As Advent begins in the midst of some long-awaited changes and revisions in the Catholic Mass, I have been doing some thinking about the nature of change. In “February Tales,” an early post on These Stone Walls, I described growing up on the Massachusetts North Shore – the stretch of seacoast just north of Boston. My family had a long tradition of being “Sacrament Catholics.”
I once heard my father joke that he would enter a church only twice in his lifetime, and would be carried both times. I was seven years old, squirming into a hand-me-down white suit for my First Communion when I first heard that excuse for staying home. I didn’t catch on right away that my father was referring to his Baptism and his funeral. I pictured him, a very large man, slung over my mother’s shoulder on his way into church for Sunday Mass, and I laughed.
We were the most nominal of Catholics. Prior to my First Communion at age seven, I was last in a Catholic church at age five for the priesthood ordination of my uncle, the late Father George W. MacRae, a Jesuit and renowned Scripture scholar. My father and “Uncle Winsor,” as we called him, were brothers – just two years apart in age but light years apart in their experience of faith. I was often bewildered, as a boy, at this vast difference between the two brothers.
But my father’s blustering about his abstention from faith eventually collapsed under the weight of his own cross. It was a cross that was partly borne by me as well, and carried in equal measure by every member of my family. By the time I was ten – at the very start of that decade of social upheaval I described in “The Day the Earth stood Still” – life in our home had disintegrated. My father’s alcoholism raged beyond control, nearly destroying him and the very bonds of our family. We became children of the city streets as home and family faded away.
I have no doubt that many TSW readers can relate to the story of a home torn asunder by alcoholism, and some day soon I plan to write much more about this cross. But for now I want to write about conversion, so I’ll skip ahead.
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD HOME
As a young teenager, I had a friend whose family attended a small Methodist church. I stayed with them from time to time. They knew I was estranged from my Catholic faith and Church, so one Sunday morning they invited me to theirs. As I sat through the Methodist service, I just felt empty inside. There was something crucial missing. So a week later, I attended Catholic Mass – secretly and alone – with a sense that I was making up for some vague betrayal. At some point sitting in this Mass alone at age 14, I discovered that I was home.
My father wasn’t far behind me. Two years later, when just about everyone we knew had given up any hope for him, my father underwent a radical conversion that changed his very core. He admitted himself to a treatment program, climbed the steep and arduous mountain of recovery, and became our father again after a long, turbulent absence. A high school dropout and machine shop laborer, my father’s transformation was miraculous. He went back to school, completed a college degree, earned his masters degree in social work, and became instrumental in transforming the lives of many other broken men. He also embraced his Catholic faith with love and devotion, and it embraced him in return. That, of course, is all a much longer story for another day.
My father died suddenly at the age of 52 just a few months after my ordination to priesthood in 1982. I remember laying on the floor during the Litany of the Saints at my ordination as I described in “Going My Way,” a Lenten post last year. I was conscious that my father stood on the aisle just a few feet away, and I was struck by the nature of the man whose impact on my life had so miraculously changed. Underneath the millstones of addiction and despair that once plagued him was a singular power that trumped all. It was the sheer courage necessary to be open to the grace of conversion and radical change. The most formative years of my young adulthood and priesthood were spent as a witness to the immensity of that courage. In time, I grew far less scarred by my father’s road to perdition, and far more inspired by his arduous and dogged pursuit of the road back. I have seen other such miracles, and learned long ago to never give up hope for another human being.
THE CONVERSION OF THE DUKE
A year ago this very week, I wrote “Holidays in the Hoosegow: Thanksgiving With Some Not-So-Just Desserts.” In that post, I mentioned that John Wayne is one of my life-long movie heroes and a man I have long admired. But all that I really ever knew of him was through the roles he played in great westerns like “The Searchers,” “The Comancheros,” “Rooster Cogburn,” and my all-time favorite historical war epic, “The Longest Day.”
In his lifetime, John Wayne was awarded three Oscars and the Congressional Gold Medal. After his death from cancer in 1979, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But, for me, the most monumental and courageous of all of John Wayne’s achievements was his 1978 conversion to the Catholic faith.
Not many in Hollywood escape the life it promotes, and John Wayne was no exception. The best part of this story is that it was first told by Father Matthew Munoz, a priest of the Diocese of Orange, California, and John Wayne’s grandson.
Early in his film career in 1933, John Wayne married Josephine Saenz, a devout Catholic who had an enormous influence on his life. They gave birth to four children, the youngest of whom, Melinda, was the mother of Father Matthew Munoz. John Wayne and Josephine Saenz civilly divorced in 1945 as Hollywood absorbed more and more of the life and values of its denizens.
But Josephine never ceased to pray for John Wayne and his conversion, and she never married again until after his death. In 1978, a year before John Wayne died, her prayer was answered and he was received into the Catholic Church. His conversion came late in his life, but John Wayne stood before Hollywood and declared that the secular Hollywood portrayal of the Catholic Church and faith is a lie, and the truth is to be found in conversion.
That conversion had many repercussions. Not least among them was the depth to which it inspired John Wayne’s 14-year old grandson, Matthew, who today presents the story of his grandfather’s conversion as one of the proudest events of his life and the beginning of his vocation as a priest.
If John Wayne had lived to see what his conversion inspired, I imagine that he, too, would have stood on the aisle, a monument to the courage of conversion, as Matthew lay prostrate on the Cathedral floor praying the Litany of the Saints at priesthood ordination. The courage of conversion is John Wayne’s most enduring legacy.
PORNCHAI TAKES A ROAD LESS TRAVELED
The Japanese Catholic novelist, Shusaku Endo, wrote a novel entitled Silence (Monumenta Nipponica, 1969), a devastating historical account of the cost of discipleship. It’s a story of 17th Century Catholic priests who faced torture and torment for spreading the Gospel in Japan. The great Catholic writer, Graham Greene, wrote that Silence is “in my opinion, one of the finest novels of our time.”
Silence is the story of Father Sebastian Rodriguez, one of those priests, and the story is told through a series of his letters. Perhaps the most troubling part of the book was the courage of Father Rodriguez, a courage difficult to relate to in our world. Because of the fear of capture and torture, and the martyrdom of every priest who went before him, Father Rodriguez had to arrive in Japan for the first time by rowing a small boat alone in the pitch blackness of night from the comfort and safety of a Spanish ship to an isolated Japanese beach in 1638 – just 18 years after the Puritan Pilgrims landed the Mayflower at Squanto’s Pawtuxet, half a world away as I describe in “The True Story of Thanksgiving.”
In Japan, however, Father Rodriguez was a pilgrim alone. Choosing to be left on a Japanese beach in the middle of the night, he had no idea where he was, where he would go, or how he would survive. He had only the clothes on his back, and a small traveler’s pouch containing food for a day. I cannot fathom such courage. I don’t know that I could match it if it came down to it.
But I witness it every single day. Most TSW readers are very familiar with “Pornchai’s Story,” and with his conversion to Catholicism on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2010. Most know the struggles and special challenges he has faced as Ryan MacDonald described them in “Pornchai Moontri at the Narrow Gate” at his A Ram in the Thicket blog.
But the greatest challenge of Pornchai’s life is yet to come. In two years he will have served twenty-two years in prison – more than half his life, and half the original sentence of forty-five years imposed when he was 18 years old. In two years time, if many elements fall into place and he can find legal counsel, Pornchai will have an opportunity to seek some commutation of his remaining sentence based on rehabilitation and other factors.
It is a sort of Catch-22, however. Pornchai could then see freedom at the age of forty for the first time since he was a teen, but it will require entering a world entirely foreign to him. On the day Pornchai leaves prison – whether it is in two years or ten or twenty – he will be immediately taken into custody under the authority of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, flown to Bangkok, Thailand, and left there alone. It is a daunting, sometimes very frightening future, and I am a witness to the anxiety it evokes.
For every long term prisoner, there comes a point in which prison itself is the known world and freedom is a foreign land. Pornchai has spent more than half his life in prison.
Even I, after seventeen years here, sometimes find myself at the tipping point, that precipice in which a prisoner cannot readily define which feels more like the undiscovered country – remaining in prison or trying to be free. I had a dream one night in which I had won my freedom, but entered a hostile world and Church in which I was a pariah, living alone and homeless in a rented room in hiding, pursued by mobs of angry Catholics. I described one such dream in “Nightmares and Dreamscapes in the Desert” during Lent last year. I know well the anxious fears of all the prisons of men.
Pornchai was brought to the United States against his will at the age of eleven. That story is told in deeply moving prose by Pornchai himself in “Pornchai’s Story.” I think we became friends because by the strangeness of grace I knew only too well the experience of having the very foundations of life and family and all security fall out from under me. Pornchai spoke a language that I understood clearly. The transformation of pain and sorrow into the experience of grace is the realm of God, and enduring it to one day lead another out of darkness is a great gift. In the end, who can ever say what is good and what is bad? It is not suffering that is our problem, but rather what we do with it when it finds us.
But what Pornchai faces in the future is daunting. With no opportunity for schooling as an abandoned child in Thailand, he never learned to read and write in Thai and hasn’t heard the Thai language spoken since he was eleven. He remembers little of Thai culture, has no prospects to support himself, no home there, no contacts, and no solace at all. Like Father Rodriguez in Silence, Pornchai will be dropped off in a foreign country, and left to fend for himself with no preparation at all beyond what he can scrape up from behind prison walls in another continent. Welcome to the new America!
Pornchai’s options are limited. He can try to bring about this trauma sooner by seeking commutation of his sentence at an age at which he may still somehow build a life in Thailand. Or he can remain quietly in prison another decade or more, postponing this transition until he is much older, with fewer chances for employment, but perhaps can find connections in Thailand.
These are not great choices. “Pornchai’s Story” got the attention of the Thai government and the Cardinal Archbishop of Bangkok two years ago, but the Thai government has been in chaos since, and the Archbishop has retired. All overtures to both since 2009 have been met by silence.
So in the midst of all this dismal foreboding, and in the face of a future entirely unknown, and perhaps even bleak, Pornchai Moontri became a Catholic. He embraced a faith practiced by less than one percent of the people who will one day be his countrymen again, and in so doing, he piled alienation upon alienation.
And yet this man who has no earthly reason to trust anything to fate, trusts faith itself. I have never met a man more determined to live the faith he has professed than Pornchai Moontri. In the darkness and aloneness of a prison cell night after night for the last two of his twenty years in prison, Pornchai stares down the anxiety of uncertainty, struggles for reasons to believe, and finds them.
I am at a loss for more concrete sources of hope for Pornchai. But like Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, whom I have quoted so often, I believe that “I am a link in a chain; a bond of connection between persons.”
Someone out there holds good news for Pornchai – something he can cling to in hope. I await it with as much patience as I can summon. Pornchai awaits it with a singular courage – the courage of conversion that seeks the spring of hope in the winter of despair.