we need to show joy every Sunday," Msgr. Brooks said.
It may sound simple, but the lasting impact of a small gesture proves the power of simplicity. Though many years removed, he still recalls with extreme appreciation the day one couple from his parish brought black licorice along for a drive after hearing him mention his fondness for the candy.
Joy and laughter continue to carry Msgr. Brooks through his experiences as a priest. Among the joyful occasions is a tradition of celebrating Pentecost each year. One particular Pentecost celebration still brings a smile to his face. During the closing song, parishioners began to wheel a large, multi-layer cake down the aisle with 200 candles burning, one for every 100 years of the church. However, by the time they reached the altar, the candles had all melted and the cake had to be put out with a fire extinguisher, he recalled with laughter.
In addition to celebrating the end of the Easter season, Msgr. Brooks has a tradition of celebrating the beginning of Lent. For 43 consecutive years, with the exception of one year when the police were on strike, he has traveled to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Don’t expect to see him roaming Bourbon Street though! He simply enjoys spending time with old friends from his younger days in Louisiana.
"I don’t even go to a parade. And I don’t catch beads either!" Msgr. Brooks joked.
As much as he enjoys the fellowship of friends on these trips, Msgr. Brooks also values his alone time. He frequently spends his Fridays off on spontaneous road trips to Dallas, Houston or San Antonio. His morning drives usually begin with no schedule or destination in mind, so as not to create any expectations for the day. Wherever he finds himself a few hours later, Msgr. Brooks will eat lunch and then return to the road, enjoying the solitude. While most pastors elect Monday as their day off to rest after the weekend, Msgr. Brooks has always taken Fridays off, in an effort to prepare for the weekend ahead.
A rejuvenating Friday alone gives him the passion and energy to effectively minister to his parishioners on Sundays, he said. He is known as a storyteller and said he feels comfortable delivering his homily as long as he has a story to tell because that is how the Lord spoke to his people as well. However, that was not always the case. The idea of preaching used to produce a heightened anxiety that he did not ever expect to overcome. He recalls thinking to himself one day, "I can’t do this. I can’t do this." But then he did it. "And I haven’t shut up since," joked Msgr. Brooks.
His gift of storytelling is often displayed beautifully at funerals when he has the opportunity to express his love and admiration for those who have truly lived their life with joy.
"I respect the person who enjoys his or her life, who lives what they feel is important to them, who is not the ordinary. I want a person who is extraordinary. If you’re living your life and showing joy in your life, living not necessarily what everybody else thinks you should be doing, then you’re somebody I can talk about at a funeral," Msgr. Brooks said.
Living life with joy and purpose is a message communicated most clearly by his spiritual director, Father Nick Lohkamp, a Franciscan priest. His tough nature challenged Msgr. Brooks to grow spiritually, but he also passed along his lighthearted view of the faith. On his deathbed, Father Lohkamp had a sign posted on his wall that read, "Jesus, come anytime you want to, but may I be ready when you come!"
Another mentor, Msgr. Louis Wozniak, long ago offered memorable words of advice about not looking back in life. He said, "If you leave and the program you were running stops functioning, then you were not successful. Then it was about you and not about the parish."
This is the reason that Msgr. Brooks does not return to parishes to say Mass after being assigned elsewhere. Though sometimes difficult for parishioners to understand, his decision is rooted in love for his people and respect for the new pastor. Stepping aside allows his successor to fully embrace the role of spiritual father within the community.
Msgr. Wozniak’s advice helped shape an approach to ministry that emphasizes sustainability. Msgr. Brooks has shared his love of the faith and his joy with each parish he has served. One thing is certain –– he meets his own criteria as someone he would want to talk about at a funeral.