SWIMMING THE TIBER: In the Words of Flannery O’Connor, “Here Comes Everybody!”

WHAT DO THESE PEOPLE HAVE IN COMMON?

  • Actors John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jim Nabors, Faye Dunaway, Vincent Price, Susan Hayward and Patricia Neal
  • Academics and intellectuals Hadley Arkes (Amherst), Mortimer Adler (Great Books), Robert Bork (Yale), G.K. Chesterton
  • Royalty King Charles II ( Great Britain )
  • Artist Peter Paul Rubens
  • Heroes of the Old West Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill and Doc Holliday
  • Musician Dave Brubeck
  • Politicians John Ellis (Jeb) Bush and Newt Gingrich
  • Famed coach Knute Rockne (Notre Dame)
  • Playwrights Tennessee Williams and Oscar Wilde
  • Novelists Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, Sigrid Undset and Dean Koontz

If you guessed “They’re all converts to Catholicism,” you’re absolutely right! All of these famous people—and many thousands of others—have made the journey into the hushed reverence of the Catholic Church.

These converts have been drawn to Rome from mainline Protestantism, from Hinduism, from Judaism and agnosticism and full-bodied atheism. But why? What is the “spark” that caught them by surprise—that led them to explore more deeply and, ultimately, to embrace the Catholic Church as their spiritual home?

I suppose there are as many reasons as there are people—that the Holy Spirit can summon the heart using the meager tools at hand. I am often amazed, though, at the serendipitous events which propel the individual to open the door to Grace.

X-Men Comics To the Rescue - I recently read the story of Libby Edwards, a self-described “neo-pagan witch” who had practiced “the craft” for fifteen years, cultivating occult talents (healing and cursing) and organizing Pagan events. Libby explained that she loved horror novels and horror movies—and she gradually realized that the solution to the evil in the storyline was never a Protestant pastor or a Wiccan priestess. Instead, the answer to every crisis was always to be found in the Catholic Church. In addition, Libby loved comic books, and she was especially attracted to “Nightcrawler,” a character in the X-Men comic series. A blue, fuzzy mutant with a forked tail and a sword, Nightcrawler was a devout Catholic, in love with God. In some strange way, it was the fictional Nightcrawler’s example that empowered Libby to pursue a study of the faith, to enroll in RCIA and, ultimately, to become Catholic. (Read more of Libby Edwards’ dramatic story at her blog, http://threeweeleaves.blogspot.com/.)

The Passion of the Christ – Can’t forget that beautiful movie! One person who couldn’t forget it is Richard Evans, who had been away from the Church for 35 years and who had “come out” as a gay man in the early 1990s. Jim Caviezel’s dramatic performance as the suffering Jesus Christ planted a seed—which was nurtured as Richard became aware of the conversion stories of prominent evangelicals like Tom Howard and others he saw on EWTN, especially on Marcus Grodi’s show. Richard read Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s personal journey in their book Rome Sweet Home—and the weight of these deeply personal, well reasoned conversions ultimately drew him back to the Catholic Church, and back to a life of celibacy. (Read Richard’s testimony on his conversion blog, http://richardsrambings.blogspot.com/2006/11/my-return-to-faith-of-my-youth.html.)

The Sign of the Cross – I remember a conversation I had with author/speaker and Catholic apologist Bert Ghezzi. Many people, he explained, made the Sign of the Cross reflexively, at Mass or before dinner, without really thinking about the words and the symbolism in the sign. He recognized the Sign of the Cross as a part of our heritage as Christians, a living symbol of discipleship, and a celebration of Christ’s victory over the devil, and a visible sign of our commitment to abandon self-indulgence and sin. Through the Sign of the Cross, that simplest of Catholic prayers and symbols, Bert found the impetus to grow in his faith and to embrace the rich traditions and well defined tenets of Catholicism. (Obtain Bert’s books and learn more about his speaking at his website, www.bertghezzi.com.)

The Early Church Fathers – “To be deep in history,” said Cardinal John Henry Newman, “is to cease to be Protestant.” Such was the case for prominent Pentecostal preacher Alex Jones, who pastored a church in Detroit. In the late 1980s, Pastor Jones set off to lead his congregation in a study of the early Church Fathers. The more he read Scripture, the Fathers of the Church and the writings of the early saints, the more Alex came to the startling conclusion that the Holy Mass is the same “worship service” as was celebrated in the early church, and that the present-day Catholic Church is the same church as the church of the apostles. At the Easter Vigil in 1991, Alex and most of his congregation were received into the Catholic Church. He now serves as a deacon in the Archdiocese of Detroit, where he uses his preaching skills in the Office of Evangelization. Deacon Alex and his wife Donna both speak publicly; more information about their work is available on their website, http://deaconalexcjones.com/.

A Two-Step Conversion: Physical Trauma and Intellectual Pursuit – Jeff Miller is a popular writer who blogs as the Curt Jester (http://splendoroftruth.com/curtjester/). He was not always deep into his faith, though, as he will attest. Following his early exposure to a weak Catholicism and a troubled family life (his parents divorced when he was in his teens), Jeff embraced atheism and what he calls “modern liberalism.” Jeff tells a story, though, about a day which changed his life. Jeff used to ride a bike to work, and one day he saw, too late, a car barreling toward him. As the car struck him and threw him over the hood and onto the highway, Jeff was surprised—first, that he was still alive; and second, by a quick slipping away of his atheism, as he realized that had he been killed, he did not think that he would have been cast into oblivion. With his newfound faith, however tenuous, Jeff began to study and read, focusing on the Catechism. At the same time, he was nurtured by a local Catholic radio station which broadcast EWTN programming, and Jeff’s intellectual conversion was spurred by the Q&A format of Catholic Answers Live.

As C.S. Lewis once remarked, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”

CELEBRATING THE ANNUNCIATION IN A BIG WAY: Happy Birthday, Mr. Monaghan!

I wasn’t really there, in the orphanage.  My imagination is at work and has produced, no doubt, a jumble of truths and conjecture and flourishes.  But here is the story, as I see it.

*     *     *     *     *

The boy was only four when his father, a truck driver, died, leaving him with his brother and his young mother to fend for themselves.  Try as she might, his mother couldn’t afford to keep her children in her care; and so when he was six she placed the boy and his younger brother in foster care, and then in the St. Joseph Home for Boys.  There, the Felician Sisters instilled in him a deep faith.

[Here’s where Imagination kicks in.] 

Life in the orphanage with 45 other boys, though, was hard.  I mean, the Sisters sought to meet his physical and educational and spiritual needs—but how could he distinguish himself among the boys in the dorm?  From his youngest years, the boy wanted to excel, to do something special.

He did have at least one thing going for him:  He had had the good fortune to be born on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation.  The Sisters considered this a very special birthday, indeed—and they celebrated the feast with prayer and song, and with a fine evening meal.  The boy developed a deep devotion to Mary, and   a special appreciation for the Feast of the Annunciation. 

*     *     *     *     *

Fast forward about 48 years, to 1998.  The boy had grown to manhood, had done well in business—very well, in fact.  He had distinguished himself in the food industry, growing a pizza empire that stretched around the world.  He had indulged a passion for architecture, demonstrating his taste and skill with a world-class office park in Ann Arbor.  Always a sports fan, he had acquired his favorite team, the Detroit Tigers, then sold them—but not before a winning season.  

He had always been generous with his vast resources; but in mid-life he had embraced what he called his “Rich Man’s Vow of Poverty.”  Spurred by faith to reach out and change the world, he divested himself of many of the trappings of wealth—selling his cars, boat and personal jet; no longer flying first-class; and simplifying his lifestyle.  With renewed vigor, he reiterated his life’s goal:  to take as many people with him to heaven as possible.  One of the key means of spreading the faith, he knew, would be through education.  Great wealth had lost its luster and, as he stated to a New York Times reporter, “I want to die broke.”

And always, there remained his devotion to Mary.

*     *     *     *     *

I was working for Tom Monaghan in 1998, on staff at Legatus, when he sold his stake in Domino’s Pizza for over $1 billion.  He hoped to devote his energies fulltime to Catholic causes, particularly education. 

For a few weeks after the announcement, we speculated about just what that would mean.  Soon, though, the Ave Maria Foundation was born, and an abundance of Catholic ministries expanded through the Domino’s Farms complex.  At one point, I heard that 31 Catholic organizations operated on the property:  a radio station, bookstore, Catholic Campaign for America office, Right To Life, Priests for Life, Thomas More Society, Spiritus Sanctus elementary school, a preschool, and many others. 

At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel began his message to Mary with the words “Hail, Mary” (“Ave Maria”).  Year after year, Tom Monaghan’s generosity has burst forth on the Feast of the Annunciation through the many ministries and organizations which commemorate this feast in their titles:

  • Ave Maria Radio, headlined by Al Kresta and now, Teresa Tomeo, is heard across the country and—through its website (avemariaradio.net)—around the world.  It offers more original programming than any other Catholic radio outlet.
  • Ave Maria College was founded in the late 1990s in Ypsilanti, and has grown to become Ave Maria University, now headquartered in Naples, Florida.
  • The Ave Maria Funds, operated by the Schwartz Investment Council, is an investment program based on Catholic principles, with morally responsible investment guidelines guaranteeing that their stocks will not support abortion, contraception, stem cell research, or pornography.
  • The Ave Maria Mass, a full setting for the liturgy in Latin, is an original composition by Hollywood writer/director Steve Edwards.  It was introduced in February 2004 at the Legatus International Summit, and later recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. 
  •  The Ave Maria Foundation is the umbrella organization over Catholic organizations including Legatus (the name is Latin for “Ambassador”), an organization of Catholic CEOs. 

Today, March 25, marks the unveiling of a statue of the Annunciation on the campus of Ave Maria University.  Again, it is through the patronage of Tom Monaghan that we may enjoy this newest Marian landmark.

Thank you, Tom, for your long service to the Church—and Happy Birthday!  May God grant you His abundant blessings.