Teresa Tomeo is a former Detroit news anchor and currently a radio talk-show host. She is the author of the new book from Image Catholic, a division of Random House titled God’s Bucket List: Heaven’s Surefire Way to Happiness in This Life and Beyond. Surefire happiness? She talks a bit with me about the recipe for a real Christian life.
KJL: What does heaven have to do with happiness other than a nice thought to help you get through hard days?
TERESA TOMEO: Well, Scripture and the Catholic faith are pretty clear that heaven and hell are real. There are numerous references to heaven as the place of total joy, fulfillment, and happiness including: John 3:16, John 14:2, Luke 23:43, 2 Peter 3:13, and Matthew 25:46. So if heaven does exist and it’s forever, I began to wonder why so many of us spend time making that bucket list which is filled with items that only provide temporary happiness? Shouldn’t we be looking for something that will bring us peace and happiness for the long haul both here on earth and for the rest of time? Keeping our eyes on the ultimate goal or bucket list will make us a lot happier than that trip around the world or that dive in the Great Barrier Reef.
KJL: What’s a bucket list and what does it have to do with Catholicism?
TOMEO: A bucket list typically refers to a list one makes which includes things they would like to do before they kick the proverbial bucket. It became a household term after the movie of the same name starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. But again most of the bucket-list items have to do with the here and now. It all seemed very sad and counterproductive to me which is one of the reasons I wrote the book. People spend more time dreaming about getting that chance to fulfill that bucket list while not getting the most out of everyday life. I am stunned by the research that shows repeatedly how a majority of American are unhappy in their jobs and just basically going through the motions at the office. This is tragic on so many levels but especially as Christians when we are told that we will be held accountable in how we used the talents God gave us.
So I started to wonder about how many of us make that bucket list on our own. We consult me, myself, and I but not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Scripture and our Catholic faith are very clear that God must come first. So why aren’t more of us turning to Him when it comes to that bucket list? Surely God would have the ultimate and unique bucket list for each of us if we would only ask? St Catherine of Siena said “when we are whom we are called to be we will set the world ablaze.” We won’t have any idea of what God has in store if we don’t ask.
KJL: What’s wrong with having “successful career” on one’s bucket list?
TOMEO: Absolutely nothing as long as we have the right focus and priorities. I didn’t and it almost cost me everything. I was the one who had my own bucket list of goals. Instead of asking God about His will for my life, I just sort of said okay here is what I want to do; my will be done. I had a lot of professional success in the secular media but more than once it was taken away in an instant and I learned how fleeting material success can be.
KJL: How do you go from someone who probably couldn’t name the four Gospel authors to fulltime self-conscious evangelist? And your husband is a deacon now?!
TOMEO: Yes my husband was ordained to the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Detroit on October 6, 2012. And it terms of our faith journey it is all by the gifts of grace and faith. Step by step we found our way back to each other and the Church. It started with a men’s Bible study for my husband and then I enrolled in a woman’s Bible study a year later and the rest as they say in history. It took us a while but we were able to eventually re-write and re prioritize our bucket list. And we are both committed to helping others do the same.
KJL: How does one submit “to God’s version of fulfillment and abundance instead of insisting He bless, approve, and put the final stamp on our version of things”? How is that healthy and not potentially dangerous or delusional?
TOMEO: God tells us in Jeremiah that He has a plan for us. He knew us before we were formed in the womb and that plan is not for evil but for good; plans not to harm us but to help us prosper and be happy. If we believe it God then seeking that plan and trusting in Him verses ourselves is the only thing that really makes sense. How could we do better than God when it comes to a plan or a bucket list for happiness? Trying to gain and maintain control is an illusion and reminds me of the old saying “if you want to make God laugh, make plans.”
KJL: What is “abundance” exactly?
TOMEO: On a spiritual level it is what God wants for us both here on earth and in heaven. He wants us to be happy, fulfilled, and to live a joy filled life. That’s how we feel when we are doing His will in our life. It is not the world’s view of abundance such as in three cars, the house on the beach, and the villa in Italy or southern France. But it is being truly content because it comes from within and that relationship with God.
KJL: How are you so sure “God keeps His promises and never abandons us, despite our stubbornness and bad decisions”?
TOMEO: First of all: because God says so. He tells us He will not leave us or forsake us. He tells us He loves us with an everlasting love. As a matter of fact, the last chapter of God’s Bucket List is entitled “Live Like You’re Loved,” It was difficult to limit the Scripture references that refer to His unconditional love and His mercy because frankly there are so many in both the Old and New Testament.
Secondly, because I have experienced His love and forgiveness in my life over and over. My entire testimony is actually not about me but about what God has done and continues to do in my life.
KJL: “[S]o many of our bucket lists, focus only on sensation and pleasure,” you observe. Is that all bad?
TOMEO: We don’t realize that certain “bucket list” only provide immediate or temporary gratification. When the thrill is gone we look for more and that can lead to a dead end in more ways than one. We should be looking for the things in life that really make us happy such as our relationship with God, our families, and making a difference. There are a number of surveys that show how folks who give of themselves through say volunteering as well as those who have faith are the most happy.
This really is at the heart of Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” in terms of our being meant for relationship; relationship with God and with each other. But that relationship has to be in a Godly context. We need to understand how we are designed.
KJL: Was God really nowhere to be found in your early married life and career?
TOMEO: There is an old saying that if you God is far away then it is probably not God who has moved. It’s you. I had basically pushed God out of the picture, as did my husband. We were very successful and didn’t think we needed help from any one. But we were the ones again that moved.
KJL: You write that “I may not be able to fully understand God, but through my own life’s ups and downs I have come to know for certain that He loves us and wants to remain close to us.” Why don’t you “pretend” to “understand” God? You certainly write a lot of books about Him.
TOMEO: I think St. Paul says it best in Romans 11: “oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable His ways!” I think it would be pretty arrogant of me or any other Christian to say they really “understand God.” I do know Him and am assured of His love but no one, not even the great St. Paul can say they really “understand” God.
KJL: How did you and your husband manage to incorporate Italian slower pace ways into your life?
TOMEO: In several different ways. We always take our time at meals and don’t rush through dinners at home or out like we used to in the early years. We also pride ourselves on entertaining Italian style and when our friends come over they usually stay for hours at a time whether it is for a backyard pool party or a holiday dinner. And we just really enjoy sitting and talking together. When we travel we don’t rush from tourist attraction to tourist attraction. Instead we stroll, window shop, and explore.
KJL: You quote our current Pope Francis as cardinal of Buenos Aires: “The Living God is He that you may see with your eyes within your Heart? How is that not utter nonsense?”
TOMEO: Let me quote that beautiful line from Les Miserables: “to love someone is to see the face of God.” I think that says it all.
KJL: How did Pope John XXIII’s “Lord this is your Church, not mine, I am tired and going to bed,” become a prayer for you? You’re not exactly pope.
TOMEO: You’re right. But the platform God has given me still comes with major responsibilities and sometimes all of us in ministry can feel overwhelmed and being pulled in different directions. We just have to remember to do what we can and leave the rest up to God,
KJL: What are your thoughts about his upcoming canonization, along with John Paul II?
TOMEO: I am excited because along with apologist Steve Ray, I am leading a pilgrimage to Rome for this big occasion. It is really special to be in the Eternal City for something like this. It really brings home the message of the universal Church. I am hoping that through this I will get to know John XXIII a little bit better.
KJL: You must get asked questions you raise frequently: “How do we know that we haven’t somehow missed a calling”? “How do we know our inner compass is working correctly and that we haven’t lost our way?” How do you answer?
TOMEO: If you’re doing what you are called to do it just feels right and doesn’t feel like work. Not that you won’t have challenges or struggles along the way but when you feel fulfilled and look forward to getting up and taking on the world each day, that’s how you know. At least that is how I know. Plus there are affirmations from God. He will reach you through others and affirm that calling. And of course when there is fruit being produced. That is a major sign that you’re on the right track.
To stay on track, however, we must keep our eyes fixed on Christ.
KJL: What does it mean to “put everything at the foot of the cross”?
TOMEO: Just that — to lay our troubles down and ask for God’s help.
KJL: You quote Mother Teresa: God doesn’t expect us to be successful; only faithful. How isn’t that a cop-out for losers?
TOMEO: Last time I checked copping out means quitting. Being faithful is not being a quitter. You do the right thing. You do what you are called to do and you leave the results up to God. It is God who does the changing any way. We are only His instruments.
KJL: I was struck by this: “many of us grew up with little more than a case of butterflies, banners, and balloons in religion class. But the blame game only goes so far. In the end we are responsible for our own salvation.” This is crucial for Catholics, at this moment, isn’t it? So you were badly catechized, get learning? How do you do that besides the Catechism, which sounds like going back to school and having to buy textbooks all over again?
TOMEO: So glad you asked and that is exactly why I have an entire section of resources and links in the back of God’s Bucket List.
We are so blessed in our country and world right now to have so many great Catholic resources at our fingertips. I am talking about all that is available to us on the Internet as well as on Catholic media whether it be radio or TV. There are now over 250 Catholic radio stations with full-time Catholic programming covering all things Catholic. There are so many great Catholic web sites that contain really good articles about everything and anything you ever wanted to know about the Church.
It’s like anything else. If you care about something or someone there is going to be a certain amount of effort put in. We can’t expect to learn through holy osmosis.
KJL: Catholic teachings “come from the Church through the intercession of the Holy Spirit.” You used to report the news! How can you assert such things?
TOMEO: This is the best news because it is the Gospel or Good News. Frankly, I find the Holy Spirit a lot more reliable than any of the other sources I have dealt with in my years as a journalist. Besides the Church is still standing two thousand years after it was founded by Christ. That’s some pretty solid evidence for the truth of Church teaching.
KJL: “Our Catholic faith…should be not just a factor when we go into the voting booth, but THE factor.” How can that be true with Catholics voting every which way?
TOMEO: Well, if we believe God is who He says He is and who the Church says He is then why don’t we put those beliefs into practice or practice what we preach so to speak? If we don’t then I guess our faith doesn’t mean all that much. What else are we to conclude?
KJL: You write that “If the Eucharist is really what the Church says – the body of Christ—then why would anyone leave?” Plenty do. What if you’re wrong?
TOMEO: It is not about my opinion but about God’s word as in the Word made flesh. Folks leave because they don’t know what they’re leaving. This idea of God being with us body, blood, soul, and divinity has either gotten lost or not been adequately explained.
KJL: You recall an interview with a NARAL representative and how she “said nothing about the child and only kept going back to choice, choice, choice, which sounded a lot more like me, myself, and I.” Is it possible pro-life activists aren’t heard talking about the mother enough to penetrate the culture and its wounds?
TOMEO: Quite frankly I don’t see NARAL or Planned Parenthood feeding, clothing, housing, and helping mothers and their children. When is the last time they helped a pregnant woman get to her doctor’s appointment or find a job or provided her with parenting classes, diapers, and a stroller? And if they really cared about the mother why don’t they give her all the information about abortion? That is another part of the big pro-abortion spin.
KJL: How does God’s law bring personal liberation? They sound like rules to me. How’s that freedom?
TOMEO: I think the best answer came from the wonderful papal biographer George Weigel. I heard this remark during an interview he did during the conclave: “When the Church says “no” it is because that leads to an elevated “yes.”
In other words not too many people have a problem with “rules” when it comes to avoiding weight gain or cancer. We exercise. We eat right. We avoid tobacco. We have “rules” that bring positive results.
Follow God’s plan and be “free” from all kinds of problems. This is probably most obvious in the “below the belt issues” especially in terms of sexual promiscuity. We weren’t meant to jump from bed to bed. And when we do us pay the price in terms of the high rate of sexually transmitted diseases, which are still at epidemic proportions in this country.
KJL: “There was no way God was going to get my attention in the midst of a bustling newsroom.” But God is there, too, isn’t He? It’s possible and necessary that He reach some there, isn’t it? And newsroom work CAN be sanctified, can’t it?
TOMEO: God is everywhere if we are open to Him. I wasn’t for a long time. But your point about God reaching some there is so important and that’s why I struggled with leaving the news business. I really felt and still feel that there needs to be men and women of God in newsrooms. And I am talking about not only witnessing to news people but helping the industry have a better understanding of faith issues in general. Part of the reason we see such poor reporting on matters of faith is because there are too few Christians and other people of faith there in the first place.
KJL: “None of us wants to suffer,” you write. Why does God make us, if He’s so loving? Why is it that some saints seem to want to?
TOMEO: Suffering is a result of living in a fallen world. God doesn’t make us suffer. In my case many of my problems were brought on by my own bad decisions. Here is another great saying; “God is not going to protect us from that which can perfect us.” It is the Romans 8:28 approach. “All things work together for good.” God doesn’t want us to suffer but He can and will help us make some darn good lemonade out of the lemons that life throws at us.