How can it be 2018 already? --recalling the journey and the milestones--

Originally Appeared in : 9801-1/4/18

At the end of this new year, on December 14, 2018, I will have been a Catholic for 50 years. I still marvel at what transpired in that watershed year of 1968, when the world seemed to change as much as I did.


On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1967, I stayed home in Kettering, Ohio, with my family, including my aunt and uncle from Texas and some of their five children. I would rather have partied with friends, but things didn’t work out. I remember making a few phone calls before the night was through. I had no idea what to expect from 1968, other than graduating from high school and heading off to college, not yet knowing where I would be admitted.


At the time, I was a lapsed Methodist, not really believing in much of anything except myself. I was an academic involved in theater, who had already traveled to Europe on a study tour with my French teacher and classmates. I had lived the experience and had been somewhat down since returning to Ohio, especially as the winters were always difficult for me.


In January, the Tet Offensive shocked the United States and strengthened the growing opposition to the Vietnam War. I had come to oppose the war myself, not because I feared the draft—I thought I was too short to be drafted—but because the war seemed unwinnable and I knew that the French President, General Charles de Gaulle, had warned U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson not to repeat France’s mistake of attempting to win a ground war in Asia.


Then in February, I felt unwell and was treated for the flu, which I did not have, but not for appendicitis, which I did have, leading to the worst physical pain I have ever experienced, followed by emergency surgery.  When I woke up in the recovery room, I was ecstatically happy, not just to have survived, but to have realized that I had an immortal soul and that, therefore, the God who had created and sustained it through my physical trauma actually existed. I vowed that as soon as I recovered (a long process, as it turned out), I would have to get serious about religion.


I had drifted away from Methodism after my confirmation and first (and only) communion, in part because our pastor preached a sermon on that occasion that included the statement, “Jesus said, ‘This is my body, but of course we don’t believe that.” It was his logic rather than his doctrine that offended my rationality. If Jesus was the Son of God, I reasoned, then there had to be some sense in which everything he said had to be considered true by those who professed to believe in him.


Now, after my near-death experience, I decided to inquire into the Catholic faith, both because I had been impressed by the Catholic culture of Europe and because we lived within walking distance of Saint Charles Borromeo Parish in Kettering. I was impressed by the Easter Mass and especially with the pastor, Monsignor Martin T. Gilligan, who later became my mentor and preached at my first Mass. 


My father’s graduation present to me was very generous—a second study trip, this time to Athens, Jerusalem and Rome, to study classical civilizations. By the time I returned to the States, I had decided to take formal instruction in Catholicism as soon as I arrived at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where I had planned to study American History, in a subject which I had already won a state prize in Ohio. 


I still remember the look of surprise on Father John J. O’Connor’s face when I approached him after Mass at Saint Bede’s and asked to be instructed in the Catholic faith. “You want to come in?” he asked incredulously. “Everyone else seems to be leaving.” This was one month after Pope Paul VI had issued his Encyclical Letter, Humanae Vitae—while I was actually in Rome.  


Father O’Connell kindly set me up with his parochial vicar, Father Michael Dolan, newly ordained and freshly arrived from Ireland, who instructed five of us students in the Catholic faith. My breakthrough moment was when he said, more or less, “Jesus said, ‘This is my body and of course we believe that.” I knew that I had found my spiritual home.


The rest is history. I was received into the Catholic Church on Saturday, December 14, 1968, by Profession of Faith (the long Tridentine formula) and conditional baptism, for as a northern Methodist I had been sprinkled with a rose and the water might or might not have hit my head! I have never looked back.


Father Dolan soon sent me on the first of many vocations retreats. Three years later, while at home for Christmas, I had an epiphany outside a dentist’s office that I should pursue a vocation to the priesthood. Through the kindness of my friend, Chris Schreck, a fellow student at William and Mary, but also a seminarian for the Diocese of Savannah who lived at Saint Bede’s rectory, I was introduced to Bishop Gerard L. Frey and Father Robert B. Mattingly, the vocations director, who invited me to study for the priesthood for the Diocese of Savannah. Just after Easter, Chris informed me that he had been interviewed by Monsignor Roger Roensch, the “recruiter” for the Pontifical North American College in Rome. I congratulated him, only to have him tell me that Monsignor Roensch would be coming to Williamsburg the next day to recruit me as well.


Four years later, on July 3, 1976, Bishop Raymond W. Lessard ordained me to the priesthood in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Savannah.


As 2018 begins, I am in my 69th year of life, the 50th of my Catholicism and the 42nd of my priesthood. I am filled wijkth gratitude to almighty God and to all who contributed in any way to my wonderful life, my abiding faith, and my wonderful vocation. 


Happy New Year to all!


Father Douglas K. Clark is pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro.

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