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August 2, 2003
Column #1,144

Father John McCloskey: Catholic Evangelist

     America's most successful Catholic evangelist since Bishop Fulton J. Sheen is not at all as famous as the bishop was in the 1950s with a weekly network TV show. You have probably never heard of Father C. John McCloskey. However, consider some of his converts:

- Dr. Bernard Nathanson, founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League, who was personally involved in 75,000 abortions, before becoming a prominent pro-life advocate with the book "Aborting America" and the stunning video, "The Silent Scream."

- Lawrence Kudlow, a CNBC economic commentator, whose career was nearly ruined by a cocaine addiction before his conversion.

- Robert Novak, a syndicated political columnist for 40 years and a non-practicing Jew, often called "The Prince of Darkness" for his gloomy presence on CNN's "Crossfire" and "The Capital Gang."

- U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Methodist and a conservative who teamed up with liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone to sponsor a law to curb sex trafficking, which brings 50,000 prostitutes for brothels in the U.S. annually.

- Judge Robert Bork, who was nominated by President Reagan to the Supreme Court, but suffered defeat in a Democratic Senate opposed to his pro-life views.

     What's common to these men, other than their prominence is their fierce intellectual brilliance. Each forged a shooting star career from an early age, winning accolades and substantial wealth and worldly success. Yet each felt an emptiness inside and was open to the quiet intellectual priest who began his career as a stockbroker on Wall Street with Merrill Lynch.

     He studied for the priesthood in Rome and Spain, earned a doctorate in church history, was a parish priest in Manhattan until joining a campus chaplaincy at Princeton. Today McCloskey, 49, runs the Catholic Information Center, two blocks from the White House where his daily Mass attracts 100 people from all walks of life. He has hosted a series on Cardinal Newman on the Catholic Eternal Word Television Network, written many articles and reviews of  books located on

     The Washingtonian Magazine's June issue on "The Conversion of Bob Novak," quotes the pundit on how he felt bowing his head over the baptismal font and taking his first Holy Communion at age 67 (in 1998): "It was an exhilarating experience, one of the great moments of my life. I thought I was in a different dimension." After the ceremony, Sen. Patrick Moynihan quipped, "Well, we've now made Bob a Catholic. The question is, can we make him a Christian?"

     When the Novaks moved to downtown Washington from the suburbs, his wife Geraldine tried a number of nearby churches, settling on historic St. Patrick's Catholic Church. They fell in love with the liturgy and stimulating sermons by Msgr. Peter Vaghi, a former staffer to Sen. Pete Domenici. At a speaking engagement, a woman asked Novak if he were Catholic. He said he'd been attending Mass but had no plans to convert.. "She told me that in this world, life is short, but eternity was forever. It chilled me. I honestly thought it was the Holy Spirit speaking to me."

     It was then that he began taking instructions from Father McCloskey. Thus, there are many influences on one's conversion. The priest will not give details on anyone's conversion experience. He sees dozens weekly, and gives them books such as "The Pillar of Fire" by Carl Stern, a Jewish psychiatrist who became a Catholic or "Mere Christianity," by Anglican C.S. Lewis.

     McCloskey offers simple friendship and patience. He met with Bernard Nathanson more than 10 years before the king of abortions became Catholic. Nathanson said, "He'd come to my house and give me reading materials. He guided me down the path to where I am now."

     He writes of the joy of being God's instrument in winning converts: "The only comparable joys are marriage, becoming a parent, and performing in `personal Christi,' the sacraments of the Church as a priest."

     Yet few Catholics evangelize. Why? McCloskey says, "Their only exposure to the Bible is for approximately 10 minutes at Sunday Mass. Therefore they don't know Sacred Scripture. On the other hand, their sight and hearing are assaulted by a daily barrage of stimulation that appears to be designed by the devil...keeping us immersed in the world of the ephemeral and our minds off the supernatural life."

     In speaking with Judge Bork about his decision, I said, "It must have been difficult for a person over 50 to make such a conversion."

     He replied, "Well, at 71 I have a lot of sins to be forgiven for! And at my age, there not much energy left for sinning!"

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