SAN DIEGO – In a certain sense, older priests don’t really retire; they just find new ways to share the Good News.
Take Msgr. Edward “Ned” Brockhaus, 81, for example.
Retired from active ministry since July 2010, the former pastor of St. John of the Cross Parish now regularly assists at Holy Family Parish, hears confessions and celebrates Mass a few times each month for the inmates of Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, and serves as the official representative of retired priests on the Diocesan Presbyteral Council.
But in addition to that, as a retiree, he also found time to enroll in watercolor painting classes. Pairing this newfound hobby with his love of storytelling, he has produced a series of books filled with the many jokes and anecdotes he has collected over the years.
His first book, “Sunday Stories: A Collection of Tales, Humorous & Otherwise, From 50 Years in the Priesthood,” was released in 2015. A new collection of “Sunday Stories” has followed each year; the fifth will be available this fall.
Msgr. Brockhaus sees the books as a way to evangelize.
“I believe very strongly in the Gospel and spreading the Gospel, and I think that one way is through humor and stories,” he said.
He notes that Jesus frequently used parables to convey important truths and that, over his own half-century as a priest, he has come to recognize the wisdom of that.
What parishioners seem to remember most from any homily is a funny joke or an entertaining story, he said. From the ones he has included in his books, he hopes readers will pick up a moral or two and perhaps recognize aspects of themselves that could use some work.
“I hope that it makes them a better person – in their faith or just in the way they treat other people,” he said.
The format is fairly simple. Each book is an anthology of short stories that Msgr. Brockhaus has collected, whether from firsthand observation in the course of his ministry, from the rich folklore of various cultures, or even from the treasure-trove of jokes found on the Internet. Every story is paired with a watercolor painting by Msgr. Brockhaus; some are his own original creations, and others are images that he purchased online and then painted. A little ribbon serves as a bookmark, allowing readers to enjoy one or two stories at their leisure and then pick up where they left off.
“What I like about it is that they’re easy to read,” said Manny Aguilar, director of the diocesan Office for Stewardship, to whom the monsignor gifted a copy of his 2018 book.
“They’re very short stories, and they’re funny,” he said. “They have a humorous aspect to them, but at the same time, there’s a spirituality to them as well.”
The first half of each book is intended to be mostly humorous, while the second half often consists of stories of a more serious bent or with a profound message. The latter are accompanied by a relevant Scriptural passage.
Among those in the more lighthearted category is the following joke from Book Four:
“Q: What excuse did Adam give to his children as to why he no longer lived in Eden?
A: Your mother ate us out of house and home.”
Msgr. Brockhaus told The Southern Cross that, in the process of compiling his books, he’s noticed something interesting about the stories they contain.
“A lot of them deal with the history of the diocese and things which have happened in the diocese, which are humorous but true,” he said with a chuckle.
Book Two contains an amusing anecdote that didn’t take place in the Diocese of San Diego, but concerns a priest who would later minister there. Father Bill Headley, a Holy Ghost Father who served as founding dean of the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, was then a newly ordained priest in Norwalk, Connecticut. During a visit to his native Philadelphia, he took his mother to the bank. When she told him that a customer had collapsed, he rushed in to the bank with holy oil and proceeded to anoint the man. When he later inquired about the man’s condition, the teller responded, “The rabbi? He fully recovered and is fine.”
Msgr. Brockhaus also recounts a few poignant stories drawn from his prison ministry.
In Book One, for instance, he notes how the inmates’ clothing is emblazoned with the letters “CDCR.” It stands for “California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” but some inmates have told him that they choose to associate it instead with “Christ has died. Christ has risen.”
“I like their version best,” writes Msgr. Brockhaus, who concludes this story with a verse from First Corinthians: “But Christ really has been raised from death. He was the first one to rise of all who have died.”
Another story in the same book tells of an inmate named “Tony” who had the phrase “BE PATIENT WITH OTHERS BECAUSE GOD HAS BEEN PATIENT WITH YOU” tattooed backwards across his chest, so that he can be reminded of that message every morning when he looks in the mirror.
Msgr. Brockhaus was encouraged to produce the first “Sunday Stories” book by his niece, Amy Stirnkorb, who runs a publishing company and has overseen the layout, design and printing of her uncle’s books.
That first book was intended to be a Christmas gift for relatives and friends. There were no loftier aspirations. But when recipients started requesting additional copies and sending him money to defray the cost, Msgr. Brockhaus realized that he had a potential fundraising tool on his hands.
So, beginning with the second book, he has included with each free book a donation envelope for a worthy charity, such as Catholic Charities’ Rachel’s Women’s Center (Book Two), Barrio Youth Center (Book Three) and Father Joe’s Villages (Book Four). Thanks to his friend Ana Iniguez, who translates his stories into Spanish, each book beginning with the second one has been bilingual, as well.
Over the years, Msgr. Brockhaus’ mailing list has grown. He now distributes about 1,000 books annually.
Diocesan Chancellor Maria Olivia Galván, who also serves as director of the diocesan Office for Evangelization and Catechetical Ministry, said Msgr. Brockhaus has been giving her copies of the books to give to the diocese’s catechists.
“We began sharing them at our Spanish Mid-Year Catechetical Conference, and our catechists loved them. So much so, that many wanted to go on a waiting list to get more books,” said Galván, who noted that “the lessons within” are suitable for both children and adults in faith formation.
The personal cost Msgr. Brockhaus incurs to send out the books has grown, but so too has the amount of money raised through readers’ free-will offerings. He estimates that it costs him about $8,000 a year to distribute the books, but the donations that come in as a result can be as much as triple that amount.
Auxiliary Bishop John P. Dolan, who serves as diocesan vicar for priests, has received copies of all four “Sunday Stories” collections.
“Msgr. Brockhaus is such a great example of the contribution that retired priests continue to make in our diocese,” said Bishop Dolan. “Through his delightful books, he has found a new way to share the Gospel. The jokes and stories can’t help but bring a smile to our lips and remind us of the joy that is at the heart of our Christian faith.”
For a copy of Msgr. Brockhaus’ 2018 recent collection of “Sunday Stories,” email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some copies of the 2017 book are also available.