Can you describe how the liberal arts — which you experienced as an undergraduate at the erstwhile Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas — brought you into the Catholic Church?
For my first year in the program, I didn’t even see a Catholic connection. It wasn’t even on my radar. My second year, I did notice there were a lot of Catholics in the program, and there were a lot of people who were entering the Church. We read the Bible as literature and had to memorize some Psalms, with the collective effect of the second year, asking, “What is Truth?” You begin to ask yourself those questions: “What do I know? What do I believe? Is there a God? Does He exist? Can we know Him? Has He revealed Himself in the world?” These were questions that the texts were all discussing. You eventually have to ask yourself if you believe in these things.
That’s what started with me, asking myself these questions while I was reading these great ideas. I was getting to know some friends who were converting, and it was through my roommate at the time that a group of us decided to take these classes being taught by a priest at the local parish. (RCIA didn’t exist yet.) Fr. Michael Moriarty, this wonderful Irish priest, was a great storyteller — witty, smart, funny, and with a great gift of the gab. All these college students would end up going to these classes, mostly from the humanities program at KU. It was the 1970s — I’m sure we were sitting around in beanbag chairs with lava lamps — and he would tell these stories of faith and weave doctrine into these wonderful stories.
Did you discern your vocation there?
No, when I graduated, I had no inkling at all for any religious vocation. I had only been Catholic for a year and a half. But I loved to travel, and I had a motorcycle at the time, so I rode it across the country. A few of my friends had ended up at this Benedictine monastery in France, which became a gathering place for guys discerning vocations. You could stay there for free as long as you worked, so that was my motive. I wasn’t even thinking about a monastic vocation; I was just trying to wrap my head around being Catholic. I arrived in December of 1977 and, a couple months into it, I started thinking, “Hmm, maybe God is calling me to monastic life.”
In the meantime, another friend, a fellow convert, had inherited his grandmother’s farm and was raising horses. He just got married and needed help, and I needed a job, so I moved out to north-central Kansas after returning from the monastery in France in August of 1978. At that point, I felt that God was calling me to marriage, so I started dating a Catholic girl from a farm family. And I thought this was what I was going to do: become a farmer, have a big family, raise 10 kids, and I was on my way. The relationship was going well. But then it was the fall of 1979, and Pope St. John Paul II had just been elected the year before. He was making his first trip to the U.S. and visiting all the major cities, as well as a stop in Des Moines, Iowa. My friends and I piled into vans to see this new Polish pope. It was the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, 1979. It was an outdoor Mass with some 3,000 people in attendance and, as he was wont to do, at the end of the Mass, the Holy Father made this appeal to the young men to consider the priesthood.
For me, until that point, it had been either “become a monk” or “get married.” I never even thought that I could be called to become a diocesan priest. But then John Paul II made this appeal, and it hit me like a bolt of lightning: Maybe God is calling me to be a priest!
My girlfriend actually set up the appointment with the first priest I talked to about a possible vocation. Long story short, I went down to see him, he called the bishop, whom I then met, and I was in the seminary in January, about four months later.
What did your parents think of your entering the Church — and then becoming a priest?
My parents were not very religious, and I made the mistake of converting to the Church before telling them. Before the end of the fall semester of my junior year, I entered the Church and came home and made this announcement at Christmastime. It might have been at Christmas dinner. It went over like a lead balloon. My mom was actually happy because I had gotten my hair cut, and she could tell that I was becoming more serious minded, more mature.
But my dad was typical of that self-made, successful, post-war generation, and his first reaction was, “Well, son, I hope you know you’ve given up your freedom to think on your own. The Catholic Church is going to do all your thinking for you. The Pope is going to make all your decisions in life. And if you want to give up your freedom to think for yourself, you’re an adult now, but I just want you to know what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
By the time I went into the seminary, he had softened a bit, and as time went on, he warmed up to the Catholic Church, in the sense that he got to know some priests and a few of my seminary friends. My father always had a great respect for the University of Kansas professors, even though he was a little suspicious. After my ordination as a priest in 1985, he got to know my first pastor, Fr. Don O’Hare, and that really had a big impact on him.
After four years in the parish, I was sent to Rome to get an advanced degree in moral theology, and while I was gone in Rome, unbeknownst to me, my parents began taking RCIA….