Conversion StoriesEvangelicalNon-Denominational

A Navy Pilot Navigates His Way Home

By: Anthony Faul May 31, 2016 2 Comments

Flying as copilot on a wide body jet many years ago, I started to descend to a lower altitude when a series of loud bangs shook the aircraft and kicked off the autopilot. As the nose of the jet pitched over abruptly, I tried to stop the increasing descent rate. At first there was no response from the controls, but slowly, painfully, I managed to get things under control. A cargo shift had occurred and, for a few brief seconds, my comfortable world had been transformed to an unfamiliar and frightening reality. It was a perfect metaphor of my life and my faith’s journey.

I was a cradle Roman Catholic, baptized shortly after I was born in 1958. My father was in the Air Force, and during most of the 1960’s, my parents and my brother and I went to Mass primarily in military chapels with priests with ranks of major or colonel who would, on occasion, say Mass in uniform. Some of the chaplains had served in combat as pilots or infantry during World War II or Korea, and all were no nonsense, Pat O’Brian type characters, with a penchant for discipline. Everything was by the book, on time, no exceptions. It was a wonderful, mysterious world of the Latin Mass, of bells and smells, of quiet reverence before, during, and after Mass, enforced by equally crusty ushers who wore uniforms as well. Now, I am not saying that I was a hyperactive kid, but if by some fluke I stuck out my tongue at my older brother or laughed at my father nodding off in the pew, a swift rebuke was sure to follow. All it took was a withering glance from one ushers, looks that could melt Antarctica, or my mom’s rosary beads upside my head, and I sulked back in the pew thinking that I was surrounded by Visigoths who failed to appreciate my joie de vivre.

Lest you think sitting quietly in a pew, deprived of my Lego Bricks or Matchbox cars, was the only challenge for me, watching my older brother serve as an altar boy provoked all manner of rebellious thoughts. There in front of me was my brother hanging out with his buddies, freely moving about the altar, while I was banished to the cheap seats with nothing to do. There was also the distinct possibility, which occurred in my slowly developing mind, that he was having fun without me — an outrage that could not pass unaddressed. After witnessing this recurring injustice week after week, I had a (no doubt divinely inspired) epiphany that, of course, I could do the job of altar boy better than he could. It was a fact that I was all too happy to share with him and his friends whenever the opportunity presented itself, usually resulting in an equally inspired reaction from my brother that landed us both in trouble. No, our little family unit was not a Norman Rockwell painting, save for one: the depiction of the family marching off to church, mother in the lead and children in tow, with the father figure sulking behind his Sunday paper.

The years passed by in that viscous, agonizing pace often seen through the lens of youth, and I began my early formation in the faith. The Baltimore Catechism was the standard in that day, a block of basic tenets of the Catholic faith to be committed to memory by rote, with no agonized inquiry from the new faithful. While I wasn’t an early candidate for the presidency of the Mensa Society for high IQ types, I did have an inquisitive nature and found myself at loggerheads with many of our religious instructors by asking that most unforgivable question: Why? Why do we have to memorize this stuff? Why do we have to color religious pictures? Why can’t we hang out with the Protestant kids next door, since they have cookies and cool stuff to play with? Or the biggie that got me sent home with a note: Why do we have to pray to Mary or Jesus instead of to God the Father? Even then, the seeds of discontent were taking root, the last objection owed no doubt to being brought up around the military: Why go to some mere colonel if we can go straight to the top general? I obviously wasn’t clear on the concept.

While no one seemed to take my ruminations seriously, I was perfectly content to set aside the mystery of faith once I was done for the week with Mass and CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine: Catholic religious education in those days, primarily for children). I had new comic books to read, a library card, a bicycle to ride, and AM-FM-shortwave radio to listen to, not to mention water balloons to toss at my brother’s head. Life was grand. I would walk from our quarters in base housing over to the Base Exchange (BX) to look at the new toys my family could rarely afford, content to buy a small soda, and watch the tide of humanity pass by. I usually had one good friend at each base we were assigned to, but I loved my alone time. I could sit in the quiet of my own thoughts and marvel at all the new and wondrous possibilities I could imagine.

Events unfolding around us in the world of the 1960’s seemed somehow remote, and the life of a military “brat” was, for me, quite sheltered from the turbulence of a world slowly going mad. On base, I was on an island surrounded by a violent, churning sea, yet I always felt secure there and quite happy. Whether it was Wiesbaden or Bitburg, Germany, or Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana, I absolutely cherished life as it was. Church, on the other hand, was an obligation to be endured. Going to Mass or catechism interfered with my fun, but I obediently set about checking off the blocks of First Communion or Confirmation requirements, and the like, because that is what one did in those days. It wasn’t until I became old enough to serve as an altar boy that my love for the Catholic Faith began in earnest.

Many may not believe in love at first sight, but there was an undeniable spark inside of me when I first recognized the beauty and grandeur of what was taking place on the altar. All jealousy of my brother aside, my burning desire to be closer to the action came from some unknown force, tugging at my heart. I could not have known such ethereal concepts as the Real Presence of the transubstantiated Eucharist back then, but I do know that I felt…something. I can’t remember the first Mass I served at — no doubt bumping into the altar, spilling various liquids from the cruets — but I do recall a slow, inexorable change taking place inside of me during those early days of service as an altar boy. As I nervously watched the chaplain for cues, hoping not to forget what to do, I would steal glances out at the congregation, feeling a bit in awe from my new vantage point. I truly loved being an altar boy. It was only when father gave the final blessing at the end of the Mass that the feeling I can only describe as ecstasy began to subside. But change was all around us, and change is most definitely not always good.

With war still raging in Vietnam and an unprecedented social upheaval occurring on the home front, the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was upending our quiet, predictable little world in the Catholic Church. Caught in the middle of all of the uncertainty, faithful Catholics watched the quiet reverence of traditional, liturgical worship give way to guitars and amplifiers. Gone were the Latin Masses and a lot of the mystery. Priests now faced the congregation during the consecration of the bread and wine, speaking the sacred words in the local language. It seemed, even to my young mind, a major letdown, as if some beautiful work of art had been reduced to paint-by-number. To this day, I cannot stand to listen to the song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” — no offense to Messrs. Simon and Garfunkel. I prefer a good “Holy, Holy, Holy” any day (Reginald Heber, John Bacchus Dykes, 1861).

In 1969, my brother graduated from high school and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and, much to my profound dismay, my parents decided that my father should retire from active duty. I was stunned. No single event in my life up to that point had ever challenged the security of my world so fundamentally. I was heartbroken, and I remember pleading with my dad to reconsider. I had just assumed that life would go on as it was ad infinitum, with new bases to explore, new countries to travel through. I could not appreciate at that time the fact that my father had done his fair share, starting out as a teenager in the paratroopers in World War II, and had endured the hardships of three wars. My world of fun and wonder was over.

Most kids growing up in the military have a tough time answering the question, “Where are you from?” The simple fact is that military dependent kids are both from nowhere and everywhere. I had actually been born in Louisiana, where both my parents were from, so it was there that we returned in 1970, during the height of summer. I went from the cool, mild climate of southern Germany to the brutally hot, humid alluvial plain of southwest Louisiana. I was miserable. I was also angry and feeling betrayed by both my parents for subjecting me to a change I never wanted or could have imagined in my worst nightmares. Still, military kids are nothing if not adaptable, and I soon made a couple of friends and began a new phase in my life, although I never quite fit in. Friends and relatives who lived nearby had animals to be fed, horses to be ridden, and massive amounts of food to be consumed, so though I never quite accepted it, I grudgingly made peace with the changes forced upon me. The one constant, however, was Mass. Not long after we joined the local Catholic Church, I volunteered as an altar boy and met the priest of priests, the Reverend Monsignor Daniel L. Bernard.

If Air Force chaplains had a particularly strict way of celebrating the Eucharist (previously known as “saying Mass” — a vocabulary change that took place after the council), they were rank amateurs compared to Monsignor Bernard. In fact, he would instruct the ushers to guard the doors once Mass began. If you were even a minute late, you wouldn’t be allowed into the nave (Protestants would call it the “sanctuary,” but Catholics reserve that word for the raised area around the altar) until Monsignor Bernard had moved from the altar to the ambo (lectern)  for the Gospel and the homily, and then only for a minute, and only from the main entrance. We didn’t even think about leaving Mass before it was over. He would call you out for it during church. If new parents arrived with a baby and they were uninitiated in the “rules of the road,” they were quickly educated — particularly if they had a baby that started to cry and they didn’t take the child out immediately. Monsignor Bernard would stop the Mass, we would all hold our breath, and he would tell the stupefied parents to remove the child to the crying room.

If the congregation found him a bit intimidating, most of the altar boys were scared to death of him. As for me, I loved the man. He was the embodiment of a world in which I felt most comfortable, a world of moral certainty and boundaries that I had experienced growing up in the military. I recall serving in what was dubbed the “French Mass,” usually held at 5:30 in the morning, for folks who preferred their Mass in Cajun French. One winter morning, the stars were incredibly bright, the cattle in the pasture were lowing softly, and the air was unusually cool and calm as we left for the five minute drive to church. I don’t recall exactly when it happened, but with the constant hum of the heating system and a nice padded kneeler keeping me off the cold marble floor, I nodded off right next to the altar. About the time the host was being raised and I was supposed to ring the bells, Monsignor noticed my drooping head and tried to whisper at first to wake me up. Fed up, he finally barked at me, jolting me out of my cozy little nap. He started rolling his eyes and said something in French I didn’t understand. This seemed to cause a lot of laughing from the normally quiet congregation, probably because it was Cajun for “good help is hard to get.”

While Monsignor Bernard was gruff on the outside, he had a keen intellect and a wry sense of humor. I remember him telling me about buying the parish car, a Chevy Biscayne, his eyes gleaming as he recounted the bargain he made with the salesman. “He wasn’t happy about it, no,” he said in that wonderful Cajun-English patois, “but he didn’t like a priest hanging around scaring all the customers away, so he cut me a deal and sent me on my way.” When he laughed, the years, which had not been kind to him, seem to slip away. He also had hopes of me becoming a priest, and I did venture for a short while over to a local Catholic seminary that had a high school as well. While the priests and some of the college age seminarians were very nice, some of the high school seminarians were bad actors who probably went to seminary in lieu of jail. The best I can say of that experience is that it was a mutually bad fit. My life verse since arriving in Louisiana seemed to have been I am a stranger residing in a foreign land (Exodus 2:22 NABRE).

As I finished up high school, I was becoming more interested in girls and cars and airplanes and less so in religion. Sometime after 1974, Monsignor Bernard left to go to another parish, and not long after that, an ugly racial incident occurred in the church parking lot. At that point, the loss of my mentor and the loss of respect for some of the people in the church started me on the road to becoming a nominal Christian. This was the Jim Crow south in transition and an unknown world to a kid growing up in the egalitarian world of the military. I also had begun to notice how some TV or radio preachers constantly railed against Catholics, Jews, or just about anyone else not white or Protestant, with statements so ignorant that I doubted they knew Jesus. If that was being Christian, I wanted no part of it.

I graduated from high school early, so I attended a local college for a while and even worked in radio, a job I absolutely loved. But I wanted to serve in the military, a life I had loved as a dependent. I enlisted in the U.S. Navy, then managed to get a Navy ROTC scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans. I remained nominal in my faith during university and through my early years of being a Navy pilot. I would drop into Mass when the mood suited me, but I had no real faith. I was also not very blessed in long term relationships, as my current divorced state would attest to. I had a huge void in my heart that my rather amazing lifestyle could not fill. While I loved my shipmates and reveled in the lifestyle, flying all over the world and living in Hawaii, an emptiness was beginning to be apparent in my life.

I did transition from the active duty Navy to the Reserves in 1987 in order to fly commercially, but jobs were tough to come by. The first few years were difficult financially, and I struggled with a variety of issues: with my married life (I should have known better after the first round) and with employment, all with little or no faith in my life to help me through. My father died of cancer in 1988, and I didn’t even have the money to attend the funeral. While I did go back in the Navy for a bit in 1991, recalled to active duty during Operation Desert Storm, it wasn’t until 1992 that I got a decent flying job. I loved the company and the type of flying we did, but as my earlier life seemed to demonstrate, the good times weren’t going to last. Within ten months I was laid off and back to square one. It was at that point that I needed to change and reach out for some advice, but I didn’t know who to turn to. I got so desperate that I even prayed to God to help me, not knowing if He even existed. But why would He listen to me? I had long since stopped caring about Him or what He thought. Why would He care about me? I wasn’t even sure how I would know it if God did answer my prayer, but I found out very quickly that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34 NABRE) so evidently even great pains in the neck like me have sincere prayers answered.

All my questioning became academic when I met Bob and Karen Booth at Pearl Harbor Navy Chapel. This faithful Protestant couple took me into their lives and showed me for the first time what it meant to be Christian, not just a church goer. They not only loved the Lord, they lived and breathed their faith. I can honestly say I had a real conversion to Christ on December 3, 1992, in the quiet of my half empty apartment. While I only stayed in Hawaii a few more months, until my employment was over, Bob and Karen Booth and the faithful congregation at Pearl Harbor Naval Chapel showed me what Christ’s love was all about.

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path. (Psalm 119:105 NABRE) The darkness in my soul, all the doubt and ugliness seem to fade away. I felt as if I was walking in the light. I went to Bible studies, all I could find, and for the first time in my life, the word of God resonated with me, a feeling I hadn’t had since those first days as an altar boy. I began a 20-year love affair with the new world of Christianity, mostly of the non-denominational, generic Protestant kind, and mostly in military chapels. Whether in Brunswick Maine, Newport Rhode Island, Northern Virginia, or Pasadena, California, I managed to find sincere people who were on fire for the Lord. I did revisit my Catholic faith for a short while as well, but it was not a true reversion, and I found my experiences with some of the Catholics to be less than joyous. Many of the Catholics I encountered seem to just be going through the motions, and I was too on fire to sink back into that kind of lukewarm faith. I decided at that point to switch over completely to being a Protestant, not because of any deep religious or academic reason, but because that was what worked for me at the time, and I assumed it would stay that way forever. But life for me was to take yet another turn.

I had been called back to fly in 1997, and by 2012 I had taken a copilot position with our company in Seattle (bypassing captain yet again) to get home more often and be with my wife. Our marriage was beginning to falter, and I was having frequent bouts with severe abdominal pain, a condition that developed shortly after I returned from Operation Desert Storm in 1991. I was also beginning to feel an increasing restlessness with the non-denominational world. As long as I attended Protestant chapel on military bases, I never heard disparaging remarks about Catholics. While none of the many wonderful pastors I have known ever said anything bad about Catholicism, one particular Sunday in 2013, while praying in a men’s group before service at a Protestant church in Seattle, a man, a former Catholic, started saying ugly things about the Catholic Church while praying. I excused myself, got up, and drove away, never to return. In fact, it was a huge wakeup call for me. One by one, as I listened to audio tapes by my favorite Protestant pastors, I began to see inconsistencies and highly questionable theology that I had not noticed before — something that I never experienced in the Catholic Church. I wound up not going to any church for a long time.

At the end of 2013, I began watching EWTN, the Catholic TV network, as well as watching The Journey Home with Marcus Grodi. One day, while watching an archived episode of The Journey Home, I heard Marcus talking about having a farm and a cow. I was immediately transported back to those wonderful small hours in Louisiana, heading off to serve as an altar boy for the 5:30 AM Mass. That innocent remark became a connection which touched my soul profoundly. It gave me a hunger to know more. Over the following months, all the questions or objections that I ever had about the Catholic Church — including those pesky ones from my childhood catechism, of why pray to Mary instead of to Jesus — were being answered by amazing former Protestant ministers who shared their conversion stories from their earlier faith tradition into Catholicism. After a lot of praying, I decided to return to the Catholic Church. I began attending Mass again, without receiving Communion. I became very sick in late 2014 and had to take a medical retirement (although I still hold my position in the pilots union in the area of pilot assistance). By 2015 I was divorced for a second time, but I have joy and hope because I found my Catholic faith again. I recall one very difficult day, around Christmas of 2014, as I sat in the choir loft at St. Mary’s church in Annapolis, Maryland. I felt the Real Presence during the Mass calling me home. It was that feeling of ecstasy from youth that I had almost forgotten about, the one I had experienced standing up at the altar as an altar boy, filled with awe and wonder.

I returned to the Catholic Church in late 2015 at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in Altadena, California. I pray every day to overcome the variety of challenges that beset me, but the Word tells me to Trust in the Lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence do not rely. (Proverbs 3:5 NABRE). In the midst of all the pain and loss, I have had so much gain. The richness of faith, the simple joy of going to Mass, the beauty of the Eucharist are mine once again. The Lord has helped me pull the nose of that wide body jet of my life back on a level flight. As for my years in Protestant worship, I thank God daily for them all. My years in the Protestant world helped me find my true home. I love my Catholic faith and, yes, I love the roundabout road which led me to a deeper appreciation of Scripture and circled back to the fullness of faith of the Catholic Church.

C. S. Lewis said it best: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.” (The Weight of Glory, Clive Staples Lewis, HarperCollins, 1980, page 140)

  • J. Smith

    Wonderful article! Thank you for sharing your journey home!!

  • Rev. James L. Mengel III

    Tony, Thanks for your story! In this traumatic, warring world, have you considered joining and ? Have you looked at the experiences of Col. Andrew J. Bacevich (Retired)?

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