The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor described the American southeast as being “Christ-haunted.” By that simple expression, the great novelist was describing the sad reality of dismissing (or abandoning) the Christian Faith, while still being haunted by its core beliefs. The South was haunted historically by its acceptance of slavery, and the West is currently undergoing a similar spiritual visitation. As I begin my conversion story, I must admit that O’Connor’s expression of being Christ haunted also describes my own childhood and my earliest veiled encounters with the Lord Jesus. Let me explain.
My parents were raised in the stereotypical Catholic ghetto of the northeast United States. The faith surrounded them through the parish church, school, Knights of Columbus hall, convent, and local Catholic hospital. The faith was shared by customs and traditions that ranged from Angelus bells, rosaries, Sacred Heart images, Brown Scapulars, Religious habits, penny catechisms, novenas, votive candles, house blessings, cassocks, and meatless Fridays. They had it all, and — through those things — they came to know the Church and the Lord Jesus. Or did they?
Due to my father’s enlistment in the military during the Vietnam Conflict, my parents left the mill towns of the Northeast and found themselves at a duty station in Texas. Away from home, with no car, and limited resources, their practice of the faith slowly faded. As they recounted to me later, their personal experience of the faith was about institutions and customs, not personal submission to Jesus Christ and active discipleship to His Lordship. Even such biblical and Christian language sounded odd to them. And so, although their entire lives were completely surrounded by expressions and institutions of the faith, the lives of my parents did not become Christ-centered and there was no internal sense of discipleship to the Lord. As my parents grew their family, it’s no surprise that all the externals disappeared and their family life, and my own upbringing, was a Christ-haunted environment.
But what do I mean by a Christ-haunted childhood? What does that look like?
The hauntings of my parents’ upbringing were expressed in our family life through a strong moral code with a clear sense of right and wrong. There was appropriate discipline for wrong-doing and a keen sense of duty. Although never developed, there was also an overarching reliance on God’s care for us (what theology would call divine Providence), especially in terms of military assignments and the twists and turns that were a part of being in the Army during the Cold War. The haunting was also displayed in a demand for hard and excellent work, an adamant teaching on our responsibility to the common good, a healthy respect for authority, and the constant affirmation that good things require a good fight and that the fight is always worth the sacrifice. These were some of the many aspects of the Christian way of life that were lived and passed on to me and my siblings without any direct reference to the Lord or our relationship with Him.
I’m grateful for what I received from my parents. As a young married couple, they did their best with what was given to them. But the haunting stood alone. There was very little doctrinal teaching or spiritual expression. Although baptized in my second month of life, there was no active worship or external prayer in my childhood. I can only recall a few rare conversations about God or the Bible. Basic elements of the Christian Faith, such as the reality of Jesus Christ, His Lordship as the reason for our way of life, and the opportunity of a life-giving relationship with Him, were absent throughout my childhood. The notion of discipleship was never connected to the virtuous convictions and moral expectations that were given to me as a young person.
All things considered, we were a culturally good, wholesome, all-American family in one sense, but Christ-haunted, spiritually displaced in another. In many respects, we were a microcosm of many parts of the Church, which are windswept and in dire need of evangelization.
As I hear some people described as “converts” or “reverts,” I’m perplexed because neither of these terms apply to me. I’ve always belonged to the Church. I never left. But I didn’t know I was in the Church, or what that even meant. I was like the person who sits at a table, but doesn’t know the menu, and doesn’t even know they’re hungry. I didn’t have to come to the table later on, because I’d never been anywhere else. I never went looking elsewhere to be fed — I just didn’t know I was already at the table, and was supposed to be eating.
For these reasons, I don’t know what term could be used for me, and so I describe my earlier self as a baptized, noble pagan, who was Christ-haunted, and was unknowingly hungry for the grace of God and the abundant life offered in Jesus Christ.
All of this was smooth sailing, of course, until something shook the table.
A Good Catholic
In my early teens, my father’s assignment in West Germany concluded, and we returned to the United States. Thanks to Fort Jackson, South Carolina became our new home. As we settled in, my father wanted to help me get out and find “my thing.” Unlike my older brother, I wasn’t good in sports, and I enjoyed reading and being alone. In looking at different options, my father pushed me and directed me to join an outdoor youth program at a local church. The opportunities at character formation, leadership development, personal advancement, and spending time camping and hiking resonated with my personality. It was a perfect fit. And it set the stage for a major decision in my life.
While unknown to me, many of my fellow members of the program thought that I was of their religious tradition, who just attended worship with a different community. While on a camping trip, I approached the fire and some of the other members were huddled around, keeping warm and telling stories and jokes. As I approached, they were telling a joke about purgatory. Honestly, I had no idea what that was and so asked, “What’s purgatory?” To which one of the members responded, “Oh, it’s one of those crazy things that the Catholics believe.” Without even thinking, I said, “Oh, I’m Catholic.”
After making my unwitting profession of identity, I went on my happy way. It didn’t seem like any fireworks went off. Afterwards, however, it became a source of jokes and mockery. Now, in hindsight, I doubt these young men were zealots of their faith who wanted to engage in religious discrimination. I suspect at that tender age, full of insecurity, it was one thing that could mark someone else as different from the group and be used against them as a means of finding acceptance and comradery. Be that as it may, it hurt like hades.
On one occasion, the joking was particularly fierce. I returned home, upset and crying, and went upstairs. My father noticed and followed after me, wondering what was going on. When he came into my room, I was sitting on my bed. He sat down next to me and asked what happened. After I explained the whole situation, my father — who has always been an eminently practical man — said, “Well, this is what you do. Go and attend a few of their worship services. Don’t join their church. Stay Catholic. But let the guys see you around and then fade out.”
I knew my father was trying to help, and there was a certain integrity there that was disguised by utilitarianism. I’m sure he learned such skills through his years in the military. But the counsel didn’t sit right with me, and completely unexpectedly and totally unplanned, I replied, “No, Dad, if they’re going to make fun of a Catholic, they’re going to make fun of a good one.” And the following Sunday, I woke up, and walked down to the base chapel. I walked into the worship service labeled “Catholic Mass,” and I did my best to keep up and follow along. I’m not sure if I would have persevered if it wasn’t for an older couple who saw me and eventually invited me to sit with them and who showed me the ropes. The older gentleman would later prepare me for my First Holy Communion and serve as my sponsor for Confirmation.
The few years at the base chapel were formative ones in my discipleship and spiritual life. It was a small community, people looked out for each other, and it was all new. Without being a convert, I could share in the convert’s zeal and joy of discovering the fullness of faith.
But faith grounded in rebellion, even righteous rebellion, isn’t enough. There has to be something deeper, more personal, if discipleship is going to be a true response to the Lord’s call. And so, it was no surprise that a time quickly came when my discipleship needed to go deeper.
A “Rich Young Man” Moment
In high school, after getting my driver’s license, I had a lot of freedom and a lot of moral options. On one occasion, I was sitting in the back pew of my parish church impatiently waiting to go to Confession. The church has a larger-than-life crucifix over the back altar. The church also has a major street in front of it and, whenever the doors are open, you can hear the noise of the traffic behind you.
I remember being annoyed at having to be there and go to Confession. It was my first real temptation against a submission to the ways of God. In that moment, I was thinking that I didn’t have to be there. Very few other people were. My sins weren’t that bad and I didn’t need to keep going to Confession. In that moment, the doors were opened and I heard the traffic. I heard it as I was looking down the aisle at the crucifix, and I vividly remember thinking, “It’s either the way of the world or the way of the Lord Jesus.”
I’m embarrassed to write that I sat there for a couple of minutes with this option on my mind. But, then, coming to my senses, I prayed and made what Pope Saint John Paul II called, “a personal decision” for Jesus Christ. Looking at the cross, I prayed, “Lord, it’s only you. There are no other options that are real. You love me and I want to love you. Please help me!” I went to Confession and then walked up to the crucifix, knelt on the altar steps (a dramatic expression that was unusual for me at that time), and fully and totally accepted the Lord Jesus and His way of love for my life (cf. Mt 16:16; Jn 6:68).
Through that decision, the grace of the sacraments and my efforts to be a faithful disciple, were all fully fanned into a flame (cf. 2 Tim 1:6). My faith matured after that moment. It moved beyond a reaction against something and became a life-giving decision for Someone. As such, I refer to this experience as my “Rich Young Man” moment since, like the biblical character, I was called and invited to move beyond the “no” of a mere obedience to a zealous “yes” of a self-emptying relationship with Jesus Christ (cf. Mt 19:16-22).
That was high school. As my relationship with the Lord deepened, I realized it had to influence my choice of a college. Due to my intellectual abilities, I had many options, most of which would have been free. But there are things more valuable than money, and I knew my college formation had to fortify my discipleship. I couldn’t risk losing the pearl of great price (cf. Mt 13:45-46).
The Fanning into Flame
In my college search, I looked at state universities, private universities, and some Catholic and other faith-based universities, and many of their promotional points were the same. When I watched the video for Franciscan University of Steubenville, however, the university unabashedly declared Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14:6). The entire promo used these three points the outline for its entire pitch for the university. As I watched the video, I knew I had to attend this school.
Honestly, there were multiple reasons why I should not have attended the Franciscan University of Steubenville. It offered the lowest financial package, it was a ten-hour drive away from home, and it had the smallest and least attractive campus of the universities under consideration. And yet, all things considered, there was no comparison. I knew that if my discipleship with the Lord was going to grow, I needed to study where Jesus Christ was truly adored, revered, and obeyed. And so, taking on student debt and causing dismay among many of my mentors, I left for Steubenville, Ohio. I have rarely made such a sound and beneficial decision in all my life.
Although I was a history major with an eye for law school, I picked up theology in the cafeteria. It seems that theology always made its way into the conversation in one way or another. In addition, the daily Masses, frequent availability of Confession, the Portiuncula “Port” Adoration Chapel, the campus-wide Marian consecration, and the broad spectrum of devotionals to grow in discipleship to the Lord Jesus were most welcomed, received, and made a part of my own spiritual life.
The Faith Household System of Franciscan University was also an immense blessing to me. Households were composed of 12-20 male or female students. Household members predominantly lived on the same wing of a dorm and sought to live the holy fellowship of the early Church. My household, the Brothers of the Eternal Song, provided a chance for me to be mentored in the faith by upperclassmen, learn from other Catholic Christians (many of whom grew up in vibrant Catholic homes), and then to mentor underclassmen as I became an upperclassman myself. The household had sacramental and prayer commitments, formation goals, service projects, and provided experiences of giving and receiving fraternal correction forgiveness, affirmation, guidance, and brotherly accompaniment in the ways of the Lord.
During my time at Steubenville, Pope John Paul II was shepherding the Church, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was speaking throughout the world, Mother Angelica was on the airwaves, the university was led by Father Michael Scanlan, distinguished professors like Dr. Scott Hahn were on the faculty, recent converts — such as Marcus Grodi and Jeff Cavins — were on campus, and fellows students included the likes of Father Michael Gaitley, Matthew Kelly, Jason Evert, and many others who are now doing great work for the kingdom of God.
In many ways, Franciscan University was my first real experience of Catholic culture. Unlike the military chapels, where liturgy, devotional life, and religious expression were taken to the lowest common denominator, Steubenville let the faith flourish and a rich culture fill the campus and the hearts of many, including my own.
While at the university, I was surprised by the transformation in my soul and how priorities changed. My heart began to be moved toward the priesthood. Honestly, in my self-absorption, I didn’t want to hear or obey what God was asking. I wanted a wife, family, a career in law, relative wealth, and freedom. As grace worked within me, however, I could only hear the Lord Jesus say, “Come, follow me” (Mt 4:19). And I knew more and more what that meant for me and what He was asking of me. Eventually, in a moment of intense prayer and tears, I died to myself and surrendered everything totally, and without condition, to Jesus Christ (cf. Gal 2:19-20). I wanted to truly say, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” (Phil 2:11) and to fully mean it by declaring, “For to me, to live is Christ” (Phil 1:21).
I tell people to this day: If it were not for Franciscan University and the mentoring I received there, I would not have ever become a priest. The university’s culture of faith and discipleship changed my life and took me even deeper in my relationship with the Lord. It gave me the docility necessary to say “yes” to any call from the Lord, especially to the priesthood.
All Roads Lead to Rome
After graduation, I taught high school religion while applying to the seminary. After my application process was complete, my bishop told me that I was being sent to the Pontifical North American College in Rome for seminary studies. I was overjoyed. I started studying Italian and prepared to live overseas for several years.
In the Roman system, the seminary itself is distinct from the universities. The seminary is where we lived, worshipped, received our priestly training, and lived as a Christian community. The universities were the places for study and research. In the “first cycle,” which is the first three years of theological studies that concludes with a Bachelors in Sacred Theology (a Master of Divinity equivalent), I was at the Pontifical Gregorian University. I was immensely inspired by the initial mission and history of the school.
Founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola during the Catholic Reformation, the university was once the intellectual voice of the Church. Its educational system was based on the Saint’s mystical vision of God at the River Cardoner and his popular First Principle and Foundation. The system followed truth’s movement from God, to Christ and the Church, and then to the human person. It was marked by classes on Trinity in the first year, Ecclesiology in the second, and the virtues in the third year. Many of the theological experts at Vatican II had been faculty members of the Gregorian University. I was stoked at the opportunity to study there and was always — even on bad days — moved by Saint Ignatius’ motto — “for the greater glory of God” — that was painted on the ceiling above the main entrance. I was regularly motivated by the larger-than-life statue of the Lord Jesus at the end of the main hall, which had the Lord’s hand extended (almost pushing us away), with the Great Commission written on its base: “Go and teach all nations” (Mt 28:19-20).
Unfortunately, the theological studies were not as encouraging as the history and missiology of the university. The first cycle provided me with my first experience of the historical-critical method, which has its place, but also with the academic skepticism of the supernatural that unsettled and confused me at times. On one occasion, my professor told us that the Resurrection of the Lord was not a pseudo-physical reality. If a reporter was at the tomb, he would not have been able to take a picture of the Risen Christ. When pushed, it was painfully clear that the theologian did not truly believe in a bodily Resurrection. This is just one example of many such lectures and debates.
In spite of it all, I received a strong grasp of the theological method (minus the skepticism), and the extreme importance of “always having an answer ready” (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).
After the experience of the Gregorian University, I was ready for “second cycle,” which leads to a Licentiate Degree in a specialized field. My field would be moral theology and I asked to attend the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. This is a comparatively newer university in Rome being only a few decades old, rather than centuries. It’s run by the Prelature of Opus Dei, which is known for its keen use of the theological method, but always within the mind and direction of the Church.
My licentiate studies were a tremendous blessing. Inspired by the life and legacy of St. Josemaria Escriva, I was able to study, research, question, and debate, but always knowing that my professors would keep me within the boundaries of Sacred Tradition and the Sacred Scriptures. Holy Cross University was exactly what I needed as a young adult and as a man in studies for sacred ministry. With each class and professor, I learned more and was able to dive into the rich and extensive intellectual tradition of Catholic theology. Those studies helped me to see the intricate connection between dogmatic belief and the Christian way of life. They developed the intricate distinctions that prevented a student from falling into unbiblical beliefs about supposed tension between Christ and the Church, Law and the Gospel, nature and grace, etc.
In addition to the universities, I sought to absorb everything I could about Rome’s Christian heritage. I walked through churches, explored catacombs, visited the motherhouses of major Religious Orders, sought out significant places in the lives of saints, attended papal Masses, went to extra lectures outside of my formal studies, made it through all the major museums of Rome and Western Europe, went on pilgrimages with classmates to the holy places of the Faith, visited the Church in the mission fields of Africa, and studied all the theology, spirituality, history, art and archeology that I could get ahold of and make time for.
With each effort I made, I felt a strengthening and development of my spiritual life and discipleship. This growth constantly showed me how powerful the Gospel could be and how effective it is in changing minds and cultures when it’s not compromised and is fully unleashed with all its power (cf. 1 Cor 4:20; 1 Thes 1:5).
Rome is the heart of the Church and, therefore, the central battlefield for the soul of humanity. The battle can be felt by the spiritual aware. And it was precisely in those trenches of Rome that whatever within me was significantly lacking or needed further maturity found what it was missing (cf. Eph 4:13). The Lord Jesus called me, I said “yes,” and He molded and shaped me to faithfully follow Him, and to lead others to know Him and follow Him as well.
My years in the seminary were in the final years of the pontificate of Pope Saint John Paul II. The saintly pope’s love for the Lord Jesus, his concern for the Church throughout the world, and his emphasis on evangelization and catechesis were a model for me and my future priesthood, as they were for every seminarian and young priest of our time. I’m humbled to be in the group that’s called the “John Paul II Generation.” Every time I hear that expression, I’m moved to emotion and consider the “weight of glory” that has been placed on my shoulders and those of my generation (cf. 2 Cor 4:17).
Through my initial conversion as an older child and its growth as a young adult, in my time at Franciscan University, and in my studies in Rome, I was very much taught, mentored, disciplined, and encouraged in the way of the Lord Jesus. And it all very much came together as I neared the altar for my ordination and received the Holy Spirit to serve as a priest forever (cf. 2 Tim 1:7). No longer Christ-haunted, my life was now fully and unequivocally Christ-centered. He was — and is — my life.
The whole process described above of deeper conversion and growth in the Lord Jesus culminated in my priestly ordination almost thirteen years ago. As a pastor of souls, my mission remains the same. Every day, my “yes” to the Lord Jesus is repeated a few dozen times in various acts of patience, kindness, and charity (cf. Eph 4:1-3).
My task is to inspire, convict, affirm, and build up the Body of Christ (cf. Eph 4:12). My responsibility is to give as of first importance what I have received from the Lord and His Church, and so allow the Holy Spirit to form a parish culture where every believer can hear the Lord Jesus and can find the strength and encouragement to generously follow him (cf. 1 Cor 15:3; Acts 2:42).