I was born May 13, 1977, in Rochester, New York. Two years later my family moved to a suburb of Chicago, where my sister was born. After another two years we moved permanently to Ridgefield, Connecticut. My father worked for several different companies as a patent attorney. In my early years my mother stayed home and continued her schooling part-time; once she obtained her master’s degree in psychology she began to hold a series of full-time jobs. My sister and I attended public school; I graduated from Ridgefield High School in 1995. Relations within my immediate family have always been very close. My childhood was filled with joyful days and frequent family vacations. Almost every evening the dinner table was host to intense political and philosophical discussions, especially by the time I entered high school.
My father is of Jewish upbringing, and my mother was raised Protestant, but both gave up the practice of any religion when they reached adulthood. Accordingly, I grew up without religious instruction, having limited exposure through relatives both to Judaism and to Protestantism. My fondest childhood memories are of Christmas at the warm and cheerful home of my maternal grandparents. The enormous tree, surrounded by endless presents, was the highlight of my existence, and the usual collection of Christmas carols, some with occasional references to a newborn king, afforded what seemed to be the most fitting orchestration for this annual event.
One of my father’s brothers became a “born-again” Christian, and when I was about eleven years old he began to encourage me strongly to take the same step. He invited me to his house for a visit and took this opportunity to push me to make a formal commitment to Jesus Christ. I had no time to reflect on the words he prompted me to say; I was thinking mostly of ending the whole awkward episode as quickly as possible. It was, nevertheless, the first time anyone had explained to me who Jesus was, and the Bible he gave to me was the first I had ever seen. My parents were furious when they learned of the incident, though they did not break off contact with my uncle; they simply made sure he understood that he was to engage in no further proselytizing of their children. I understood that they were angry at him for pressuring me, especially in so clandestine a manner, and I was somewhat thankful that they had intervened. But this was the first time I had clearly heard them give voice to their deep hostility toward religion. This reaction on their part left me suspicious. My parents had developed a strong libertarian bent in early adulthood. They always encouraged me to be an “independent thinker” and to pursue whatever was important to me. But religion was off the table of discussion: independent thinking could not include choosing to give up on independent thought, and my pursuit of happiness could not include submitting to the control of an organization.
The training I received from the many spirited debates at home encouraged me to be outspoken at school, both in the classroom and with my friends and acquaintances. Since all my peers were not equally elated over being entitled to my opinion, I soon fixed on one of my more soft-spoken friends as my favorite sounding board. James listened to my political views (imbibed largely from my parents) with seeming interest, but when the discussion would turn to religion he would be sure to make his beliefs known, carefully but firmly. It was through these initial exchanges that I learned that James was a devout Catholic. This led to two further realizations: 1) that I knew nothing about the Catholic Faith; and 2) that, though he corrected my rude misconceptions with great meekness, James was intent on defending the truth of his Faith, not in the heated manner in which one defends a political opinion, but with the peaceful confidence with which one sets forth a scientific certitude.
I resolved to educate myself. At sixteen I was offered a job in the town library. The daily task of shelving books brought me into contact with a substantial Catholic bibliography. I studied the Lutheran and Calvinist positions as well, in the hopes perhaps of confuting my friend, but here, by a twist of Providence, my parents again intervened. My mother had rebelled against her Protestant upbringing largely because its insistence on human wretchedness. Her religion had taught her that she was inherently bad, and when she heard a similar proposition come from my lips at the dinner table, she condemned it for the cruel falsehood that it was, and my father seconded the motion. The lesson stuck.
James had me over to his house for dinner several times. Against his family there could be no argument. I was deeply impressed by the prayers they recited before and after meals, the religious music that played in the background, and the civility with which they addressed each other. We spoke about Catholic education and St. Thomas Aquinas; this unfamiliar name would soon begin to loom large in my private studies. The first time I saw an image of the Angelic Doctor, with haloed head and visage in peaceful contemplation, I thought, surely this man had the truth. He taught that there could be no conflict between faith and reason, and an initial perusal of his works and their logical structure convinced me that St. Thomas knew much more than I did about right reasoning. His copious quotations of Holy Scripture dispelled any notion that evangelicals had patented the practice. I had been reading the Bible for some time, but I now began to realize that the Bible was a Catholic book. If it proved anything, it proved what the Church had always believed and practiced.
One final influence during high school would have a decisive impact on my conversion and on the later development of my faith: my exposure to sacred music. I sang in the high school choir throughout my four years. The choir director was a Catholic, and she had no scruples about introducing us to a great body of religious music, nor did she hesitate to take us all over town to sing carols at Christmas. We sang music from a variety of traditions, but especially polyphony of the 16th and 17th centuries. I began to consider music from a new perspective. Modern music was mostly about human love, which it treated in trite terms. “Classical” music seemed to speak to various human emotions in a more or less vague manner. But sacred music was about the love of God; it seemed at once frigidly set apart and more warmly intimate than any other form of human expression. It seemed, in fact, that it was not crafted by man at all; it was rather given to him. Like the writings of St. Thomas, sacred music had the ring of objective truth.
I discreetly asked my friend James to show me how the Sign of the Cross was made. I began to sign myself alone in the car and to recite daily prayers. I had sung the Hail Mary many times in Latin (a language which I had not yet studied); I was so excited the first time I came upon the prayer written in English that I immediately took it as my own, neatly by-passing all Protestant disquietude. At the end of high school, I went on a Christian retreat for young people. There was a Catholic priest on hand during the retreat for Confession or private conversation. I went to see him and presented my situation: eighteen years old, unbaptized, without any formal religious instruction, and “pondering my next step.” The priest replied, “You’re not baptized, and you’ve come to speak to me. You’re asking Jesus to bid you come out to Him on the water. Well, He bids you.”
A couple of months later, I was settling into college life, newly arrived at Boston University. Walking down one of the campus streets, I saw the sign for the Newman house and slowed my step. The priest was standing on the sidewalk speaking to someone, but when he saw me he introduced himself. After exchanging only a few questions we were soon on the topic of taking classes to become Catholic. The classes would start in a few weeks; until then he encouraged me to continue my reading and to attend the Mass on campus. I had never been comfortable attending Mass in my hometown parish, so this was my first time. I was struck by the order I found in the Catholic liturgy. Born-again services and youth meetings had been wild or awkward, and in Protestant services I had discerned little order beyond a stale pile of hymns and a sermon. But the Mass was truly an ordered action, with nothing theatrical about it (later encounters would be more disappointing in this regard, but by then I would be sufficiently formed so as not to be discouraged).
The catechesis I received through the R.C.I.A program was less than perfect, and being on a campus without a Catholic church was also unhelpful (all Christian groups shared the same chapel), but I was greatly blessed by the sponsor who was chosen for me (I did not yet know any practicing Catholics well enough at university, and my friend James was off with the Merchant Marine and could not be reached). My sponsor was a fellow undergraduate named Jeff Gubbiotti. Jeff took me to a church downtown where I could see Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament and take part in traditional Catholic devotions. I was greatly moved by the meditative rhythm of the Rosary. My preparation for baptism developed steadily. I was, however, leading something of a double life: to my sponsor, the people at Newman house, and a few new friends at school, I was a catechumen, a great sign of hope to Catholics. To my friends and family back home, I was the same person as always. My sister knew of my plans from the beginning, and I told my parents at Christmas, but no one else knew. It was normal, of course, that I should wait until I neared the end of my preparation before making an announcement to the family at large, but I was also very reticent to discuss the matter with friends who had known me since childhood. It would be years before I would be able to do so at length. At any rate, it turned out that my reception into the Church would be no private affair.
I was scheduled to be received into the Church on the Easter Vigil, 1996. The plan was that I would be baptized and make my First Communion with two other catechumens at the chapel on the Boston University campus; I would be confirmed at the cathedral at a later date. About three weeks before the Easter Vigil, the Newman house received a call from the chancellor of the Archdiocese. Apparently the Newman house at B.U. was one of the only churches in the diocese with more than one catechumen for the Vigil. The Cardinal wished to have one of them received into the Church during the celebration of the Easter Vigil at the cathedral. The lot fell to me, and I agreed. I would receive all three sacraments at the hands of Bernard Cardinal Law, Archbishop of Boston.
I now made a general announcement to the family, mostly to my mother’s side, since these were the relatives I saw on a regular basis. I received small gifts and good wishes from my Protestant relatives. My parents, my sister, and several friends came to the Vigil, and were impressed by the solemnity of it. My mother said afterwards that she was very pleased by the ceremony and found nothing negative about it. There would never be any family opposition to my conversion. May God bless them for their good will.
When people ask me how I became Catholic, I usually say, “the same way an infant does.” I chose to become a Catholic as a young man. I had experienced nothing but the mildest human influences, most of which I had sought out. Nevertheless, I know I was led by Someone at every step I took on the path to the baptismal font in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
Soon after my entry into the Church, I was taken by a desire to settle in as a Catholic as quickly as possible. I sensed that Catholics in general had little understanding of converts: either you were a Catholic or you weren’t; you didn’t become one. Being a convert meant being a star, and I had no wish to remain in the spotlight. I was ready to start an “ordinary” Catholic life; I had not yet learned that every Catholic life is a unique adventure. It was largely for this reason that I took parish life as it came. I was a bit disappointed to observe that the sacred music I had come to love in high school was not to be found in any Catholic church I had come across. But for the time being, I performed a certain mental abstraction from the liturgy I encountered on a weekly basis, content enough to be an anonymous fellow in the pew.
From time to time at the university, other Catholics would ask me if I thought I might have a vocation to the priesthood. I would respond vaguely in the negative. I had always quietly declined to have any involvement in the liturgy on campus; I never wanted to be a lector or a Eucharistic minister. In my catechesis I had not retained any strong definition of the sacrificial priesthood; being a priest seemed more along the lines of these other liturgical functions. I had no “pull” to this life, and I thought little of it until shortly after college.
I majored in classics at Boston University: I learned Greek and Latin, and ancient history and literature. Though I loved my course of study, I decided, to the dismay of my professors, to halt my studies after undergraduate and not to enter a doctorate program. The job market was good when I graduated from B.U. in 1999; I easily landed a job in Boston at a major bank. The work did not interest me, but it allowed me to make some money, stay in Boston with my friends, and plot my next move. I now lived on the other side of the city, so I had to find a residential Catholic parish of which I could become a member. There was a beautiful church in walking distance from my apartment, but the Sunday liturgy was, as far as music and other practices, simply unbearable. One Sunday in Autumn I happened to be downtown and had to find another church for Mass. It occured to me that I knew about a Tridentine Mass in the city. I had been to a low Mass once during college and had found it quite alien, but in a brief moment on the subway I resolved to give it another try.
That morning in Holy Trinity Church changed the course of my life. Seeing the priest emerge humbly from the sacristy and go unto the altar of God, I thought at once: I want to be a priest. I made it downtown to the Latin Mass a few Sundays later, and it was a High Mass, with Gregorian chant and Palestrina. This is all I want in life. This time I discovered the coffee hour after Mass. The people were very friendly, and I learned from talking with them that there were several communities in the Church where one could study for the priesthood in the traditional rite. A new world had opened to me, and I was beside myself with glee. Despite this first fervor, it would be another three years before I would finally arrive as a candidate for the seminary of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. The events that intervened belong as much to the story of my conversion as to that of my vocation.
My faith was “stirred up” on those Sundays of Advent, 1999. I later learned that these were once called the Stir-up Sundays for their collects which begin with that phrase — Excita, Domine. I knew that before making any decision about the seminary, I needed to take a great step forward in the practice of my faith. My life had to be become Christ-centered. I ended a long standing relationship that had been threatening my faith. I began to attend daily Mass (unlike Sundays, the daily Mass near my apartment was quiet and prayerful) and to say my daily Rosary much more faithfully (I unhesitatingly credit the Rosary for preserving me through those years when I had grown lax in my new religion). For the first time since my conversion, I went to confession regularly. I started to learn more about the worldwide Catholic Church by attending liturgies of the Eastern rites. It was nothing short of a second, greater conversion. All through college, it was enough if I could tell people that religion was an important part of my life. I had now experienced a change of heart: religion was not an important part of my life; my life was part of my religion.
There were no more immediate obstacles to my answering a call to the priesthood. None, that is, except myself. I soon found that I could continue quite well where I was without compromising my faith – I could still enjoy friends, family, and the Boston Red Sox. I took a spiritual director at the diocesan seminary, but he put no pressure on me in my discernment. I was still dissatisfied with my job, but I looked into the possibility of teaching Latin and Greek in secondary school, and before long I had several job offers. One offer was too good to pass up: a boys’ school in Maryland near my grandfather’s house, with the same pay as the bank – plus a bonus for teaching both Latin and Greek. I charged ahead, sure that accepting the offer was the right decision. My family was in strong agreement; it would be foolish to turn it down. I told the school that I would be moving down for the following September. Everyone was happy that I had found such a good place for myself.
It was now winter, 2001. I had dinner one evening with a priest I knew from my college days. I had already spoken to him in the past about my vocation. I cheerfully announced to him my plans to move away and take the teaching job. He agreed that it was a fine position, but added, “And what does this have to do with your vocation?” I explained lamely that I had not given up on a priestly vocation, but that this job would surely not interfere with my discernment. “Your current job may not interfere with your discernment,” he replied, “but changing your job, your friends, your location – that’s taking off for somewhere else just to go into a hovering pattern. If you’re seriously thinking about a vocation, you need to settle that question first.” The conversation unsettled me, but I made no immediate changes in my plans. I decided to pray on it during Lent and to stay open to God’s will. That year I assisted for the first time at Holy Week in the traditional rite. The graces I received that Easter insured that I would never again be content moving any direction but toward my calling. My plans to move away now left me unable to sleep at night. I prayed and prayed again, and went to pour out my thoughts before my spiritual director. We talked for an hour, and as I was leaving he told me to stop by the chapel and ask Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament to show me His will. I did so; and my life is now established on the answer He gave me so clearly that day.
I contacted the school and withdrew my acceptance. I had not yet resigned at my job in Boston, so I remained working there while I began my search for a seminary or a community. I was resolved to one thing: no more roadblocks on my path to the priesthood. The coming year would not accommodate me in this regard; I had already been given much, and more would now be expected of me. The distractions piled up: a major car accident, an increase in work hours, discouraging conversations with disappointed friends and family. I found that I could not see clearly; the vocational literature I received from various communities left me without a clear decision. My spiritual director told me frankly that he did not understand my attraction to the Latin Mass and that I should probably find another director if that was my resolve. I left spiritual direction and sank into several months of discouragement. I allowed myself to be taken up with the many distractions in my life and proceeded no further. As I was driving home from work one night, I made a split-second decision to stop at a light that had just turned yellow. I stared in dumb amazement as truck flew through the red light on the intersecting street, passing directly in front of my car by the driver’s side. I had missed death by an instant. The thought came to me at once: while you sit here and mull, life is happening.
I could wait no longer; I would follow my vocation, even by a blind step of faith. I had been friendly for several months with a small religious community in western Massachusetts. They had no priestly vocations, and I was not at all sure about having a vocation with them, but I asked them to take me as a postulant. I quit my job and off I went. The move was scary and agonizing for my family, who had no understanding of religious vocations and thought I was simply abandoning everyone who loved me. After six months I knew I had to move on, but the step had been necessary; I had needed this period of prayer and recollection. I was now completely uprooted from my life in the world; the next place I would land would be the seminary.
I went to stay with my parents in Connecticut, and I kept myself busy making phone calls and scheduling visits. For my spiritual reading I took up an author about whom I heard only a little but desired to learn more: St. Francis de Sales. With his Introduction to the Devout Life in hand, my first encounter with the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest would be decisive. I got the Institute’s superior in the United States, Msgr. Schmitz, on the phone and scheduled a meeting with him. I had never wanted simply to join an order that was “all about” the Latin Mass, and now I understood why. In the Institute, the traditional liturgy was a given, the foundation, inasmuch as the Eucharist is the foundation and source of all priestly ministry. But the Institute of Christ the King is a community with a specific spirituality, as one would expect with any community in the Church. It is the spirit of St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of Divine Love; in the Institute we live by a charity which we practice before we preach. The Catholic Faith is the truth and must be proclaimed as such. But if it is not proclaimed and lived with charity, the priest who proclaims it is nothing more than a sounding gong. I took this spirituality for my own at once. I had found my vocation at last.
I left for seminary full of joy, and I went not to “give it a try”, but to stay. Those were the parting words of advice which I received from an Assumptionist I knew in Massachusetts, Fr. Joseph Richard. He died 2008 after 62 years of priesthood. I will never forget how he used to say good-bye to people: he would always add, “pray for my conversion.” As I begin my final year of seminary, already ordained a deacon of Holy Mother Church, I appreciate more than ever that my conversion to God is not complete; but by the grace of God, it is well underway.