I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to a Baptist family. I had two devout Baptist grandmothers, one Catholic grandfather, and one mostly unchurched grandfather, who late in life told me with a grin, “I belong to the Church of Live and Let Live.” I am very grateful that, one month before he died, my grandfather asked to be baptized and incorporated into the Body of Christ.
Stained-Glass and Christmas Mass
In my early years, my mother taught the importance of being a seeker and embracing truth. When our Baptist minister criticized Catholics and Jews in the mid-1960s and rejected equal treatment of African Americans, my mother transferred us to the Methodist Church. Dad didn’t resist. He enjoyed singing in a choir, and our Methodist parish had a brilliant choir director and organist. I liked the stained-glass windows and Sunday service was more enjoyable. I didn’t miss the Baptist preacher, who seemed angry. While preaching, he became agitated and pounded his Bible; I was afraid he would come down from the pulpit and hit me next.
During those years as a Baptist, I experienced some very good things too. I loved Sunday school and vacation Bible school. My mother taught some lessons and led the singing. I still love those songs, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” I didn’t know Jesus as a Savior, because I didn’t have a concept of sin. I did love Him as the gentle shepherd taking care of His lambs.
I was an avid reader, devouring anything I found about pirates, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Robin Hood, Abraham Lincoln, and the heroes/gods of Greek mythology. I also read the Gospel of Mark over and over. I regarded Jesus as the greatest hero. Moreover, I saw him as the only hero who laid down his life for me. I understood that He did not just love me at that moment, but He would love me every day of my life. While I was excited by the heroes of sports, mythology, and history, I grew to love Jesus alone, and that love would resurface at a critical time.
I remember my mother taking us to a Catholic parish for silent prayer on a Christmas Eve when I was seven. The place felt holy, and I somehow instinctively knew that holiness was not just good, but it was very, very good.
When I was eight, we moved to New Jersey for my father’s career. My mother experienced serious health difficulties that led her to the Christian Science Church, which is known for spiritual healing. My father remained a Methodist, and I split Sundays between the two faiths for several years, though I was baptized Methodist. Eventually, I settled on my mother’s church. The name “Christian Science” sounds intellectual, and it is. The founder, Mary Baker Eddy, was a remarkable woman from the 1800’s. She founded a well-organized church and a highly respected newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, which continues to win journalistic awards. In church and Sunday school, we repeated as a creed the Scientific Statement of Being, which basically states that the spirit is good, true, and eternal, while matter is not good, not real, and not eternal.
By the time I graduated from high school, I just couldn’t buy it; I couldn’t believe that matter didn’t exist or that it was evil. The Bible says, “God saw everything He had made, and indeed, it was good (Genesis 1:31). Common sense and life itself affirmed it. For the first time, I treated the teaching of a religion as a “truth bucket,” to see if it contained truth. If it leaked, I moved on. This pouring of a religion into a truth bucket would be something I would do often throughout my life. The bucket of Christian Science contained a lot of good, but it also had a number of holes.
Seeking the Superlative
I tried academia and pursued secular wisdom. I believed the highest position on earth was that of a college professor. This idea had formed during discussions with my father. I remember being seven and posing questions like: “Dad, what’s higher, a fireman or a police officer?” We had many “this-or-that” conversations. It seemed like we always ended up with the highest person being someone at the top of an academic discipline. I studied mechanical engineering at the University of Louisville and tested well in math and science. This delighted my parents, who wanted financial security for me. But engineering school was not giving me what I wanted: wisdom. I wanted to understand historical events, why they happened and whether they might happen again. I transferred to Eastern Kentucky University to double-major in English and history.
I had a professor who explained 16th century English poetry by bringing in ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts, which he handled with ease. At times, I took six classes instead of five and managed to earn nearly all A’s. I was inducted into Phi Alpha Theta, the National Historical Honor Society.
While all that was good, I was not following the Ten Commandments. Like the average American, I thought there were no consequences to a hedonistic life. In reality, hedonism can have irreparable and even fatal ramifications. At the least, it is impossible to be truly happy when one is not in a state of grace.
At that time, God’s will was furthest from my mind. After three successful semesters at Eastern, I felt guilty for being sinful (though I wouldn’t have put it that way) and for my selfish pursuits on my parents’ dime. I joined the Navy. After eight weeks of boot camp, they discovered that I had a herniated disc in my lower back. The Navy concluded that I had damaged it prior to entering. I had been in denial about the pain; Christian Scientists are good at that. The Navy sent me home with an Honorable Discharge for medical reasons, which meant that they didn’t have to pay to fix it, which was just.
I ended up back at U of L, determined to pursue financial security and wisdom. I double-majored in mechanical engineering and English. During those semesters, I walked from one end of campus to the other. I went from Calculus III to History of Judaism to Fluid Body Dynamics to Shakespeare to Mechanics of Vibrations to a graduate level Hemingway course. I took all of the religious philosophy and history classes I could and accrued some 260 credit hours, along with a BS in Mechanical Engineering and a BA in English. I was about a semester away from degrees in philosophy and history.
Did I finally have the wisdom I had sought? Sadly, I did not.
Looking at Literature
I turned to Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Why not Catholicism? My years in secular college had made me extremely anti-Catholic. This was not because of my parents, who were very respectful of all religions. The fact is that many college professors and their literary and historical texts were anti-Catholic. For example, I had memorized “The Garden of Love,” written by the British poet William Blake:
THE GARDEN OF LOVE
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And “Thou shalt not” writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, And binding with briars my joys & desires.
(Blake, William, Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789, p. 21)
This poem, with its negative depiction of Mother Church, was almost an anthem of mine.
British Lord Bertrand Russell was another favorite. He employed both left and right brain, with his excellence in mathematics and philosophy. I was so enamored with Lord Russell that, while making $3.40 per hour working nights at Taco Bell, I saved up $100 and bought 20 copies of his book, Why I Am Not A Christian, just to give them out to strangers!
Sometime during my later college years, my conscience rebooted. It struck me that I might have done more harm than good. It seemed a real possibility that, if I were to die and give God an accounting, I might go to hell. In addition to this general examination of conscience, I felt restless and unfulfilled.
World Religions and Catholic Saints
I began a “Mind, Body, and Soul” program for self-improvement. Studying became my mental exercise. The YMCA improved my body. I returned to religion to care for my soul. I attended a church called Unity of Louisville, which had a bookstore with a large selection of books on world religions. I read Eknath Easwaren, a Hindu scholar who made the spiritual path tangible with his method of twice-daily meditation. He suggested going over the same passage some 20–30 minutes at a time. Incredibly, the passage he wanted readers to begin with was the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi which begins: “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.”
Some of those Eastern pearls were profound and consistent with Catholic teaching, underscoring what the Catechism says about other religions having some truth, although the fullness of truth can only be found in the Catholic Church, given to us by Christ. When I concluded my daily meditations, I found myself making the Sign of the Cross. I had no theological reason for doing this. It just felt good.
Eknath Easwaren also recommended several poems by St. Teresa of Avila. One, I would later learn, is called “The Bookmark Prayer”:
THE BOOKMARK PRAYER
Let nothing upset you, Let nothing frighten you. Everything is changing; God alone is changeless. Patience attains the goal. Who has God lacks nothing; God alone fills all his needs.
My education taught me that Catholicism had always been anti- women, especially in Spain, the home of both St. Teresa of Avila and the Spanish Inquisition. I had learned a few things about the Catholic Church from my secular education. It was responsible for the Inquisition, Crusades, corrupt popes, and European conquerors who demanded papal fidelity or death. The only positive image I had of Catholicism was of monks patiently transcribing texts for future generations. Yet, here was a Catholic woman in 16th century Spain writing beautifully, joyfully, reverently. This saint has been responsible for more conversions than any other saint. I credit her with beginning my conversion.
Cradle Catholic Meets Anti-Catholic
I fell in love with my bride-to-be, Berta, a cradle Catholic from Panama. Berta had a very holy mother. Clearly, Berta would not long tolerate the terrible things that I used to say about the Pope and Catholics. Besides, Berta’s quiet goodness made me reluctant to speak ill of her Church. Dr. Scott Hahn says that the example of Catholics was both a hindrance and an encouragement to his conversion. The same was true for me. Berta, my grandfather, and Bette, the office manager where I worked, had a humble goodness and selflessness that spoke well of the Church that formed them. Even so, many Catholics could not answer the simplest questions about their faith. In college, I asked a Catholic girl, “Why do Catholics genuflect?” She replied (with eyes rolling), “Well, you always genuflect when you cross the middle.” It sounded superstitious. It was just one more reason I would snidely tell others that Catholics are people who do not think.
Eventually, I discovered holes in the truth buckets of Buddhism and Hinduism. I could not buy reincarnation and the multiple gods of Hinduism. I couldn’t buy Nirvana, the ultimate goal of Buddhism, the state of nothingness where one’s self ceases to exist. Nothingness did not seem a worthy goal for a lifetime of virtue. Heaven made more sense as life’s ultimate goal. One day, while deep into a mind-emptying meditation, I heard a message, though not an audible sound, which said: “You will never be happy without Jesus Christ!” College academics and Eastern religions could not quench my spiritual thirst in the way Jesus had in my early days of Sunday school. The tiny pebble of my early faith formation was taking down the Goliath-sized doubt of my secular studies.
Having studied Elizabethan poets, I turned to the Church of England. I had come to a line of reasoning, which went like this: either one church really is the true church or none of them is. It seemed reasonable that the true Church would have to begin well. King Henry VIII divorcing and murdering wives to defy the pope’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage did not seem to be a valid beginning for a true church. In learning how the Protestant denominations jumped ship in the early 20th century over birth control and then later on abortion, it seemed clear that none of them could be Christ’s true Church. Truth was unchanging, and yet, they seemed to readily change their minds. Only one Church is as unchanging as truth because it came from the One who is Truth.
After graduation, Berta and I married, and I eventually adopted Berta’s daughter, Heather. I desired a place to pray in the evenings, perhaps remembering the holiness I felt on Christmas Eve in the church my mother had taken me to when I was small. I searched for weeks with no success. All of the churches in Louisville were closed. Someone told me that the chapel in the old St. Anthony Hospital was open at night; I began going there to pray. Frequently, there was a strange looking cross on the high altar. It had a sort of off-white colored circle in the middle of it. I noticed that the Catholics would drop to both knees in front of it rather than just genuflecting on one knee. I followed their lead out of respect. I had no idea that the circle in the middle was a consecrated Host, the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. I sensed from the outset that this chapel held holiness, and I could not stop myself from returning often.
Prayer and History
Heather was interested in attending a military academy. During her junior year of high school, I drove her to Colorado Springs for two and a half days at the Air Force Academy. At that time, I was respectful, though dubious, of Berta’s preference for Catholicism, and so I asked her if she would like me to record Catholic prayers for her, so she could listen to them while driving to work. (I had bought her a book of Catholic prayers that Christmas.) She said yes. So, while Heather was at the Air Force Academy, I stayed in a hotel room and recorded the prayers. The prayers surprised me, especially the prayers directed to the Virgin Mary. While praying, my heart swelled with a strong physical warmth until my heart felt hot, which alarmed me. I thought, “Am I having a heart attack?” It lingered for a few minutes and then subsided. The panic dissipated as the heat lingered without death coming, and I thought, “This feels like love.” I could not deny that these prayers to Mary warmed my heart in a supernatural, yet physical, way.
Several months later, I went to St. Anthony Chapel on my lunch hour. The stained-glass windows caught my attention. I would eventually learn that they were depictions of the Corporal Works of Mercy. I could see that the scenes were from the first centuries after Christ and into the Middle Ages. I saw pictures of ancient and more recent Saints feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, giving shelter to the homeless, visiting the prisoners and the sick, and burying the dead.
Taking care of the homeless? I thought that was an invention of the first Clinton presidential campaign. Caring for the poor? I thought that nobody had really cared about the poor before President Lyndon Johnson, though FDR had given it the old college try.
Why had my education not enlightened me about Catholic philanthropy? This generosity seemed to be of a scale that could not justly be denied inclusion in historical texts. The integrity of my secular education was now called into question. I could see that the Catholic Church had existed for hundreds of years and had accomplished enormous good. I bought a history of Catholicism written by Catholics and shored up my history.
Not long after that, Heather accepted an appointment at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. We arrived ten days early so that she could collect her thoughts and prepare for the jolt of Induction Day and the tough eight weeks of boot camp, run by the Marines. During this time, the press talked about the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first universal one in some 400 years. I could read this book and know the official belief of the Catholic Church! I walked a couple of miles to a Catholic bookstore, then over the next seven days, I read it cover to cover. My heart grew troubled as I could find no holes in the truth bucket. I could not help but respect the incredible documentation tying almost every paragraph to the Bible or to historical texts from every century, from the ancient Hebrews, to the time of Christ, to the brightest theologians and Saints of Church history. This Church was not an invention of recent times but a continuum and fulfillment of salvation history. I did not rejoice when I finished the Catechism.If true, I would have to admit that I had been wrong about many things about Catholicism. I would have to admit that I was much deeper into sin than I had thought. I would have to relinquish my personal take on things and submit to the authority of the Catholic Church.
A Priest with a Lifeline
Shortly after that, Pope John Paul II penned The Gospel of Life. This book was contrary to my modern beliefs. I had been indoctrinated into the liberal feminism of the 1960s and was firmly pro-choice. But when I read this papal work, I could find no holes in the bucket. As I put the book down, I very clearly remember shaking my head and saying to myself: “I still don’t believe all this pope stuff, but if there were a Vicar of Christ, he would write just like that!” I hated this! For over a decade, I had been committed to the idea that the last thing I would ever be is Catholic! I even said these words aloud at times. God would have fun with that phrase, because truly the last thing I will ever be is a Catholic!
Surely, I could find holes in the Catholic theology of the Virgin Mary! I went to a Marian retreat led by a Benedictine priest at the St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana. He taught nothing about her that I could not believe. The walls came crashing down. Suddenly, I could see that a loving Jesus would not have left us on a ship without a captain, nor condemn us to a life of nauseating gray uncertainty. No, He gave us a Church with authority, which could discern truth from fallacy and give clear answers to our questions. I could see that this Church, which secular academia depicted as controlling and oppressing, was actually freeing, protecting, and enriching us spiritually, even physically, through the Sacraments. I went to the Trappist Monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky, and spoke with a priest. He advised me to find a parish in my home town of Louisville and talk to the priest there. My heart now called me to become Catholic! I knew that the Catholic Church did indeed hold the fullness of truth. Finally, a bucket with no holes.
My wife and I began visiting parishes. We looked for weeks. Then we visited an old downtown parish, St. Martin of Tours, through a historical tour given by the University of Louisville. It was a cold, windy, rainy November day in 1994, so dreadful that not even the tour guide showed up. After we stood in the back of the church for about 15 minutes, the priest noticed us. He came up and introduced himself as Father Dennis Cousens and told us that he would give us the tour. He was humble and holy. We returned on Sunday for Mass. The Mass was reverent, so obviously and singularly focused on Christ that we knew that we had found our home.
We made an appointment with Father. I told him I wanted to become Catholic. He said, “What do you believe?”
I said, “I believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, I believe that the Catholic Church is the True Church founded by Jesus Christ, and I believe that the Pope is the true Vicar of Christ on Earth.”
He paused and looked at me and said, “Well, that’s a pretty good start.” He then said that he did not want me to wait another 14 months to come into the Church, since RCIA was just ending. He gave me four books in a home study course. After concluding each book, I would meet with Father Cousens to discuss the book. After four months, Father asked me, “Well, are you ready to come into the Church?” I said no. He asked, “Why not?” I told him I needed confession first.
My first confession was long. I didn’t know the full weight of those sins until I was rid of them. It felt like 200 pounds lifted from my shoulders. Joy replaced the weight.
I was confirmed on December 23rd of 1995. I went forward with my sponsor, Jim Stich, and took St. John the Apostle as my Confirmation Saint. This Saint had let Christ down by falling asleep during Christ’s Agony in the Garden. Yet, he was there at the foot of the Cross! St. John would give me hope that, despite my weakness, I might persevere until the end. As I stood before the altar, I realized nothing had ever felt so right. When Father raised his hand in prayer above me, I felt pushed back, as by a physical force. A voice inside said, “Don’t worry. It is the Holy Spirit. Just lean into Him.” So, I leaned in, and it felt like light passing through my body. I received the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist and became a full member of the Catholic Church!
In August of 2008, the Lord blessed me with ordination to the Order of Deacon. Two and a half years later, the Lord would bless me with the grace of baptizing my mother. Minutes later, she was Confirmed. In September of 2019, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz appointed me as Clergy Director of the Marian Committee of the Archdiocese of Louisville — imagine me assigned to increase devotion to Mary, she who had been the last obstacle to fall!
I have come to realize three things: If you keep looking for the truth, you will find it. Catholics who are able to communicate doctrine, history, and practice of the Catholic Faith are essential. Finally, we must never give up on anyone, even those who ridi- cule the Catholic Church; they may be on the path of conversion. That’s how grace sometimes works.