NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Father Joseph Breen, perhaps Nashville’s best-known Catholic priest, a beloved figure who sometimes clashed with church leaders over his progressive stances, died late Saturday afternoon after an extended illness.
Breen, 87, known to his friends as “Joe Pat,” celebrated the 60th anniversary anniversary of his ordination this past December.
It was a tenure marked by controversy within the Catholic community as he advocated for priests being allowed to marry, for women being ordained and for church acceptance of the LGBTQ community and same-sex marriage. He was publicly reprimanded three times by Nashville's bishops for views that ran counter to official Catholic teaching.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Breen said in an Easter message posted to social media.
“I’m just glad that when I was young and younger, I really lived life, I would say, to the fullest so I don't have any regrets.”
A graduate of Father Ryan High School, Breen attended seminary at St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, completing his graduate studies at the North American College in Rome. He was ordained at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Dec. 20, 1961.
His younger brother, Philip Breen, would join him in the priesthood.
Father Philip Breen died in 2016.
Joseph Breen’s assignments in Middle Tennessee included 10 years at St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro, followed by 30 years as the popular pastor of St. Edward Church in South Nashville.
He became a friend to many, including mayors and members of Congress.
“Father Joe Pat’s love knew no bounds,” said former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry. “He saw each person as a child of God, worthy of his time and love and forgiveness.”
“His eyes always twinkled when you were in his presence, and he never let you leave without telling you he loved you and granting you His peace.”
Barry recalled how, after personal scandal led to her resignation in 2018, Breen invited her to join him at Easter brunch as a public symbol of his belief in power of redemption.
"He said, 'I want you to know that Easter is about a time for redemption, and I want you to sit with me in public so that people can see that you are my friend,'" Barry recalled.
Coming to St. Edward's in the early 1980s, Father Breen welcomed girls into the previously all-boy ranks of altar servers, a practice that would later become more common at other area Catholic parishes.
Julie Cain Lummus, who was among the first altar girls, called Breen the “personification of love.”
“His whole life was about inclusion,” Lummus recalled. “It was about loving everybody, it was about accepting everybody, it was about truly showing Christ in action.”
Lummus said Breen was “like a grandfather,” a “fixture” in her family.
“I think he was a fixture in a lot of people’s families,” she added.
Seeing a growing Hispanic community at St. Edward’s, Breen was instrumental in purchasing the building formerly occupied by Radnor Baptist Church on Nolensville Road and leading the effort to convert it into a Catholic church.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Church became the Nashville diocese’s first parish for Spanish-speaking Catholics.
“That’s the greatest thing I’ve done,” Father Breen told the diocesan newspaper, the Tennessee Register.
Yet, when it came to official Catholic teachings, Breen did not always toe the line.
As early 1996, in an interview with NewsChannel 5, the Catholic priest questioned whether hell was real.
“What earthly mother or father would ever condemn or subject their child or children to eternal punishment?” Breen asked.
Breen told parishioners that he did not believe that using contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies was actually a sin, nor did he believe that homosexuality was a sin.
He openly advocated for same-sex marriage.
As a result, Breen was reprimanded three times by Nashville bishops for his public comments.
In 2011, faced with possible loss of his position at St. Edwards, Breen was forced to apologize to then-Pope Benedict XVI and then-Bishop David R. Choby after he suggested in an Internet video that Catholics were free to follow their conscience on matters where they disagreed with church teachings.
“It is simply wrong to state, as Father Breen has repeatedly, that one’s conscience frees an individual from the truth revealed and instilled in church teaching,” the late Bishop Choby said at the time in a public statement.
"In recognition of his many years of good work among the people of his parish, I want to give Father Breen every opportunity to correct the errors in his teaching, and gracefully enter retirement, but in any case, his recent public remarks could not stand.”
Three years later, retiring at the age of 79, Breen made it clear that it had not been his decision.
Still, he insisted that he had no regrets about his controversial stances.
“You have to be true to yourself, and I think if one person strongly believes in something he or she has to promote that -- especially if it's for the common good,” Breen told NewsChannel 5.
In retirement, he continued to be vocal about his beliefs.
And, in Pope Francis, Breen saw hope that the Catholic Church might become the more-inclusive institution for which he had prayed, especially with the pope’s public statements about the LGBTQ community.
Breen said Pope Francis was “God sent.”
“I share his words with you with the hope and a prayer that you may appreciate his love and compassion for all of God's children,” Breen said in a May 2018 post on Facebook.
“Our Church for too long has caused great pain and suffering to our LGBT community. Hopefully Pope Francis will help ease the pain of so many who have left our church, and perhaps make them feel welcome again.”
Watch Father Breen's Issues of Faith appearance from 2019 below: