Missionary call led Irish priest/jubliarian to Long Island

Amityville — When he was preparing for the priesthood, Msgr. James Brassil wanted to serve in Africa.

“I wanted to be a missionary and convert the whole world,” the Irish-born Msgr. Brassil said with a chuckle. Instead, his vocation took him to the U.S., where he served as a parish priest and leader in the Catholic charismatic renewal.

That was one of many twists and turns during his long vocational journey. This year, the retired pastor of Maria Regina Church, Seaford, celebrates his 50th anniversary as a priest. “I already celebrated in Ireland,” and he has a small celebration planned for Dec. 22 with a special noon Mass at Maria Regina.

Born in Kilrush, County Clare, Ireland, “near the sea,” Mgr. Brassil was the fourth of nine children — “eight boys and one girl” — of Martin, an oil salesman, and Catherine, a homemaker.

They all attended the parish school, where they were educated by the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers.

“I got my love of God from my parents and from the Sisters of Mercy. I’ve kept in touch with the Sisters of Mercy all these years,” though living an ocean away, he said. “They had a great love of God and passed it on to the pupils. We call it evangelization now. I’ll never forget first Communion” and their love for the Eucharist.

His devotion drove him to desire the priesthood. “If you asked what I wanted to be when I was six, seven or eight, I would have said I wanted to be a priest.”

 Yet as he became a teen, the priesthood “would be the last thing on my mind.” He became socially popular. Though he never drifted from his faith, his focus was elsewhere.

“I worked for seven years for the post office. I enjoyed life to the full. I was the life of the party,” Msgr. Brassil said. “There were different times in my life that God made himself known to me,” but he wasn’t ready to listen.

“When I was about 21, I began to realize that there is more to life than going to dances and having parties,” he said. “Gradually, I started to pray more, especially before the Blessed Sacrament.”
In time, he found his calling.

“Everyone who knew me could not believe it,” Msgr. Brassil remarked, but “my mother did believe — and my father.” With their encouragement, he returned to school and eventually the seminary.
Msgr. Brassil was ordained Dec. 21, 1962, for the Society of African Missions. He was first assigned to a minor seminary, but he wanted to become a missionary.

“I eventually got an assignment to Africa but before I could go, I got into a car accident and was hospitalized,” he said. During his long recovery, he met Msgr. Martin O’Dea, an Irish priest serving on Long Island. “He encouraged me to come here because there was a shortage of priests.”

Msgr. Brassil came in 1968. He served briefly as associate pastor of Our Lady of Victory, Floral Park, before beginning a three-year assignment to St. Matthew’s, Dix Hills.

In 1971, he was transferred to Our Lady of Mercy, Hicksville, where he became involved with the parish’s Catholic charismatic renewal group. “We had weekly meetings and a monthly Mass. We might get up to 2,000 people for the Mass.”

Msgr. Brassil became active in the movement because it coincided with his interest in helping people to pray and with the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the role of the laity.

He continued his involvement with the charismatic renewal when he transferred briefly to St. Thomas More, Hauppauge, and later, in 1979, when he began a two-year term at the Magnificat House of Prayer, Manhasset.

Around this time, he began working with Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium, one of the leading figures of Vatican II and a promoter of the charismatic renewal.

In early 1982, he was transferred to St. Kilian’s Church, Farmingdale, where he remained for about a year-and-a-half.  In 1983, he became pastor of Maria Regina. “That was a good time. I was there 17 years” before retiring in 2000.

Though his priesthood hasn’t gone as he expected, Msgr. Brassil is happy. One of his surprises as a priest is his discovery “that priests are very human.” He grew up revering priests, but found that priests have foibles and struggles like everyone else. “Of course, God became human, too, in Jesus Christ, and turned that humanity into holiness.”

One aspect of the priesthood he has found difficult is the call to holiness. “Holiness is difficult. It requires a growth in faith and relationship to God The priesthood is wonderful but there are difficulties. God works through the difficulties to help you find holiness.”

What he likes best about the priesthood “is helping people see God in their lives and see God in the world.”

Though retired, he continues to promote prayer and healing. “I’ve prayed for healing and seen people healed — spiritual healings, physical healings, mental healings. I never refuse a request to pray, to offer Mass, or lead a retreat.”

Msgr. Brassil still comes out to Long Island to see family and friends but lives in Rockaway. “I was born near the sea,” he said, “and I want to be near the sea now.”