During my early teens, I found myself dabbling in the occult. Despite having been raised in one of the most progressive parishes of our progressive diocese, I found Mass boring. Each Sunday I fidgeted in the pew and daydreamed about hockey or skateboarding. Homilies about declining rainforests in South America, “being Church,” and socio-economic class division were simply beyond my intellectual g.asp.
My siblings and I sat in the pew with our mother while our father served at the altar as a permanent deacon. It made no difference that Mom was an agnostic who had been baptized Presbyterian—she had agreed to raise us Catholic when she and my father married, and she stood by her promise.
My protests against going to Mass grew much louder as I passed through adolescence. When I was fifteen, our pastor took my father aside and said: “Let your prodigal son go. You cannot force him to come to God. Let him go his own way, and God will come to him.” My father was from working-class Polish and Italian stock, so the thought of skipping Mass never crossed his mind. Nevertheless, he acquiesced. I was no longer required to attend Mass on Sunday. Not a word was ever spoken between my father and me on the subject.
Spirits and Socialists
The occult and socialist politics initially filled my spiritual void. I thought I could harness some spiritual power and effect real change within society. After all, I reasoned, society would be much better off if we communed with nature and spread society’s resources evenly. Yet neither of these pursuits could silence my conscience. With regard to the occult, the spirits with whom I communed were losing their benign facade and becoming much less malleable to my attempts to manipulate them.
In the case of socialist politics, I watched in disbelief as our province’s recently elected socialist government destroyed our provincial economy while simultaneously launching an open persecution against many of my friends within the pro-life movement. To be clear, neither the government’s pro-abortion agenda nor its pro-homosexual stance bothered me. Rather, what piqued my conscience was the draconian attempts to silence freedom of speech among right-to-life advocates while painting peaceful old ladies praying the rosary as potential terrorists.
As Providence would have it, I switched high schools during my senior year. Dave, who happened to be an active member of our province’s conservative party, was the first student to welcome me to the new school. Despite being from the opposite sides of the political spectrum, we quickly became good friends. Our mutual interest in politics sustained many a heated discussion during lunch hour and after school.
Before long I discovered that my friend’s political ideology arose from his adherence to the Pentecostal church in which he was raised. On our way to a political debate one evening, Dave asked me to stop by the local church where his youth group met each Friday. A friend of his was celebrating her birthday, and he wanted to give her a card. Without giving it much thought, I followed him to the room where the youth gathered for their weekly prayer service. I assumed his youth group was probably similar to the one I had abandoned at our local Catholic parish—perhaps a half-dozen of our school’s social misfits.
I had a surprise coming. About a hundred teenagers were singing the Lord’s praises, and they were a diverse group. Our school’s quarterback was praying over the regional math champion, who in turn was praying with a tri-athlete and a computer techie. The overcoming of our school’s usual social structure was a clue that Christianity represented something special. These youth treated one another with an equality that I had never witnessed among socialists. This equality was based upon love of one’s neighbor as a fellow human being created in the image and likeness of God.
What I found more intriguing, though, was the sheer joy beaming from their faces. Jesus was not something they did on Sundays but someone with whom they had entered into a personal relationship. The excitement generated by this relationship with Jesus reflected in their lively songs, emotional praise, and heartfelt worship of Jesus Christ. They let me know that I too could experience this joy and peace if I turned my life over to Jesus and accepted him as my Lord and Savior.
Dave nudged me to get back on the road. The debate was set to begin in ten minutes and city hall was several miles away. Mesmerized, I asked him if we could forego it for the rest of the prayer service. He smiled and nodded yes. That was the first evening of my two-year experience with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, the sister denomination of the Assemblies of God.
The following week I prayed the sinner’s prayer and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Within a month I was devoting every spare moment to reading the Bible and contemplating God’s deep love for me. For the first time in my life, the Holy Spirit became a real, breathing Person of the Trinity, and not merely some obscure afterthought of my childhood catechesis. Praying to the Holy Spirit cleansed my soul of its worldly distractions, giving rise to an emotional surrender to Christ’s healing touch.
Through this experience with the Pentecostal youth group, I began to see Christianity as a living faith. My aspirations to political office faded. I now wanted to spend the rest of my life reading the Bible and sharing the good news of Christ’s salvation with others. I felt fully alive as a Christian and I spent each week looking forward to Friday evening youth service.
I had found the Holy Spirit among my Pentecostal brethren. In fact, over a two-year period I had witnessed many lives changed through the Holy Spirit’s healing touch. The Pentecostals had taught me to meditate on Scripture daily. But in my heart of hearts, I felt something missing. I had witnessed much spiritual drifting and theological uncertainty as an evangelical Protestant. I longed for the old certitude I had felt as a Catholic; I longed for something solid to anchor my faith. In response these longings, God placed an elderly woman named Irene in my path. She lent me a tape of Scott Hahn’s conversion story. Later she would lend me a copy of Patrick Madrid’s Surprised by Truth and Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism.
Through the grace of God, I immediately recognized what was missing from my life: the spiritual nourishment of the sacraments, a relationship with Mother Mary, and the doctrinal stability upon which to build an interior life of prayer.
Frozen in Time
Irene was aligned with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X, who rejected the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI’s liturgical reform that followed. Having been away from the Church for some time, she easily convinced me that this schismatic group was the last bastion of true Catholicism in the modern world. I spent the next three years going ever more deeply into Lefebvre’s schism.
Yet my heart was again restless. My prayer life suffocated as I followed a tradition frozen into various pre-conciliar customs without any relationship with the Church in the present. I also began to question the validity of my confirmation according to the new liturgical rite, the validity of my father’s ordination to the permanent diaconate, and even the validity of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate.
As I once again found myself mired in ritual and simply going through the motions at Mass, the Lord made it possible for me to study canon law at Saint Paul University, a pontifical institution. The opportunity came unexpectedly, and I had less than a week to make a decision. With a little nudge from soon-to-be-St. Faustina (whose words “Jesus, I trust in you” were etched in my mind and heart), I resigned from my job, packed my belongings into boxes, and bid farewell to my hometown.
The canon law program provided excellent intellectual formation. It helped me resolve many theological and canonical hang-ups about Vatican II and the reformed liturgy. More importantly, it rekindled my spiritual life and taught me that theology must begin within the theologian on his knees in prayer.
In Ottawa I came into daily contact with a number of different orthodox Catholic movements, institutes of consecrated life, and associations of the faithful. The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter was one such institute. When Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX fell into schism in 1988, a number of the Lefebvre’s former priests and seminarians banded together to found the FSSP. They too offered the old Latin Tridentine liturgy, but they did so with the blessing of Pope John Paul II and the permission of our local bishop. The FSSP allowed me to continue experiencing the beauty and solemnity of the old Latin liturgy in full communion with Rome.
I also studied alongside a society of priests and seminarians called the Companions of the Cross. The Companions had grown out of Canada’s Catholic charismatic renewal under the tutelage of their founder, Fr. Bob Bedard. Being with them rekindled the fire and joy of my initial Pentecostal experience, but this time the experience was rooted in the Catholic Church. The Companions also taught me that the charisms of the Holy Spirit are among God’s gifts to the Church, and, consequently, they can be fully experienced only within the Church founded on the rock of Peter.
Our Lord had finally brought me back to the Church. Holy Scripture and Tradition provided the fuel of my Catholic faith, while the charismatic movement provided the spark that ignited it. As the Holy Spirit merged both expressions of Catholic spirituality in my interior life, I became what one close friend called “a Trentecostal.” This is an expression of Christian spirituality that I could experience only within the heart of the Catholic Church.