How does a kid from Flint, Mich., who was raised by Hindu parents, end up getting baptized by Pope John Paul II and working in the Vatican?
This is the sort of incredulous — though mostly respectful — question I’ve had to answer more than a few times during the past 15 years. Usually it is asked with a sense of wonder and gratitude, but sometimes there has been a little envy mixed in — most of the people asking the question are practicing Catholics who greatly admire John Paul II. I must admit I’ve done nothing to deserve the honor of traveling such a journey.
Even though my parents are Hindu, they had enough respect and admiration for Catholic education — and especially for the priests and nuns who ran the schools — to start their two children at the now-closed St. Mary Queen of Angels. My first teachers were Polish Benedictine sisters who did not shy away from discipline and often used the one non-baptized student who did his religion homework as an example for the others.
While I studied Catholicism and attended Mass on Fridays with the rest of the students, the Catholic faith was something I observed from the outside. At best, I was a “fan” of Catholicism; all my teachers and friends were Catholics, but no one ever suggested that I convert. They simply were good examples and instruments through whom God would eventually call me into the Church.
After Catholic primary and secondary school, I attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where hardly anybody paid much attention to religion, aside from the random Campus Crusade for Christ kid who would show up at my dorm room. It was the late 1980s, and, studying political science and economics as well as working for a student newspaper, I developed a strong admiration for the three leaders who would eventually bring down the Berlin Wall — Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II.
As John O’Sullivan relates in his book The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, these three figures came into their respective offices in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when their doing so was anything but inevitable. “All three were handicapped by being too sharp, clear, and definite in an age of increasingly fluid identities and sophisticated doubts,” he writes. “Put simply, Wojtyla was too Catholic, Thatcher too conservative, and Reagan too American.” As someone whose political and economic ideas were being formed at the time, I cannot overemphasize the influence they had on my way of thinking.
Admiring John Paul II as a Cold Warrior is not the same thing as becoming Catholic, however. The negative reactions of those Catholics who supported Reagan and Thatcher to the U.S. Bishops’ pastoral letters on war and peace (1983) and on economic justice (1986) made me skeptical about Catholic social teaching. But all that changed when I read Father Richard John Neuhaus’s book Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (1992), a lucid commentary on John Paul II’s 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus. I remember thinking, “If this is how a Catholic should think about social issues, sign me up!”
Of course, it wasn’t simply up to me; becoming a Catholic is as much about God’s calling you as your choosing God. It took a few more years of intellectual and spiritual inquiry, and loving guidance from faithful friends, before I entered the Catholic Church. I met my future godfather, Matthew, in the most unlikely of settings, a graduate seminar on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra at the University of Toronto. It was he who suggested we accompany a group of university students who travel to Rome every year during Holy Week and see if there was a way to get me baptized by the pope. I didn’t believe it would really happen and tried every excuse in the book not to go, but Matthew’s persistence and prayers paid off, and I finally said yes.