I originally wrote this at the request of a traditional Catholic magazine, but they rejected it based on a misunderstanding of expectations, so I publish it here. The below is basically a summary of the three different intellectual conversions in my life. (I’ll spare you the moral conversions until another time, but you can find some of that below, too.)
Growing up in Denver in the 1980s, my family didn’t have a lot of options as far as diversity of parishes. Nearly everything was progressive. Most parishes were run by liberal Vincentians, as was our St. Thomas seminary. I attended Most Precious Blood in the city for ten years. I exited that parish and school with almost no catechesis. The closest thing I had to catechesis growing up is that my parents had on evangelical radio all afternoon. It was much better than any of the “Catholic education” I had growing up.
I started Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, CO in 1992. Christ and the Catholic religion were relatively important to me, but I didn’t really know what either was. So, I threw myself into social-justice ministry. I wrote letters against the death-penalty for the local branch of Amnesty International. (This was during the days when “Amnesty” had a non-policy on abortion. Now they are full pro-abortion.) Guided by Jesuits as a teenager, I served at the local soup kitchen in Five-Points, a then-dangerous part of Denver in the 1990s. I made dinners at Ronald McDonald House at night for poor families. I even tried to dreadlock my hair, but it just turned out to be a white kid’s thin-braids. I finally washed them out when the owner of the Italian restaurant where I was working me to wash my hair and cut out the braids. (See top picture on left with my hair braided in a lame attempt to dread it up.)
Despite all of this, I always had a horror of abortion. I started praying in front of abortion clinics at age 16, even before I would give up other sins (like occasionally smoking pot.) This wasn’t hypocrisy. I really just knew there was nothing as bad as killing pre-born children and I couldn’t believe this was happening in the great country of the USA.
Towards my senior year, I remember a Jesuit priest explaining to our senior theology class that he had just had a debate with another Jesuit. The liberal Jesuit teaching us said he maintained the goal of life was “to have fun.” The conservative Jesuit said it was “to save one’s soul.” Later, I had lunch with the liberal Jesuit who was teaching us and I explained that I agreed with the other Jesuit: The whole goal of this life must be to save our soul. (I don’t know where I came up with that from such a progressive catechesis, but I always somehow knew there were people who went to heaven and others who went to hell. Perhaps I knew this because my parents had on evangelical radio for nearly my entire time growing up. For this, I am still thankful.)
In any case, the Jesuit at that lunch looked at me and explained to me (in so many words) that because God is merciful, God would never send anyone to hell. Back then, I didn’t have the apologetic-chops to answer him that God is not only infinitely merciful, but also infinitely holy. Now I know we need supernatural grace to obtain that “holiness without which no man shall see God.”—Heb 12:14. But back then, I didn’t know how to answer the errors of universal salvation.
One evening during my sophomore or junior year in high school, after writing letters for Amnesty International at a coffee-shop in downtown Denver, I returned to the home of my best friend, Jim (usually spelled “Gym” because he is a goofball.) His Dad, Pip, was an older Korean war-vet whose life was EWTN, pirated (er, borrowed) VHS movies and Taco Bell. Pip was a skinny-man on oxygen, a feisty man from New York. Pip and Jim were poor. They were the only Catholics I knew who prayed the Rosary every day. That evening, Pip challenged me on my practice going to Holy Communion with mortal sin on my heart. I rebuked him by telling him he didn’t have the right to judge me, or something shallow like that.
But then Pip gave me Miracles of the Eucharist by Bob and Penny Lord. I looked through the book and I said “You mean this happens every Mass?” He said “Yes.” Seeing pictures of bleeding hosts, I immediately believed in the True Presence! (I am not kidding. God gave me the grace in life for my intellect to immediately assent to the truth, even if my will was slow to follow.)
But in this case of seeing the book of Eucharistic miracles, I not only believed, but I knew then I had to go to confession for things like smoking pot. So, I did go to confession. But I also went back to my grade-school catechesis books. Why didn’t I know the Eucharist was literally the Son of God up to the age of 16 years old? Was I obtuse or mis-educated? It turns out to be the latter: I went to go look at my third-grade catechesis book on the sacraments. The authors of that book called the Eucharist “the bread of the community” but never named it as the “body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.” No wonder I was receiving in grave sin (even if not mortal.) I had never been told the truth of sin or the True Presence.
A year later, I was applying to Jesuit Universities. I went to Boston College (BC.) I probably would have followed my best friend Gym to Franciscan University of Steubenville (where I would have had a good dose of neo-con Catholicism instead of more Jesuit social-justice warriorship) but alas, a life trajectory is hard to change. At BC, I was a pro-life Catholic who started attending the Novus Ordo Mass on campus every day. I went to the March For Life every year in Washington DC. I studied medicine, French and theology. I was an EMT at night. By this point in life, I wanted to be a medical-missionary in Africa as the father of a biological family. I graduated BC in 2000. I then went to paramedic school at Swedish Hospital and later worked for Denver Health Paramedic Division.
But the notion of giving my whole life to Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls continued to speak to my heart. I broke up with my girlfriend to discern entering Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s charismatic-bunch of Franciscans in the Bronx. These are the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, otherwise known as the CFRs of NYC. (Now as a priest, I should note that still get arrested for peaceful prayer sessions in abortion centers with Fr. Fidelis CFR from that Franciscan congregation. So, it should be noted that this article is not asserting that I currently isolate myself entirely from all these good aspects of my pre-traditional Catholic-past.)
But we now return to my days after university: Feeling a strong call to preach the Gospel, I began to work for FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) in 2002. This was after I graduated Boston College and left Emergency Medical Services as a paramedic in Denver for two years. FOCUS was founded by Curtis Martin. These movements of “the New Evangelization” were greatly formed around the theology of Scott Hahn. In FOCUS, I learned mental prayer and Biblical apologetic, as well as some other valuable life lessons. Occasionally, during these days, I would hear of things like the “Traditional Latin Mass” with its 52 crosses in the liturgy. God forgive me, but I would make fun of such redundancy of 52 crosses, thinking these things to be Pharisaical. I considered liturgical debates to be tedious to preaching the Gospel to all nations. (Little did I know at this point that one day I would be not only a priest, but a traditional priest.)
Archbishop Chaput was my mentor at this time, and he was extremely generous with his time. I entered his seminary in 2004 to study to be a regular diocesan priest. Archbishop Chaput seemed on-fire with evangelization, and I knew of few other bishops who would let me do a reverent Novus Ordo. I turned 26 just before I entered his seminary, and I really believed that we were going to go conquer the whole world for Jesus Christ under Pope John Paul II’s “New Evangelization.” In fact, by this point, I had already attended two “World Youth Days” with Pope John Paul II: One in 1993 as a teenager in my hometown of Denver and another in Paris where I was studying abroad at the University of Paris in 1997. So, all this is decent evidence that I was destined to succeed as a disciple of the mistaken “New Evangelization.”
But already in seminary, the wheels became a little shaky in the back of the school-bus of fitting in to the Novus Ordo world. I would frequently ask innocent questions why certain of our text books didn’t line up with the books of the Church Fathers that I read all night. Once, I even asked the former Legionnaire of Christ teaching our dogmatics class why our current text book by René Latourelle didn’t sound much like St. Thomas Aquinas. He basically answered, “Because the sensitivities of modern man couldn’t be met with scholastic theology.”
In all honesty, it sounded like a good answer to me at the time. You have to remember that at this point in my seminary education, Pope Benedict XVI was Pope and I was fully “sold” on the “hermeneutic of continuity.” Yeah, my seminary formation team questioned me at times if I would be too “rigid” and “dogmatic.” But I trusted them that we were all working for the same Catholicism and Vatican II had just brought us back to the early Church (read: error of antiquarianism here.) But I believed it at this point in my seminary formation that I was the problem for quoting St. Thomas Aquinas and seeking old-school liturgical documents too much. I was willing to endure the difficulty of being called “non-pastoral” even in seminary precisely because I wanted to eventually be a missionary priest.
Just before ordination, I took a one-credit class on the Traditonal Latin Mass taught by the local FSSP priest who was hesitantly allowed to come to our Novus Ordo seminary to teach the old Mass. I took his class not because I expected myself to ever be using exclusively old-rite sacraments, but because I believed Pope Benedict XVI was correct in his newly-released Summorum Pontificum that “the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching.”
I was ordained a Catholic priest of Jesus Christ in 2010 by Archbishop Chaput. Again, these were the glory days (in my mind, at least) of believing that Pope Benedict XVI was “the most conservative Pope, evah!” and that we would go conquer the world for Christ and good Novus Ordo liturgy. I was determined that the old liberal priests of my Archdiocese had misinterpreted the documents of Vatican II, and I was going to show them how it was to be done! I believed we could “square the circle” of the hermeneutic of continuity back in my 20s.
I was sorely mistaken. For one, I had five Novus Ordo parishes in five years. In every parish, I found myself charitably correcting Eucharistic Ministers of Holy Communion (EMHCs) on how to not lose the Eucharist and other low-bar moral tasks. I was frequently in the new Archbishop’s office, quoting Redemptionis Sacramentum as to why I was so vigilant on Eucharistic matters at Mass. Keep in mind that Redemptionis Sacramentum was written in 2004 by Cardinal Arinze and signed by Pope John Paul II. I was quoting a post-Vatican-II document on why I was simply following the rules of the post-Vatican II Mass. None of this had to do with the Council of Trent or even the Tridentine Mass.
Many people say I was kicked out of these parishes, but most of my Novus Ordo parishes ended up in my rear-view mirror because I personally asked to leave them. I could not put up with their indiscriminate approach to the altar as I saw everyone living any kind of “Catholic” lifestyle imaginable take Holy Communion in their hands. I could not deal with the chewing gum at Mass, the bad music and the open rebellion against me. I was hated not only laity but even by priests when I preached that most Catholics needed to go to confession before communion.
It’s important to note that I was not exposed to “clown Masses” or “rice-cake and tequila Masses.” It was the fact that these so-called conservative-bishops sent me to so-called conservative-parishes under so-called conservative-pastors who would not let me follow really low-bar rules that convinced me there was no “hermeneutic of continuity.” (The hermeneutic of continuity was Pope Benedict XVI’s big project that the doctrine and liturgy before Vatican II can be lined up with the doctrine and liturgy after Vatican II if you just squint hard enough to line up the stars on the two.)
Keep in mind also that every time I was in trouble for making EMHCs angry for my Eucharistic vigilance, I would end up in the Archbishop’s office not quoting a document from 1604, but 2004 under Pope John Paul II! That is, I was always quoting rules for the Mass of Pope Paul VI as found in Pope John Paul II’s document Redemptionis Sacramentum. And even those new documents were too traditional for a conservative diocese in the United States.
I finally came to see that if I could not protect the Eucharist in a “conservative” Archdiocese like Denver, then I was truly being expected to treat Vatican II as the commencement of a new world religion—the very thing they denied as solid adherents to the “hermeneutic of continuity.” These are the people who call “schismatic” anyone who does says a new religion started at Vatican II. But they are the ones who clearly believe that. Facing this cognitive dissonance, I had two options: Leave the priesthood -or- turn entirely to tradition.
One of my last experiences in the Novus Ordo world is that I went to World Youth Day in Rio De Janeiro in 2013. What I saw at the final Mass on Copocabana beach is too graphic to put in this article. One thing I can say at the PG-13 level is that I had to stop teenagers from kissing each other on the ground. Yes, this sacrilege was happening during the closing Mass. I look back to all the World Youth Days I had attended and realized they were nothing but Catholic-Woodstocks with sex, drugs and bad catechesis. This was the final nail in the coffin for believing this was a way pleasing to Jesus Christ. WYD could not be from God as it was increasing sin and decreasing catechesis.
After this, I watched the life of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre on a DVD. Before I started the DVD, I expected to see a curmudgeon of liturgy in open rebellion to the Vatican. What I found was a missionary spirit of charity in the heart of a man who may one day be a saint. I saw the entire reason I learned French and Spanish and Portuguese as a paramedic and a young seminarian: To reach many souls for Jesus Christ. Even in the Novus Ordo days of my priesthood, I did mission work in South America, Europe, Asia and Africa (see top-middle picture above, iin Rwanda. See my recent blog post on this called My Experience of the Sacraments in Africa.)
So, halfway through my priesthood, I began using exclusively the old rite of all seven sacraments. If pain of the Novus Ordo led me there originally, it was joy that I soon found in tradition. Everything seemed immediately coherent between the dogmatic theology of St. Thomas Aquinas to the liturgical theology of the old usus antiquior that went back to Pope St. Gregory the Great (at the very latest.) Moving to the Traditoinal Latin Mass and the other six traditional sacraments, I found a coherent system of Apostolic Catholicism that certainly went back to what Christ handed over to the Apostles in both doctrine and liturgy. The ascetical theology of St. John of the Cross conformed to the moral theology of St. Alphonsus Liguori. I became a Marian maximalist. I began to give every aspect of my priesthood to the Immaculate Virgin Mary as never before.
Then, I offered the sacraments at TLM-parishes in Florida and Virginia. Some of my best families and closest relationships came from these parishes. In the TLM world, I certainly found occasional problems, but I never had to face the interior torture of handing out sacrilegious communions on a daily basis anymore. Yet, many traditional Catholics have had stunning conversions. One traditional parish I like to visit in San Francisco called Star of the Sea has frequent outreach to the poor of San Francisco, and it’s run by a woman who loves the Latin Mass. The notion that all trad-cats “pull up the draw bridge” is false. Yet, we still need to do more…
I especially love the Solemn High Mass and the Missa Cantata, even though it’s rare that I get to do anything but the low Mass daily.
In May of 2023, I will be celebrating my thirteenth anniversary of priestly ordination. I am currently a diocesan hermit (with an approved rule-of-life containing quite a bit for various apostolates—making me more of a “monk missionary” than a hermit) for the same Archdiocese where I was baptized and confirmed, worked as a paramedic and was ordained a priest. A few good things came out of my liberal education, such as a love of medicine and a care for the urban poor as well as international travel to serve people in other countries. Neither do I regret my time as “a neo-con non-trad” working for groups like FOCUS, for from them I learned Catholic apologetics and better manners.
But now I see in tradition and offering the Traditional Latin Mass (see me in far top-picture on the far-right) that only when we fully turn to Apostolic Catholicism can we begin to understand the words, ego enim accepi a Domino quod et tradidi vobis (“I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.”—1 Cor 11:23) and Scio enim cui credidi. (“I know Him Whom I have believed.”—2 Tim 1:12.)