My earliest memory is my baptism. It was a Sunday morning in springtime, and I was four years old. I remember the unusual perspective of being at the front of the sanctuary, looking out at the congregation. Doctor Trost, our Methodist minister, held me up, and I somehow knew that this was a special moment in my life. I do not recall the water or having any understanding of why it was special, but it has stayed with me as a warm and unique memory of goodness.
Faith was an important part of my boyhood growing up in Lombard, Illinois. As the youngest of four children, going to Sunday school and church weekly was a given. Vacation Bible school in the summer was, too. It was an era when we would sing Christian carols openly at Christmas time in elementary school. Spring vacation was always during Holy Week, and we were never in school on Good Friday.
One particular Good Friday stays with me powerfully. I was seven years old, and I had just watched a dramatic television portrayal of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. I was profoundly touched by what I’d seen. When it ended, I wandered over to the front window of our living room and looked out at the traffic passing by on Madison Street. All I could think was: “Don’t these people know what has happened? How can they just casually go about their lives?” As immature as I was, I knew deeply that the death of Jesus was terribly important and literally crucial.
Nevertheless, when it came time for me to be confirmed in seventh grade, I was still quite shallow. The fact that there were 60 kids in our confirmation class meant that there were about 30 girls. That, for me, was the main thing! Also, prior to confirmation, I was caught using a “cheat sheet” for the items we were supposed to memorize (Apostle’s Creed, 23rd Psalm, etc.). The fact that Rev. Lichtenberger, our harried leader, showed mercy on me registered in my junior high brain as: “Phew, I got away with it!”I wandered up towards the front, then simply knelt by the communion rail and closed my eyes. Within a few minutes, I was overcome by an all-enveloping Presence. It felt simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. I knelt there for a time,… Click To Tweet
Thankfully, no mention was made of my transgression in my final examination with Rev. Sweeney, and at the end of our brief talk, he suggested that I go into the sanctuary (we Methodists referred to the entire worship space as “the sanctuary”). I’m sure Rev. Sweeney had suggested I pray there, but I had no idea of what to do or what to expect. I wandered up towards the front, then simply knelt by the communion rail and closed my eyes. Within a few minutes, I was overcome by an all-enveloping Presence. It felt simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. I knelt there for a time, sobbing. The next thing I knew, I was at the back of the sanctuary getting ready to depart. I never told a soul about this singular experience for many, many years, but I’ve always thought that it was the gracious, personal God of the universe simply letting me know, “Jimmy, I am here. I am real. I am with you. You are mine.”
Drifting – Drawn to Faith – Drifting
Despite that extraordinary God-given experience, I sadly soon reverted to an all too typical boyish junior high immaturity. Though our teachers had all implored us to remember that “confirmation is not graduation” I, in fact, acted as if I had “graduated” from church. I stopped attending most church functions, except at Christmas and Easter. A few friends became involved in the MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship). Not me. Over the next few years, I took up smoking, drinking, dating, and hanging out with my version of the “in crowd.” A few years later came a surprising and painful turning point. It was April, 1968, the Saturday night after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. I was all ready to head out with a group of seven or eight buddies for an evening of carousing. However, I had mentioned in passing that I thought MLK was a good man. For that comment I became the object of scornful and embarrassing ridicule. Only one friend stood with me. To good-hearted Russ, I said quietly: “I’ll have to get a whole new set of friends.”
From that day on, I did. I began to attend a local coffeehouse and associate more with a counter-culture crowd. My friends were now the “wannabe hippie” group. We published an underground newspaper, grew our hair long, and listened to the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, and the Beatles in their psychedelic stage. Though I was blessed to meet and develop some true life-long friends, I also began associating with some folks who were deeply involved in mind-altering drugs. In little more than a year, I’d become a full-blown devotee of the drug culture of the late ’60s. I was a user and a dealer and fancied myself a really cool dude. However, this nearly led to my demise. Again, it was a Saturday night with “friends.”
In the summer of my 17th year, I found myself on a basement floor, heart pounding, with a palpable fear of the angel of death descending on me. I’d ingested some substance from an unknown source. Rather than providing a pleasant, uplifting escape, it was inducing deadly terror. I cried out to God in desperation to save me. God heard my cry; my fear subsided. I survived, and I vowed to never again do anything so stupid. Since that night, I haven’t. This experience proved to me the great truth that “sometimes one good scare is worth 20 lectures!”
I resolved to straighten out my life. Three events took place later that year that had great significance for my spiritual journey.
First, through the good efforts of a very caring and devout couple I knew through church and my high school, I attended a weekend seminar offered by the Ecumenical Institute in Chicago. The weekend was called “Religious Studies I,” and it was inspiring and enlightening. More on that later.
Secondly, in a burst of enthusiasm, I sent away for a catalog for the Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. This was the Methodist seminary located adjacent to Northwestern University. I felt a strong sense of call to pursue ordination as a minister in the Methodist Church. My pastor at that time, Rev. Darby, encouraged me. I began reading the writings and sermons of John Wesley and George Whitefield. I even taped a picture of John Wesley to the case of my Norelco electric shaver! Perhaps that was a bit unusual, but it was a big change from admiring Jim Morrison or Frank Zappa.
Thirdly, I went to Christmas Eve Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lombard. Not knowing any better, I joined the Communion line and received Holy Communion. When I told my devoutly Catholic sister-in-law, Georgie, that I’d received Communion, she said to me, with real joy in her voice: “Oh, Jimmy, you received the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Because I was so clueless, I did not know how to respond to her; yet I pondered her words in my heart.
I should say, at this point, that Georgie was a much-beloved member of my extended family, as was my aunt Loretta, who was married to my mom’s brother, my uncle Tom. Uncle Tom in the 1940s and my brother Ed in the 1960s had each converted and become Roman Catholics. This set a pattern of young Protestant men in our family marrying lovely young Catholic women and converting. This was to come into play for me, in a major way, a decade and a half later. No one should ever underestimate the power of feminine beauty as a means of Catholic evangelization!
When I was eighteen, I joined the religious community of the Ecumenical Institute, which at its peak had over 3500 members worldwide. During the next four years, I lived in this unique and intentional Christian community known as the Order. We worshipped together, had meals together, sang and studied together, and lived in close quarters. Our mission, in the early 1970s, was to change the world through the renewal of local Christian churches. At the same time, I was studying for my degree in education so I could become a teacher. Strangely, considering that there were many Methodist ministers who were members, and indeed leaders, in the Order, I somehow lost my calling to ordained ministry while at the Institute. How and why that happened remains a mystery to me. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that, at the same time that I was drifting back into secularism, the Ecumenical Institute was becoming the Institute for Cultural Affairs, a thoroughly secular entity focused on social transformation.
The next four years, after I left EI, were truly years of drifting. I was not grounded in any serious or mature way. I went from praying daily morning prayer in a community of hundreds to basically not attending worship on any regular basis. I had a series of odd jobs after college graduation. I wound up living in a variety of different places. I’d become so self-centered that I treated personal relationships with a casual, careless approach. Looking back on that period of my early- to mid-twenties is mortifying. I am not at all proud of my lack of character. At the exact mid-point of my twenties, I hatched the idea of a really long walk as a way to “find myself.” My original thought was to hike from Key West, Florida, to the northwestern tip of Washington State. Arriving in Georgia after walking the length of Florida in two months, I decided to head for the Appalachian Trail to continue my hike. By Independence Day, I’d made it to Roanoke, Virginia, where I chose to end my journey. During these five months, I had only two books with me: the collected works of Henry David Thoreau and the New Testament. As it turns out, God was using this time of drifting to gently draw me back to the beauty and life-changing power of the Gospel. I returned to the Chicago area lean, calm, and focused. God was merciful to me. It was as if God were saying to me: “Jimmy, I’m not done with you. I will give you a fresh start. I have a future for you. I have a purpose for you!”
During the summer of 1978, I was able to get a teaching job at a suburban high school close to the city, in a heavily Catholic area. I found it an interesting and refreshing change from the WASP background of my hometown, further out in the ’burbs. This soon became important as I was given the opportunity to home tutor Gina, a fourteen-year-old student who was four months pregnant. As was normal at that time, she was not allowed to attend classes. This became a providential turn of events in several key ways.
For the rest of the school year, from November through June, I tutored Gina and was in her home usually three days a week. I became almost like a member of the family. Rose, Gina’s mom, was an amazing lady. She was welcoming and cheerful. She was also proudly and vibrantly Catholic! She was pro-life, pro-family, and always made room at the table for whomever showed up. Gina turned fifteen in the springtime and gave birth to a healthy baby boy a few weeks later. Giving the baby up for adoption was traumatic for her, but that had been the plan all along. Decades later, Gina was able to connect with her son. He had been brought up by a loving family, become an architect, and started a family of his own.
I mention all this to show that those months spent with this family in their humble bungalow opened up a whole new perspective for me. Gina’s home was a “domestic church” that subtly, but effectively, evangelized me into Catholic living at its vibrant, unpretentious best. Fittingly, it was her brother Mike who had a key role in introducing me, a year later, to the young Catholic woman who was to eventually become my wife.
Later that year, in October of 1979, I was profoundly moved by the visit of Pope John Paul II to Chicago. Mass in Grant Park was attended by a million and a half people. His message of God’s love and presence touched me deeply. My heart and mind were being opened to larger truths.
After only two years of teaching, I received the dreaded “reduction in force” notice and, along with seven other teachers, was let go. It was the “last in, first out” principle in action. The end of the Baby Boom was leading to decreased enrollments all over the country, and my district was not spared. In the summer of 1980, I was employed teaching summer school one last time. I was attending church regularly, training for the Chicago Marathon, and enjoying some great reestablished friendships. However, I was not really happy. My desire to marry and have children was not progressing, for a variety of reasons. Though I was seeing several ladies, there was no momentum to get serious and settle down.
One July Saturday night in 1980, in near despair, I simply prayed from the heart: “Please, God, let me meet someone I can love.” That was it. I then drifted off to sleep. I’d never actually prayed a prayer like that before. God, with tender mercy, heard and answered my prayer.
When I awoke Sunday morning, it was already hot — it hit 99 degrees that day! I soon found out that the lady I was taking to a play on the north side of Chicago was ill and couldn’t go. After a few fruitless calls, I was able to reach Marlene, a friend to whom I was introduced by Gina’s brother, Mike. But Marlene was not able to go. I asked her if she knew anyone who might be willing to go on such short notice (the matinee was beginning in less than four hours). She told me that, yes, she did know someone who might go with me. She called her friend Bernie and explained the situation, and a few moments later I was set up on the very first “blind date” of my life. We had a wonderful time and really did fall in love on that very first date, a blazingly hot day in mid-July, 1980.
We began seeing each other on a steady basis. We talked on the phone every day. Bernie was very devout in her Catholic faith. I would go with her to Mass much of the time, and sometimes she would attend Methodist services with me. She enjoyed the vigorous singing and the engaging and thoughtful sermons there. When I attended Mass, I found the devotion to Holy Communion very compelling. I’d never forgotten what Georgie had told me, years before, about it being the actual Body of Christ. As a Methodist, I’d been taught that the Lord’s Supper, observed quarterly, was simply a way of recalling the Last Supper. But now I was beginning to think more deeply about the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist.
At that same time, I was again thinking about the possibility of attending seminary and pursuing ordained ministry. Somehow, I found out about the Episcopal Church and went to a service at Grace Church in Oak Park, Illinois. Struck by how similar it was to the Catholic Mass, I picked up a small tract there entitled “The Real Presence.” This gave me many answers to questions that I’d been thinking about. Their belief that communion was truly the Body and Blood of Christ was a revelation. The more I explored the Episcopal Church, the more it appealed to me as a middle ground between Catholicism and Methodism. I learned about apostolic succession and the role of the saints, including Mary, in God’s plan of salvation. I acquired a deep appreciation for beauty and reverence in liturgical worship. The first time I saw the Gospel book elevated and then kissed, it choked me up. I was hooked! Best of all, it was Catholic! Well, “Anglo-Catholic.”
At least they said so. It seemed to be the best of all possible worlds. I planned on converting.
Bernie and I got married in late October of 1981 at St. Daniel the Prophet Catholic Church in Chicago. I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church a few weeks later. We started our married life together with great hopes of future blessings. I’d found a niche in the world of investing that seemed interesting and rewarding. Bernie was working full time, until we were expecting our first child. We spent our first anniversary in Loyola Hospital, where Bernie was transferred, because it was considered a high-risk pregnancy. Our son, Christopher, was born and lived only four hours. His rare syndrome is 100% fatal in the first 24 hours of life. We were devastated. His brief life seemed to mock all hopefulness and joy. Still, he was baptized by a Catholic priest, and though our pain was intense, the loving support of family and friends was very consoling. The memorial service at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church brought healing. This loss made us think deeply about our faith in eternal life and also prompted us to think that perhaps I was meant to go to seminary. Our planning began to center around that idea.
Five years and two healthy kids later, we did pack up and move to Sewanee, Tennessee, to attend the School of Theology at The University of the South. For these Yankees from the big city, it was a major change. Sewanee is a charming little town, and the university campus is lovely. Our children, Jenny and Danny, thrived in the family-centered community of married-with-children theology students. Bernie and I recall fondly the simpler life we had there. I am grateful to the many fine professors who loved God and embraced their calling to teach and help form future ministers of the gospel.
When it came time to graduate and move on, we were happy to be offered the chance to move to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to serve at St. Luke’s Church. This was a large Anglo-Catholic parish. I was one of four priests there, and it was a dynamic church with reverent liturgy and excellent Christian education. Our time in Baton Rouge was great. Our children went to the parish school, and we all made many friends.
Still, in the background, I was made increasingly aware of the battles that were raging in the Episcopal Church. The new Presiding Bishop was an unrelenting, humorless progressive who saw everything through the lens of his own version of social justice. This meant gay ordination, abortion rights, etc. He even went so far as to say that “for those that cannot accept these changes, perhaps it is time to say to them, regretfully, there’s the door.” By the early 1990s, I came to feel that it was certainly not the same church I had joined a decade before.
In 1991, we gratefully moved to Burlington, Wisconsin, only an hour or so from most of our families. There I became the rector of St. John the Divine Episcopal Church. St. John’s was a fine community with about 200 devoted members. Our three and a half years there were largely joyful. I loved the ministry of being a local church pastor, most especially presiding at Holy Eucharist twice each Sunday. However, as the years went by, I continued to be alarmed by the battle lines being drawn. One priest in our diocese, a fellow traditionalist, said to me at a priests’ convocation: “The problem with our church is we don’t have a Magisterium.” I nodded knowingly, all the time wondering: “What’s a magisterium?”
It all came to a head in the spring of 1994, when I attended a diocesan gathering to discuss “cutting edge” issues. The ground rules were set up whereby no critique could be offered to any speaker, at any time, no matter the statement. I will not belabor the point; suffice to say that many outlandish statements were made, to which no counterpoints were allowed. I went home that afternoon and told Bernie that the Episcopal Church was no longer our home. It was time for us to make some serious changes. Our planning began that very day. We would move and begin a new life. We would also become Catholics.
Coming Home to Rome
Although it was sad to say goodbye to our parish and it was hard for our children to leave their friends, we had to make this change. I was fortunate to be hired by a national brokerage firm. Through an amazing series of coincidences, we found ourselves moving to Pickerington, Ohio, near Columbus. I took it as a great sign that our new church home, our Catholic home, was St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish. Mother Seton, the first American born saint, was a former Episcopalian who’d “swum the Tiber” two centuries before. Our new parish welcomed us with open arms. Bernie was overjoyed to return home to the Church of her childhood. We became active with the parish RENEW process, which was beginning just as we arrived. The small group faith-sharing format was ideal for us to get to know our new community. I was confirmed the following spring. For the next two decades, I was deeply involved in parish life. I was on the RCIA team for many years; I helped with Confirmation preparation for two years; worked with stewardship campaigns and led several Bible study groups. I also found that the men’s faith sharing groups were particularly rewarding, as was the year and a half I spent working with St. Gabriel Catholic Radio in Columbus.
I believe that all of my experience and training has come together to help me in my current ministry. For the past four years I’ve been a Catholic chaplain at Palos Hospital in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago. The hospital was founded by an order of Catholic nuns a century ago. Currently, nearly two-thirds of our patients are Catholic, though, of course, I visit all patients. Each day I am blessed to share a message of hope as well as to “rejoice with those who rejoice and grieve with those who grieve” (Romans 12:15-16).I’d come to know that, given the choice between the rebel tyrant King Henry VIII and the heroic martyr St. Thomas More, a prudent person must choose St. Thomas. Click To Tweet
Joining the Church founded by Jesus was and is a joy. I’d become “Catholic” many years before, though in retrospect it was but a pale imitation of the Catholic Church. What I came to realize was that the English Reformation needed to end, and not just for me. Through the great movie, A Man For All Seasons, I’d come to know that, given the choice between the rebel tyrant King Henry VIII and the heroic martyr St. Thomas More, a prudent person must choose St. Thomas. I was done with the “splinter groups” of Methodism and Anglicanism. I was now part of the true fullness of the Christian Faith: one that actually has that all-important Magisterium! I was home.
The last quarter century has been a journey of growth and deepening knowledge. This is particularly true concerning the Blessed Mother. Mary, in her gentle wisdom, is still inviting me to stronger faith in her Son, our savior Jesus. So too are we all called to such faith.
“Life must be lived going forward but can only be understood looking backwards.” That is a paraphrase from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and it aptly sums up my conversion to the Catholic Church. Looking back, I see many moments of grace and many people of faith that contributed. When I made the change in 1994, there was nothing impeding me. I was happy to join the Church of St. Peter, St. Mary Magdalene, St. John Paul II, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and St. John Henry Cardinal Newman. I have never once looked back in regret.
Let me close by saying that I also believe that my generation, the famous (some might say infamous) “Boomer” generation has a rendezvous with destiny, before we pass from the scene. Those of us in our mid-50s to our mid-70s have a crucial calling to help further the divine mission of the Catholic Church. We are all, whatever our age or place in life, to be the living presence of Christ in this world, which our God loves and desires to save.