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I am humming the tune to the song “Getting to know you” from the award-winning musical The Sound of Music as I share some pieces of my life story as the author.
I was born in Dover, (Kent County) Delaware in 1946 and raised in Clayton. It was our version of Mayberry where the sheriff walked the streets, without Barney Fife, and chatted with citizens on their front porches. Radar wasn’t on the screen then. My four siblings and I helped each other with homework, passed down our clothes, which miraculously seemed to fit, went on family vacations in a Plymouth station wagon without car seats, rode our bikes and played with friends around town without the threat of child predators. It was an idyllic time when bullying was not part of our vocabulary. We were raised to look after the elderly, mow their lawns, ran errands and shovel snow from the churches, pharmacy and doctor’s office as gestures of community service.
Our parents were modest people, and not celebrities. My father was a truck driver who worked hard and steadfast to care for the needs of our family. He lived his 91 years of life, fully. My mother was a high school graduate who lived her entire 87 years in her hometown. Being from what Tom Brokaw named, The Greatest Generation, they lived frugally in a pre-credit card era. They both had adventurous spirits. We all inherited their DNA for being travel bugs.
Back then Sundays were special days in our home. We went to Church, ate dinner at the dining room table, or traveled to visit family in Maryland, Pennsylvania or Virginia. Ferry boat rides and crossing long bridges, made getting-to-know aunts, uncles and cousins, an adventure long before Travelocity.com was born.
Strong religious practices and attending Catholic high school sowed the seeds of a vocation to the priesthood. Following ordination in 1972, I began to network with many new friends I had met in different parish assignments. In 1979, I suffered a bad case of Burnout. Thanks to an understanding bishop, I treated it with a return to graduate school. Sixteen months at Fordham University was wonderful conversion therapy. Studying the stage theories of human development, alongside the RCIA, (Rites for the Christian Initiation of Adults), opened new interior doors for me, to the stages of my own faith development.
Back then I was an avid tennis player and a fan of baseball. During my two summers in the Bronx I occasionally enjoyed a Yankee’s game at the famous house that Ruth built. I began to harbor a dream of someday having a candy bar named after me.
After graduation at Fordham, I thought my school days were over. That’s when I began to find enjoyment in reading novels. I credit Mary Higgins Clark, a fellow Fordham graduate, with unleashing that passion in me. I have her entire collection of novels signed and proudly occupying the top bookshelf in my home.
In 1983, I returned to graduate school at The Catholic University of America. This heavily academic program helped me develop skills as a critical theological thinker. One of my course papers was published, opening new doors that I found exciting.
In 1990, I began doctoral studies at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, IL. Learning from a biblical master like Eugene LaVerdiere and a storyteller-mystic like Jack Shea was a life-changing chapter in my personal and professional life. Doors were opened to the world of spiritual direction. During these three years it was a special grace to cross paths and be inspired by the prophetic leadership of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. I will always cherish the memories of our encounters.
In 1996, I returned home to my diocese with three graduate degrees. In 1999, I completed a Certificate in Spiritual Direction at Neumann University in Aston, PA. Little did I know then how all that theological learning and ongoing spiritual growth would impact a new ministry of serving as spiritual director with victims of the clergy sex abuse scandal unfolding in our diocese in mid-2002. Companioning with them through their emotional trauma was the equivalent to a spiritual trauma for me. It was my own version of “the dark night of the soul;” a spiritual metaphor of interior growth, beautifully captured as a canticle by the 16th century Spanish Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross.
I had to dig into a deep inner well to help their healing while keeping myself from spiraling into darkness and despair. Having my ears and heart opened wider than ever, I began to confront some interior struggles with the human dimensions of a flawed religious institution. The thing that saved me was falling in love with Jesus Christ as victim. This was the new spiritual piece I offered the victims as Jesus offered it me.
Two things complemented my journey of interior freedom. First, it certainly helped around that time that television had moved into the “reality TV” genre. That’s when I unplugged the TV and fed the right side of my brain by re-visiting the Victorian novels of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and Charles Dickens. I also fed a hungry soul by re-reading the spiritual masters of the Carmelite, Jesuit and Benedictine traditions. Second, for the past nine years I have served as Chaplain at St. Gertrude Monastery and the attached Benedictine School for Exceptional Children. Located on 500 acres in the rural area of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, this pastoral setting offered the kind of quiet environment where God could be encountered as a divine caregiver. The Benedictine Sisters and the special needs children were 200 good shepherds nurturing my wounded soul back to health. I sing the praises of these women religious and specially gifted children for so freely sharing their love that became channels of grace.
From 2008-2010, I wrote and published four articles, in major Catholic periodicals, reflecting on my experience as a spiritual director with clergy abuse victims. I found a voice to weave the fruits of my spiritual conversions into preaching, workshops and major addresses with different church groups.
Many of those who I have inspired, with my own spiritual story around the scandal, encouraged me to write a novel. I began seriously doing so two years ago. It was a leap of faith as I was unfamiliar with the world of fiction. But, I have learned over the years how to clear out the voice of fear whenever it triggers static with the nurturing voice of confidence. Once I did, new doors opened interiorly. I leaned on trust that the combination of years of education, along with growing a creative religious imagination, made it a challenge I was ready to accept.
The most exciting thing about writing Fatal Absolution was creating the characters and weaving a plot that gave their personalities and flaws, their behaviors and choices, authenticity. I hope you befriend them, and engage them, in such a way, that a story about love, romance, scandal, conspiracy, murder, injustice and justice, threaded together with a gentle interplay of classical and rock music, becomes a parable about the threads of redemption woven into your own lives.
It will be a special grace, if someday, our paths cross so I can rejoice in your stories of redemption as, I hope, you rejoice in the story of redemption hidden in Fatal Absolution.
I considerate it a blessing to let you “get to know me” through some of the major chapters and verses of my life story I just shared.
Now that you have come to The End, I hope you will find new energy to embrace life with the kind of hope and courage that helps you reconstitute the story of “you” as an autobiography of New Beginnings.