You were raised in a large family by a hardworking single mom. How did that impact you?
My father died when I was a year old, and my mother raised nine of us, back before the time of single-parent families. I would say, quite honestly, that my mom is a saint. It was a unique household, it was fun and it was the place where everyone went. Going through the 1960s and ‘70s with all these older siblings, I learned what to do and what not to do.
You were raised Catholic, but it wasn’t until your marriage to Julie that you really came to embrace your faith. What happened?
We got married at 23, and my wife has always had a strong faith. Prior to that, I wasn’t going to Mass, but my wife was. It was during our wedding Mass that I really came to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life. The Sunday after the wedding, I woke her up and said “Come on, let’s go, we’re going to be late for Mass.” She’s like, “Who are you?” My journey started then.
Two years ago, you had your life all planned out — just ordained to the permanent diaconate and about to start your new job as a middle school theology teacher at Christ King. Then your wife was diagnosed with dementia. How has that changed things for you?
When I went to school to teach, that came after much prayer and discernment. I thought that’s what God wanted me to be — a teacher in middle school and a deacon. Then this happened. My wife and I retired at the same time and I became her full-time caregiver, and the first year of diaconate was really slow. I assisted at both Sunday Masses and I preached on weekday Masses, and that was it for a while. In the last six months, I’ve been getting more involved. My replacement teacher has been great and told me to come in to teach the kids whenever I want, and I’ve always assisted at the all-school Masses on Thursday.
How have you reconciled this reality with those expectations that weren’t fulfilled?
It certainly is a challenge, no doubt. It’s a huge challenge. Everyone asks, “What can we do?” and I just say, “Pray for me to grow in patience and compassion.” It comes in handy. But I have been surprised and amazed at how many “stories of the cross” there are. (There are) so many people I (have) met who have lost loved ones — children, spouses, friends — or have a terrible illness. I believe that without Julie’s illness and my “cross,” I wouldn’t have come to know these people and their crosses in the way that I do now. This has deepened my understanding of compassion and that is essential to me as an ordained deacon and member of our parish family.
We can be so certain of what God is asking us, and then sometimes when we do it, things change so suddenly, and it feels like the rug is pulled out from under us. But you just have to go with it.
When I heard the news, that’s what popped in my head — I said, “Wow, I’m a caregiver.” That was a surprise. And from the outside looking in, I would have thought I couldn’t do this. But I take walks a lot, and on a lot of my walks, I find myself reflecting on Christ’s life. My mom always told me to “offer it up,” and I’ve always looked at it that way, picking up your cross — but before, it was all words, and now it’s real. All of a sudden I’m walking with our Lord a whole lot closer, but at the same time, he’s walking with me. We’re walking together. Carrying the cross, walking with the Lord — it’s a hard thing. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s a hard thing.
You also look after your two young grandsons a few days a week. What is that like?
I told my daughter, “I’m glad they’re boys, because I can do truck noises 24 hours a day, any day of the week. I can play in the dirt, no problem.” They’re 100 percent boys. We get the trucks and play in the dirt, and it’s a hoot. Those kids help keep me sane, although I sure do sleep well when they go home.