God is active in every life and His planning encompasses every individual that has ever lived. God made all people perfect for their role in His plan and He ensures that we have everything necessary to complete this plan. We all have free will and can choose whether to cooperate with His plan or not. God has perfect foresight, however, so He sees our sins before we commit them and, having made us, He knows how we will react in a given circumstance. Therefore, He can use our sins to bring out greater goods or He can alter the circumstances so that His desired outcome is consistent with our natural inclinations. All this is built up into an amazingly complex plan which results in the salvation of those who love God and trust Him to plan for their everlasting joy in His presence. God’s presence is more easily seen in some lives than others; mine is such a case.
Twenty years ago, I was an engineer working for IBM in upstate New York and a lukewarm Catholic, attending Mass regularly but doing nothing else. That all changed in an instant when a priest at my parents’ parish, chosen specifically because he didn’t know me, assigned me the penance of going to a weekday mass. He specifically asked me whether I could complete this which I had to admit I could, therefore, I felt doubly obligated to go. Despite some trepidation, I went to a Tuesday morning mass at St. Columba Church in Hopewell Junction, New York, halfway between my work and my office. It was a truly spiritual experience for me to do more than the minimum requirement. I never stopped going after that and a few months later, I volunteered to be a catechist when they asked for volunteers at mass.
I had never taught anything before, but my IBM experience of simplifying complex problems to make them understandable, coupled with my experiences as a youth baseball coach, gave me some natural advantages. I was shocked that I knew very little about the faith, learning along with the students from the fourth-grade text. I was highly motivated to correct this deficiency, reading the catechism cover to cover, reading the lives of the saints, and even doing some online apologetics at catholic.com.
I had been a catechist for about five years, when God saw fit to bring Sr. Marie Pappas to St. Columba as the new Director of Religious Studies. Sr. Marie was supremely qualified for the job, having been an interim superintendent of the New York parochial school system and had a national reach by hosting a weekly radio show, “Pathways of Learning,” on Sirius XM satellite radio. We quickly built a rapport, and she encouraged me to go beyond the Parish as a catechist.
In May 2013, I had a very vivid dream that I should quit my lucrative job and “teach the teachers.” I immediately recognized this as a call to teach future catechists and I thought I would teach them about how to teach morality. However, I was skeptical about uprooting my family’s lives to follow a dream. But my wife was very supportive (After all, God also picks your spouse – no person can make another person fall in love with them) so I pursued it with vigor. I quickly learned that I would need to get a master’s degree in an allied field before pursuing a Ph.D that would be required to teach the teachers. I also learned there were only three choices on the east coast (Boston College, Fordham University, and Catholic University) and they were highly competitive to get in. I found that I could get a master’s degree in religious education online through Fordham which conveniently all three schools would accept toward the Ph.D. It gave me the opportunity to keep my job at IBM so I had a hedge to see whether I had a theological aptitude. It also could be done at my own pace, which allowed me to complete it in 14 months, much faster than the 4 years they projected. This was important to making a path to the doctorate by age 60 to give me at least a few years to teach the teachers before retirement.
At the beginning of 2015, master’s in hand, I began applying to Ph.D programs across the country, ten in all, and in April I found out that only one had accepted me, but that one (Catholic University) was my favorite from the outset so I was relieved that I was rejected by the others so that my decision would be made for me. It was at this point that I began to see God’s actions in play more clearly. First, going to Catholic meant going home to where I grew up. My sister, who was caring for my 86 year old mother, wanted to move, so Sue and I agreed to buy a house with my brother Rich and jointly care for my mother. We bought a house in May, put our house in New York on the market and I quit my job at IBM on July 31. In late July I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and told by the doctor that it was not a death sentence and that I had 5-10 years of productivity left. That was not great to hear, looking at a minimum of 5 years to complete the doctoral degree, but I was too committed to turn back, particularly in regards to my mother’s care.
I moved in early August 2015, which forced me to find a new neurologist to treat my Parkinson’s symptom. In my first appointment with my new neurologist, she asked me what I did for a living so I explained that I was getting a doctorate at Catholic University. She responded by asking me why people have to suffer. I said that I did not know because that was not my field of study. She was quite persuasive when arguing that it was a further-reaching field of study than my proposal to teach the teachers, and that every doctor she knew wanted but could not get the answer to that question. I explored the concept in a few classes, decided it was a topic I could add value in and changed my major to moral theology, which became very easy to do because the department head of Catechetics left for personal reasons so the dean actually asked me if I would consider the change. Two years earlier I had been rejected by every Moral Theology program that I applied to, now it was my only path forward.
Two years later, I had a chance encounter with Michael Warsaw, the CEO of EWTN, at a scholarship dinner and he encouraged me to publish a version of my dissertation for general audiences because he was convinced that it would be a bestseller. I defended my dissertation, The Grace Concealed in Suffering: Developing Virtue and Beatitude, on March 5, 2020 and on February 18, 2021, following three rewrites and getting the bishop’s Imprimatur, it was released as Why All People Suffer: How a Loving God Uses Suffering to Perfect Us by Sophia Institute Press. I soon found myself in interviews with regional, national and international radio and TV outlets answering tough questions on suffering that I was able to handle with ease. I was also tapped by the Avila Institute to teach a webinar attended by 458 students and then to teach two sections of a class on suffering for their school of Spiritual Direction.
Throughout my journey, the path has been smoothed for me, with all key decisions being the only ones I felt reasonable to take. Granted, I had significant suffering related to my health, but I came to understand that that gave me the credibility necessary to take on this role so it to was also part of the plan. For those of you that cannot see how God is active in your life, rest assured that He is even if it not obvious. It only became obvious to me at the point where my doctor asked me to study suffering because it was so far outside my comfort zone that I reflected on it and saw the rest of what had happened to me in a different light: not as a series of lucky accidents but as an exquisitely well-constructed and executed plan.
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