Columbus Catholic Diocese Bishop Robert J. Brennan walked into the Our Lady of Guadalupe Center on April 10 all smiles and ready to greet a few dozen of the center's patrons in their native language.
"It's emotional, very emotional," Selenne Villarreal said in Spanish through a translator. "Being able to communicate with a bishop in Spanish makes it more wonderful."
Villarreal, 38, of Canal Winchester went to the west Columbus food pantry and resource center operated by Catholic Social Services specifically to meet Brennan. She came with her 67-year-old mother, Juanita Rodriguez, and her 15-month-old son, Alan, who was quite taken with the bishop.
Soon after entering a back room at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Brennan said hello to Villarreal and waved at Alan, who reached out his arms to the bishop, wanting to be held.
Brennan picked up the toddler and bounced him on his hip for a few minutes before giving him back to his mom. Alan got a few more hugs from the bishop after Brennan made his rounds, which made his mother happy but also shocked because she said her son is usually shy and won't let others hold him.
"This morning has been very, very beautiful," said Alma Santos, the center's coordinator.
Brennan, 56, who was installed as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus' 12th bishop March 29, learned Spanish about 12 years ago in an attempt to better connect with the Latino worshipers in the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, New York, where he served for 30 years.
On April 10, at his first stop on a tour of Catholic Social Services facilities in Columbus, he met, took photos and prayed with patrons of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Center, which serves Spanish-speaking and immigrant populations in west Columbus.
He then went to Seton West, a west Columbus senior apartment building for disabled and low-income individuals, and the Jewish Community Center in Berwick to see senior companions who meet with isolated, homebound people.
After those stops, he went to the St. Vincent Family Center in east Columbus, to see services provided by the pediatric behavioral health-care agency, and St. Stephen's Community House in northeast Columbus, to see the services it offers to help families.
Brennan has expressed his interest in getting to know the people of the diocese through multiple personal meetings.
"The first round is really just to greet (people)," he said in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch shortly before his installation. "Maybe as time goes on you get to know people a little better and a little better. That's the truth of any human relationship; it takes time and patience. Otherwise it's not real, it's artificial."
There were many hugs, and Brennan paid special attention to the handful of children at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Center by being silly with them as he put his hands on his hips or waved as they looked on with big eyes.
The center had prepared traditional food for him. And when told there were Mexican-style egg burritos, Brennan said they are "right up my alley," which got everyone laughing.
"What I lack in my tongue with language in Spanish, I make up in my heart with my love for people and in my stomach with my love for food," he said.
Brennan also said a prayer in Spanish and talked of how the center is special because people "meet Jesus Christ here."
"We bring these gifts. We exchange the gifts of Christ in all of us," he said, first in Spanish and then in English. "In so many ways, we learn from each other. Thank you for helping one another to find the light of Jesus."
Before leaving, Brennan knelt down to speak with Angelica Sanchez, 42, and her 2-year-old son, Dereck, in Spanish.
Sanchez, a single mother of four who said she left an abusive husband, has received food from Our Lady of Guadalupe's food pantry after struggling to make ends meet. She lives in a mobile home with no heat after her house burned down and said she has found it difficult to work without child care.
"She lost hope," Santos said as Sanchez cried.
But meeting the bishop helped restore her faith, Sanchez said.
"I felt like I needed that hug," she said in Spanish. "He told me everything would be OK.
"That hug meant I was happy for a minute. It gave me hope."