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Nashville priest offers revealing farewell interview before retirement

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Father Joseph Breen Father Joseph Breen
NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

Father Joseph Breen, pastor of Nashville's St. Edward Catholic Church, is perhaps the best-known church leader in all of Nashville and is definitely one of the most controversial.

In the same sentence, you can call him popular and beloved and also three-times reprimanded by his superiors.

Breen, a Nashville native, is one of nine children from a family full of priests.

And in a few weeks, he is retiring after 53 remarkable years as a priest, including 30 at St. Edward.

Breen is a man of ritual and a man of great compassion. Kindness radiates from him.

But don't be fooled. This is as outspoken a priest as you will ever meet.

"Until we have married priests, we can pretend and whatever you want to do, but the church will continue to falter," Breen said.

He speaks about the topic of birth control.

"We say you want to be a responsible Christian person, then some form of birth control, so long as it's not abortive," he said.

He speaks about divorce.

"We've got to reach out to them, and let them know they are welcome in the church. If they're doing the best they can, they're sorry for the sins of yesterday, then, Pope Francis, following the spirit of Jesus Christ, we'll say they're welcome, come back," Breen said.

He even speaks about gay marriage.

"We have all been redeemed. There's no difference between the people I know that are homosexuals and those that are heterosexual. What makes them God's people, what makes them healthy is the ability to love and be loved," he said.

Father Breen also does not believe in hell.

"What father would send a person to hell? And it's unfortunate even in today's world people still believe in hell and eternal punishment," he said. "To me, if you believe in that, you are saying God is basically sick and he enjoys sending his children to hell for punishment."

You might think Breen is a kind of pariah. That's not the case. He is beloved. Whether it's a wedding or funeral or a retirement party, he is in demand.

Breen can pick up the phone and get Los Angeles Dodgers baseball legend Tommy Lasorda to appear at an event. And he once had enough influence to raise $1 million almost overnight for an important project.

But he has been in trouble with his own church over and over. He's been censured three different times by three different bishops.

"I wasn't allowed to speak on television or write letters to the church, bishops or popes. Looking back, they were just doing what they had to do if they wanted to remain bishops. I just couldn't live with myself if I could not proclaim to the people what I think, maybe what is the will of the Lord."

Now, at 79 years old, Father Breen has been told he is retiring.

"I think it's time. The bishop told me some months ago that I had to retire, and I didn't understand at that time why. But in the last four or five weeks thinking about it, yes, it's time," Breen said.

The Catholic Diocese points out priests should generally expect to retire at 75, but Breen was given almost five additional years.

Even now, days before his retirement, Breen has jumped into the thick of it one more time.

Early this year, Pope Francis handed out a survey to all the Catholic bishops of the world. Breen believes that survey was not just for Catholic clergy alone, but also for the laity. And so he was the only Nashville priest who gave a version of the survey to his parishioners.

The results show his parish overwhelmingly supports birth control, married priests, women priests, divorce without annulment and, very narrowly, supports gay marriage.

"I am just doing what the pope wants," Breen said.

The Diocese believes the survey in its original form was not intended for laity but rather distributed at the local bishop's discretion.

"Diocese around the country, around the world handled them in a number of different ways. Here in Nashville, Bishop [David] Choby chose to survey to priests, deacons and some laity who were involved in marriage preparation," said Rick Musacchio, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Nashville.

It is yet another civil disagreement between Father Breen and the hierarchy he serves. But, of course, the point is Breen never served bishops or cardinals.

He believes he has always served parishioners and God.

"I feel like Pope Francis. I, too, have been a sinner, but I have felt God's mercy and forgiveness. And that's what I've been, I think, pretty good at sharing God's peace and mercy and forgiveness," Breen said.

St. Edward will honor and celebrate Father Breen upon his retirement with a gathering June 27 at the St. Edward Family Life Center on Thompson Lane.

Copyright 2014 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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