I was born third of four boys to a family in Wisconsin; though most of my life growing up and starting my own family was spent just over the border in Minnesota. My father’s grandfather had emigrated from Namur, Belgium just after the American Civil War and joined America’s largest Belgian-American community in Door County, Wisconsin. My mother’s side had been in the U.S. much longer, descending from Scots-Irish ancestors. My grandfather, who died when my father was just 17, had married outside the Catholic Faith in about 1910 to a German-Lutheran woman; hence our part of the family was raised in the German-Lutheran faith, and our step-grandfather pastored a German-Lutheran church in northern Wisconsin for half a century.
A fascination with “these people”
So I went off to college at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, a Lutheran-sponsored school. It was 1966, and this highly conservative school was being swept up in all the emerging causes: the war, combatting racism, women’s rights, and the environmental movement. I also encountered the strange, mystical world of Roman Catholicism while working at St. Mary’s Hospital, where I was a hospital orderly and later a therapist. There I interacted daily with priests, nuns, and the occasional monk. I couldn’t hide my fascination with “these people,” constantly grilling them over their mysterious ways. My German-Lutheran childhood training had been decidedly anti-Catholic. I recall my parents talking in hushed tones about a “mixed marriage,” meaning that a Lutheran was marrying a Catholic and that they were going to do the wedding and raise the children “their way.” We were discouraged from dating the Catholic girls, which, naturally, made them all the more interesting to us. Now here I was in the same context, fascinated by Catholicism and also knowing, of course, how “wrong” it was.
In the middle of all of this, I married a girl from my college who had been my high school sweetheart, and I graduated from college with a three-month-old son!
Dealing with addiction
However, negative things were also going on at the time: I spiraled out of control with deepening alcoholism. Just two years after graduating college, I walked into my first of what would be thousands of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I had not been very religious during that time, but I had always been a seeker, even attending Quaker meetings for a year or so. “A.A. spirituality” suited me fine at first, even though a Catholic hospital chaplain, Father O’Connell often talked to me about deeper things.
Then we had a second son, and I felt convicted that neither of my boys was baptized. An Anglican priest who had emigrated from Canada, Father Bob, was a mentor to me in my recovery process and was easily accessible, so we took the boys to him for the ceremony. A little over four years later, I was ordained a perpetual deacon in the Episcopal Church. Father Bob was a “high church Anglo-Catholic,” as they liked to call themselves, so he celebrated the Eucharist at all services, kept Holy Week, and was otherwise very observant. I still recall fondly the “Holy Hour” at the altar late into the night on Maundy Thursday and doing the Stations of the Cross in public by walking around a small lake with groups from several Episcopal parishes.
“Done” with marriage
However, my marriage fell completely apart during this period, and two years later, with the bishop’s permission, I married again; he performed the wedding. During an economic recession, my work took me all the way to Florida. I maintained almost daily contact with my boys and arranged for frequent visits, but, of course, it was never the same.
Five years into my second marriage, my wife left suddenly. At that point, I determined that I was clearly done with marriage. I made a weak attempt to reconcile with the mother of my children, but we ran into the same roadblock as before: spirituality. I had asked years ago for us to renew our “courthouse” vows in a real church, but she had always refused. Of course, there were many other issues. Happily, over the years, we have been able to converse amicably and see to the details of watching over two grown sons and, now, three grandchildren.
I met Ruth Mary a few months into my new single life. She was Irish-Catholic, one of eight kids. We had a seamless relationship that evolved from friendship to companionship, realizing that we also shared deeply held spiritual convictions. I approached the Episcopal bishop where I now lived about the possibility of marrying once again, and he insisted that she would have to attend the Episcopal Church where I served as deacon. While she had no deep objection to that, her roots were Roman Catholic. Coming from my “high-churchman ship,” I told the bishop that since the Episcopal Church welcomed Catholics at their table, there should be no need for her to convert. When he remained adamant, we decided the Episcopal Church wasn’t for us.
A quick visit to Catholicism
We married in a non-denominational venue and, for reasons I did not understand at the time, we actually attended Mass the Sunday morning after our wedding. We then began to search for a new spiritual home. A year into the marriage, I approached the priest at St. Ignatius of Loyola Cathedral in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, about how we might unite in the Roman Catholic Church. After all, I had grown up in a Catholic town, worked for two Catholic orders, and had been sneaking off to Mass for years. My studies of Anglican theology took me closer to the edge of the Catholic cliff.
At this point, I entered a year-long process of seeking and obtaining annulments, attending classes, and so on. I went to RCIA briefly and enjoyed the classes but, after the priest met with me again, he suggested that based on my previous ordination and study, I could consider that part of the journey completed. Shortly after, we had our marriage blessed by a priest and just a few weeks later, I was received into the Catholic Church. Father had me stand before the congregation and simply declare the Nicene Creed. When I reached the part in the Nicene Creed about the Holy Spirit, the doors of the church blew open in a sudden gust of wind, papers were strewn about the room, and even the priest was a little shaken.
One would like to think that was it. However, a part of me wasn’t settled, yet. I wanted to work full-time for the Church. I had a Master’s Degree in counseling and had worked as an addiction therapist and director for over twenty years. After making a couple of weak attempts to find employment in the Catholic Church, I was drawn into a situation with a non-denominational, charismatic church that was just starting up. They were looking for someone with counseling credentials to develop a counseling center in the church. I was not asked to renounce my Catholic Faith and fully intended to continue attending Mass even while working full-time for this church. However, the new church operated in a very controlling manner, and even though Catholics attending there were encouraged to maintain their roots, the less-than-subtle message for staff was obvious.
In those fifteen years that followed, my wife and I would occasionally attend Mass, but we were certainly not keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church as a whole. Even though the leader of this church professed respect for Catholicism and other faiths, anti-Catholicism was evident in the church itself. Ironically, he once came to me for advice on whether to do communion on the first or second Sunday of the month. I took him straight to Acts 2:42 and suggested to him that if communion is not part of every service, we were out of line with Scripture. As I came to learn, many Protestants teach a sola Scriptura doctrine, yet are all but forced to ignore something as obvious as that passage in Acts.
Continued internal conflicts that could not be resolved caused me to take a new look at my involvement in the non-denominational church. After much soul-searching and consultation, my wife and I realized it was best for all concerned for us to end our involvement there. We left behind many good, sincere people who continue to be in our prayers.
I had been asked by a former employer to help him set up a spiritual program for his non-sectarian, addiction program. It was supposed to have been a part time job, but he made a very generous offer at the right time, and I left the job at the church. I still though I might stay on for a while and also take on the leadership of the Gold Coast Via de Cristo (Cursillo) movement and I attempted to work things out with the leader of the church, but I think we both knew it was over. I had purchased a small copy of the Catholic, St. Joseph Edition Bible for my wife on Christmas and simply said to her: “You’ll be needing this. The Bibles we have in the house are incomplete.”
The Promised Land
On Christmas Day of 2009, we attended Mass together. When the congregation sang Adeste Fidelis in Latin, the words and sounds penetrated my heart; I was so overcome I could barely mouth the words. What had started out in 1990 as a one-year journey had actually taken nearly 20 years, not much different from the Hebrews, who stretched a two-week trip into 40 years. What I realized, from my story and the story of Exodus, was that just making a decision is not enough. We have to work it out, confronting issues and barriers and doubts. I realized I had needed every minute of that process to work through all the doubts, to see the frailties of Protestantism, and to come to know the strength and depth of the Roman Catholic Church.
We registered in the Catholic parish just a few weeks later. I met with one of the priests and did some major repenting. Father led me through a general confession and welcomed me back home. I then told him of my grandfather’s rejection of the Catholic Faith about one hundred years ago, suggesting that this day was then beginning of redemption. I found out just months later that one of my cousins had also become Roman Catholic! More recently still, the daughter of another cousin emailed me that she, too, was coming home.
I don’t think I “came home” as much as I simply realized where my home had always been. One of the things that surprised me, for example, was that when I first entered into the church many years ago, I already knew the “Hail Mary.” Upon reflection, I recalled that my father had taught it to me when I was six or seven years old; apparently I had asked him. How he knew it, having been raised in a Lutheran home with a Lutheran pastor as stepfather, was another question.
Working in “the world”
I experienced a sense of loss over the 15 years after my initial conversion during which I was away from the Catholic Church. Some of the writings of Dr. Scott Hahn and others helped; I realized that in those 15 years, I learned the Holy Scriptures in a deep way. In fact, my wife and I read through the Bible out-loud twice over a period of about nine years. I engaged in “Christian counseling” with most of my counselees, applying Biblical teachings and principles freely in our sessions. I taught and wrote from this point of view.
The biggest sacrifice in making this change was with Via De Cristo, a Protestant reflection of the Roman Catholic three-day retreat, Cursillo. I had served as spiritual director on over a dozen weekends and was slated to be the new spiritual director for the South Florida movement. Because this would require me to do “communion” services on a regular basis, I realized I could not serve in that role. I had come to understand that “communion,” as it is commonly called in those circles, is a very serious thing reserved only for people willing to give up their lives for it, as priests do, and also that Catholics may not participate in a Protestant “communion service,” out of reverence for the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
As a contemplative at heart, I have always been able to learn from other faiths and belief expressions. In fact, my current job as a Director of Spiritual Services for an addiction treatment program takes me into close working quarters with Orthodox Jews, evangelicals, “New Age” ministers, and the like. I have put together a program that utilizes spiritual leaders of all denominations to get patients in the rehab center talking about spirituality. I am also privileged to work with these leaders myself. Once or twice a month, I attend a “Shabbat Recovery Service” led by a Hasidic rabbi and my involvement there has strengthened my faith.
My wife and I pray daily, both through the rosary and many other prayers. She’s teaching CCD and is very active in an exciting women’s ministry at our parish. Best of all, for me is that look of peace on her face as we enter into the sanctuary.
The Lord is my inheritance
So we’ve come home. I don’t think it was because I heard something new. I think it was because I heard something old, something my great grandfathers heard, and something that their great grandfathers heard.
My “patron saint,” Blessed John Paul II, isn’t even a “full” saint, yet. A friend of mine and local news anchor in Minneapolis covered the pope’s visit to Iowa. He is an Episcopalian but came back from that time changed. He tried but never could fully explain to me what had happened. Now, he doesn’t have to.
Where God takes me next is anyone’s guess. The delightful part of this is that earlier in my life, when I was so sure of where I was headed, I was anxious about it all the time. Now, when I have almost no idea what the next step is, I’m totally at peace!