I was the youngest of four, born and raised by a single-parent mother in Brooklyn, New York. My mother was a strong Irish Catholic. She instilled in us through example and teaching the importance and strength gained through our faith. By the time I was eleven years old, my father was out of my life for good. Up until that point, he was inconsistent at best. He openly denied God. Somehow, he managed to marry my mother in the church. At their wedding rehearsal, when he was asked by the priest to kneel, he said, “I kneel before no one.”
We know that many make the unfortunate decision to terminate a pregnancy. My mom never knew when my father’s paycheck would make it home, and it was a struggle to feed and clothe three children all under the age of six. The man made her life a living hell, but even when she received news that she was pregnant for a fourth time, having an abortion never crossed her mind. I am so grateful that my mother valued me from the moment of conception. Many women in similar situations choose to terminate the life of their unborn baby. My mother chose life — she chose me. Somehow, by the grace of God and with help from relatives, my family and I survived our rough Brooklyn beginnings.
Grace of Saying Grace
I received my baptism at St. Thomas Aquinas in Park Slope where my mother took the four of us kids to church every Sunday. Because of our circumstances, we had to bounce around from place to place, so we never stayed in one spot for too long. By the time I was five, we moved into Bay Ridge and quickly became part of the CCD program at Our Lady of Angels, where I eventually received my first Communion. At age eleven, after being kicked out of our apartment because the rent wasn’t paid, my mother had to make a tough decision. In order to keep our family together, she had to split us up. We all lived with different family members while she brushed up on her typing skills and went job hunting. I stayed in Long Island with my Aunt Jeannie and Uncle George, along with my two cousins. It was there that I learned how to pray.
Every night, we took turns saying a pre-meal blessing. First, we said, “Thank you God for this food we are about to receive.” This was foreign to me. In fact, I probably thumbed my nose at God for not having enough food, but in retrospect, He always provided. The second part of the prayer was: “Thank you God for all of the blessings you’ve given us.” This too was unfamiliar as I was always cursing God for not having a father’s presence in the home or the family that most of my peers had with parents who loved one another. The third and final part of the blessing was, “Help anyone who needs our prayers.” If I prayed for anything back then, it was always for me and never for anyone else. This simple three-part, pre-meal blessing taught me so much about prayer, so much about gratitude, and so much about grace. I had many blessings: a rock star of a mother who sacrificed everything for her children, loving siblings who always had my back and chipped in to help our family in any way that they could, and lastly, I had a God-given talent for baseball. Those two months in Long Island taught me a lot about what I wanted in life and what I hoped for in a family. I continue to use that prayer with my family nearly 40 years later.
Set on the Majors
When I arrived back home, my mother found a job at Chemical Bank and a place in Bensonhurst for the five of us to live. My father never stepped foot into that apartment. Although he never showed me the way regarding faith or anything else, in a sense he turned out to be one of my greatest role models — I knew exactly what not to do. Later, I would argue with my college professors because the statistics in the textbooks state that abuse begets abuse, but I made a choice to be different. I would become an outlier; from an early age I knew the father, the husband, and the man that I wanted to become.
Soon after moving into our new place, I received my Confirmation at The Basilica of Regina Pacis church. My first three Sacraments came from three different churches, in three different neighborhoods, where I had three different sets of friends. Many of my friends or acquaintances from that time period ended up on drugs, in jail, or dead. I stayed away from drugs and crime, but I wasn’t perfect. With lots of free time on my hands I got myself into quite a bit of trouble, but luckily nothing too serious. There were many times when I was given dozens of Hail Marys and Our Fathers for penance after my Confession.I did survive those years thanks to baseball and the faith-filled foundation instilled in me by my hero — my mother. Click To Tweet
I did survive those years thanks to baseball and the faith-filled foundation instilled in me by my hero — my mother. I certainly knew right from wrong; I had a conscience or “good old-fashioned Irish Catholic guilt,“ as we called it. Also, my passion for and exceptional proficiency at baseball enabled me to escape the plight that many endure in the roiling cauldrons of urban America. I received a scholarship to Concordia College in Bronxville, New York, but like too many teenagers, my faith waned during those years. I decided the rules weren’t for me. I wasn’t leaving Jesus, only His church.
In June of 1993, soon after graduation, I was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. In Elizabethton, Tennessee, I led the Rookie Twins team with a .310 batting average, and many other offensive categories such as hits and stolen bases, but most importantly, I helped lead the club to a pennant. Again, during this time, I didn’t feel a need for God. I thought things couldn’t be better. Most of us stray from our faith when we perceive things as going well, especially when we’re young. It’s usually during challenging times that we either question God or look to Him for comfort, consolation, and guidance. During my second year, while playing in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, my average dropped from .310 to .202. During this rough patch, I found a need for God. I began praying more and reading Sacred Scripture. Now that I look back, I was just asking for help, expressing my desire to prove that I was big league material. I needed direction on how to deal with failure and self-doubt, two flaws that I had rarely experienced on the baseball field. During this stage of my life, I was a two-time-a-year Catholic, attending church on Easter and Christmas. But during the pro baseball season, because of our games on Sunday, I missed Mass on Easter. Instead, I attended some Bible study groups occasionally at our home field and sometimes on the road. I still believed; I had faith, but it was personal and private. I was turning to God, but not to His Church. This continued for several years.
In May of 1995, I was released from the Twins. My dream was shattered, and I was as lost as I’ve ever been.In May of 1995, I was released from the Twins. My dream was shattered, and I was as lost as I’ve ever been. Click To Tweet
A Bride and a New Beginning
Two years later, I had planned a trip to a The Surf Club at Ortley Beach to meet some friends. They couldn’t meet until later that afternoon, and I had wanted to hit the beach, so I made the drive by myself. As soon as I hit the Parkway, I was in a major traffic jam. The Surf Club was exit 82 — by exit 98 I had had enough of stop-and-go traffic, so I exited the Parkway and ended up at Pt. Pleasant Beach. This turned out to be divine intervention, because my life would take an unexpected turn. I sat down to order some food at the café on the boardwalk when a beautiful young woman walked below me on the beach. She looked up and smiled. When I settled into my chair on the beach and pulled out a book, there she was again, and the rest is history. The book was turned upside down, and my life was turned right side up. I never finished that book, but Heather and I continue to write our own chapters together, and are now in our 24th year of a blessed marriage.
I was supposed to be playing professional baseball, not sunbathing on the Jersey shore, but things took a different course on that July morning as I questioned why I was cut from the Twins. But later that afternoon, I knew that God may have closed the window of opportunity for me to fulfill my dream of being a major leaguer, but by leading me to get off the Garden State Parkway at exit 98 on that July morning, he opened the door of fulfillment and joy I experience every day with my bride.
Nine months after meeting on the beach, we were engaged. Immediately after she said, “Yes,” she informed me that Father Geno was the priest that would have to marry us. Heather had grown up Protestant, but just a year before we met, she converted to Catholicism, thanks to a young, vibrant and dynamic priest who came to console her family after the sudden loss of her mother, who had passed away at the young age of fifty-three. Soon after, Heather joined the RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program). What perfect timing for us to meet! Utilizing Father Geno as His conduit, God took the pain from Heather’s loss and used it for good to bring her into His Church. And He used it to set the stage for us to meet a year later. Her conversion to Catholicism meant that we could be married in the Catholic Church.
On October 2,1998, six months after the engagement and within fifteen months of that day on the beach, we were married. Father Geno moved from our local parish to serve as the President of DePaul High School, but he agreed to celebrate our wedding Mass in St. Anthony’s. A couple of years later, we were blessed with two healthy boys, born sixteen months apart. We were eager to teach them about God, to lay a foundation for them with Christ at its center. We encouraged our boys to pray and to talk to Jesus often, but I can’t say I was doing my best parenting. Although they received all their Sacraments, we would show up to St. Anthony’s and leave, never having a connection with the priest, the liturgy, the homily, the other parishioners, or the church community. We did the bare minimum, not giving any of our time or talent.
Church for me was a box that I was checking off. I’d throw a few bucks in the basket, sometimes not even connected to what was most important — the Eucharist. I was just spinning my wheels, completely on autopilot. My church and prayer life for the next fifteen years were stagnant. I had so many blessings, so much to be grateful for, and I did thank God for this daily, but what I was missing was Sacramental Grace. Confession was years in my past, and if my boys had baseball games on Sunday, I chose to attend those games rather than honoring the Sabbath.
In February of 2018, I was moved to speak about my faith — to share in a vulnerable and intimate way. This was something I had never had the courage to do before.
My wife Heather had gone to an event at our boys’ high school called “Come and See.” It was run by the ministry program. I wanted to attend, but work kept me from going. When my wife arrived home and shared her excitement about the night’s talk-and-testimony on gratitude, somehow, I knew that I was supposed to give one of the next talks. A speaker would give a talk on a subject and then someone else would give a testimony to illustrate the topic. This desire to speak about faith was foreign to me. My faith was always a personal and private matter. I had given many talks as a speaker, but never on the topic of faith. At that moment, in addition to knowing that I would give the next talk, I also knew what the talk would be about — forgiveness. I met with the head of the ministry and volunteered to speak at a future event. He told me he would pray about it and the topic of the next talk. Soon after that, I was asked to give my testimony on… any guesses? Forgiveness!
The story I shared was about how I came to forgive my biological father. One evening in October of 1998, as a newlywed, I was saying my evening prayers as I always did. I’ve said the “Our Father” hundreds if not thousands of times but never fully understood the words. I was usually on autopilot with my prayers, spinning my wheels, but this time, I had my moment of truth when I got to this verse: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It stopped me in my tracks. How can I expect God to forgive me for my shortcomings, my failures, my sins, if I am unable to forgive those who have sinned against me? This pierced my heart. I also knew that in order to be the father and the husband that I wanted to be, I needed to unlock the chains of unforgiveness that were dragging me down. God was using this moment, as I stood at the edge of this new life as a husband and father, to get my spiritual house in order before we conceived our first child.
I had tried to forget about my dark past, about all the pain, the guilt, and the memories I had of my father. I thought it would go away if I kept those feelings tucked away in my back pocket, but the Lord had other plans. At that moment, I surrendered and offered it all up to God. For the first time in my adult life, in my entire life, I said the Lord’s prayer with purpose, with intensity, with focus, with unmasked sincerity of heart. I understood the words but more importantly, I meant them when I said them, and then I added to the prayer: “Lord, God, please take the hate out of me.” Hate may have been a strong word, and I am not even sure what the right word is, but that’s what came out, and God responded to me almost immediately with an abundance of grace.
I fell asleep in the living room, and I woke up a few hours later to the most beautiful white, heavenly light—the light you read about and see in the movies. It was coming down from my ceiling up through the floor and the walls. Every cell of my being was being consumed by this bright blinding light. It felt so good I didn’t want it to end, yet it was so powerful that it hurt, and I simultaneously wanted it to end. I was in a full body cramp, paralyzed in a sense. It felt like I was being filled and then emptied. Filled with what I can only describe as an infusion of the living Holy Spirit and then emptied, forgiven, absolved. It was like the chills-on-steroids, and I kept repeating the words, “please God, take the hate out of me” and then it was gone. I do not know if it lasted two seconds, two minutes, or two hours, but it felt like an eternity. And there I was, lying on my living room floor, eyes wide open—never in my life have I felt so exhilarated and exhausted at the same time.
Maybe this is a foretaste of Purgatory. Maybe this is what that great purge is like. The best way to describe how I felt at that moment– my soul was cleansed, my mind was free, and my heart was opened. I had forgiven my father for all the pain he caused my family and me. Forgiveness is the act of letting go. When we forgive, we free ourselves of animosity, bitterness, resentment, anger, sometimes even hatred, allowing ourselves to give and receive love more fully. When we forgive, we open our closed hearts. I allowed my father to hold me prisoner for far too long. Forgiveness, even if it means doing it over and over, is the only way to break those chains and truly be set free. In 20 years, I had only shared that story with my wife. In February of 2018, God asked me to share it with others. God was calling me to stand boldly in front of groups of people, to tell the Good News of Christ that I had experienced—His goodness, His mercy, His forgiveness.
My faith journey continued after that infusion of grace. Father Geno came back from Italy where he served as the English Language Official on the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization at the Vatican. He was now a Monsignor, and his new role was Rector at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, located in Paterson, NJ, just a few miles from where we lived. Although our intentions were to visit an old friend back from Rome, we quickly became parishioners. As soon as we stepped foot in the Cathedral, we knew we were at home. When it came time to exchange the Sign of Peace, people were crossing the aisles. Instead of extending out her hand, this teenage girl embraced Heather with a sisterly hug, as if they had known each other forever. This demonstrated a love of neighbor like I’d never seen before.
In addition to being present at every Mass, we got involved with the church community, helping with the fundraising efforts to complete a new catechetical building for the children of Paterson. Heather helped with the after-school program, and I quickly became a member of the pastoral counsel and a teacher in their RCIA program.
The Cross and COVID
On Palm Sunday, April 2020, after being diagnosed with COVID-19, I checked myself into the hospital, not knowing if I would see my wife or two teenaged sons again. I had a 103-degree fever for 11 straight days, a sledgehammer swinging away in my head, aches and pains, tightness in the chest, and chills like I had never experienced before. But the worst symptom of all — I could barely breathe. Later that night, when my fever registered 104 and my oxygen levels fell below 90, I heard the words from Msgr. Geno’s virtual homily that morning speaking to my heart. “During challenging times, we should never feel sorry for ourselves; Jesus never felt sorry for himself.” Then at another low moment, I attempted to turn the television off because they were spewing out the death toll statistics and infection rate. I hit the button on the remote control, and with my eyes closed, I heard a woman reciting the Our Father, followed by the Hail Mary. I opened my eyes, to see Mother Angelica on my television, on the EWTN channel that she founded, praying the Holy Rosary. I prayed with her, and those prayers gave me the spiritual food I needed for my soul. At that moment, I knew I would survive, and I did.
Soon after arriving home, I felt one of those “pulls” again, and within six months I had written and published a book on surviving my battle with COVID. I would then have a Marian epiphany in July of 2021, fifteen months after my bout in the hospital, and nine months after the book was published. I am a big fan of the series, “The Chosen.” Jonathan Roumie, the actor who plays Jesus, does a fine job, and he is a man of strong Catholic faith. I began listening to some of his interviews, and I came across one he had with Scott Hahn. Then I listened to an interview Dr. Hahn had with another convert, Keith Nester, who mentioned Fr. Don Calloway’s book about the Rosary. He called it a sword. This intrigued me because I never had a good impression of the Rosary. It either wasn’t taught properly to me as a child or I wasn’t paying attention. Regardless, I couldn’t get past the repetition of the prayer, but now I wanted to learn more about this spiritual weapon.
I had only prayed the Rosary three times in my adult life. The first time was at my first Catholic retreat in 2018, then during a pro-life Mass at the Cathedral in 2019, and the last time while on my supposed death bed praying along with Mother Angelica during Holy Week in April 2020. I prayed alongside my nurses aid, not worrying about how many beads were left, or looking at the clock, or worried about the repetition. I felt comforted, consoled, and strengthened, because I knew God had sent her as a messenger. When Mother Angelica popped up on the hospital television screen, there was no doubt that I was getting out of there and back to my family. Usually, I would say one Hail Mary every night as part of my prayer routine but, this time, I prayed those Hail Marys with passion, with purpose, with intensity, with focus. I should have had my “Ah-ha” moment then and thrown myself at the feet of the Blessed Virgin, not to worship her, but to venerate her, to ask for her intercession, to have her put a good word in for me with her Son.
I am embarrassed to say I didn’t think about her at all. I shared my story, with all who would listen, including the national media, never mentioning Mary by name, only Mother Angelica — until I listened to Father Don Calloway’s conversion story. He talked about being at his lowest point and feeling like an infant nestled in Mary’s arms, and that’s when I put it all together. I couldn’t have my biological mother with me in the hospital. Who do we want with us when we’re sick? Our mothers! This was at the peak of the pandemic; hospitals weren’t allowing visitors, but Our Lady visited me that day. Once I heard those prayers coming from the little remote-controlled speaker in my bed, I was freed from anxiety, doubt, fear, and stress. The depression was gone, my mind was clear, and I began to focus on the mission at hand.
I knew I needed to exercise my body. I had had a lifetime of experience as a professional baseball player and a career spent as a personal trainer. I had sculpted my clients’ bodies and my own. Secondly, with a clear mind, I reviewed the techniques that I had taught myself and my clients through the years as a life coach, how relaxation techniques and breathing exercises helped to slow things down. Lastly, because of my faith, with my new spiritual home at the Cathedral, and my willingness to pray with others, I knew that I needed to get my soul right with God. I needed to address spirit, mind, and body in that order. Faith, focus, then fitness, all working together to beat this insidious disease. I walked out of the hospital on Holy Thursday after a four-day stay. The average stay for a COVID-19 patient at that time was seven to fourteen days.
A Mother’s Love
In July 2021, once I realized that it was Mary that showed up in the hospital, I began to pray the Rosary daily. And then on Our Lady’s birthday, September 8th, I stepped it up two notches by praying the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries daily. I guess you can call that a three-run home run. In January 2022, I made the decision to bring the Luminous Mysteries into play. I began the New Year with a new goal — to pray all four mysteries — a grand slam! I haven’t missed a day.
My reversion is still in the process; the Knights of the Immaculata founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe have consecrated me to Mary. This group of three hundred men meet in Malvern, Pennsylvania, every year, and they are on fire for the Lord! Jeff Cavins was the director this year, and I had the honor of being an invited speaker to give a small testimony to my love for Mary, a snippet of my conversion and my devotion to her.
Thanks to Father Callaway, I am now also consecrated to St. Joseph. I thought I was a pretty good father and husband until I read about this great saint. Although I didn’t have a biological father to show me the way, God blessed me with a father-in-law who taught me about life, but I soon realized every dad should turn to St. Joseph. He is our spiritual father — the ultimate example of what fatherhood should be. He is a just, obedient, chaste protector of the Holy family. I used to say that those who do not have a biological father should turn to our heavenly father, and we should, but Joseph was human. He had a wife, he had a son, he went to work, he had to protect Jesus from Herod by fleeing to Egypt, and he knew about poverty and living on little means. He listened to God and obeyed Him. He loved his wife Mary, and he lived a life in adoration toward our Lord. He knew how to love.
I found out recently that there is a name for my journey. I am called a Revert. I know I have missed out on much during my lost and lukewarm stages of faith, but now that I am home again, I am gaining so much more — I can’t get enough of Jesus, His Church, and the Sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist. I am devoted to our Saints, especially to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. I open my heart during Adoration and during the Liturgy at Mass, where the old is fulfilled in the new. It may have taken me fifty years to get here, and I know I have a long way to go, but the blessings I’ve received have ignited a flame, giving me renewed hope as I journey toward my eternal home.