Some calls to the priesthood are dramatic. Father John Riccardo had such a call. He is the author of Heaven Starts Now: Becoming a Saint Day by Day and the pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Plymouth, Michigan where his homily podcasts are recorded. His radio show Christ is the Answer can be heard on Ave Maria Radio.
My sister, a member of Divine Child in Dearborn, Michigan, his first assignment, told me about him while I was collecting stories for the Amazing Grace for the Catholic Heart book. He had shared his story with an RCIA class that her husband was attending.
An important point he made that was not included in the published story is that the events were no barometer of his own holiness. Perhaps, just the opposite. He noted: “If I had been more open to what God was trying to tell me, maybe he would not have had to go to such lengths.” Here is a brief summary.
Father Riccardo was the youngest of five. His mother converted to Catholicism from the Methodist faith during his childhood. His father was the Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board for the Chrysler Corporation and also a devout Catholic and daily communicant.
Father Riccardo explained that his first memory, when he was around 3 years old, was of the crucifix in his boyhood church. Somehow, he grasped that Jesus had died for him and his life should be a response to that.
Despite a good family life, Father Riccardo slipped during the teen years. “I no longer went to confession and by the time I attended college at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, my attendance at Mass was sporadic,” he said. “It wasn't enjoyable to hear the Gospel when I was not living a holy life.”
During his junior year, in 1986, he turned back to God and became part of an ecumenical Christian brotherhood for a time. “I saw men my own age who were normal guys but really knew God and were not afraid to talk about it,” he said.
Father Riccardo broke off with a girlfriend and concentrated on Christian outreach to other university students. After getting a degree in English and communications, he took a job baking bread since he was unsure of what he really wanted in life. He drove home to break the news to his father. To Father Riccardo’s relief, his Dad told him he was not disappointed in whatever his son decided to do—even the priesthood. Father Riccardo assured his dad that would never happen.
Driving back to Ann Arbor that day, tears streamed down Father Riccardo’s face—what did Jesus want of his life? As he cried, the words to a Christian song, “God's Own Fool” played on his car stereo. ‘...So come lose your life for a carpenter's son, for a madman who died for a dream. And you'll have the faith his first followers had and you'll feel the weight of the beam.’
“At that very moment, I had an actual vision of our Lord in my car,” Father Riccardo said. “He sat next to me. It was clear that it was Him. I was still crying. He reached across the seat and dug his right hand into my chest and said, ‘John these are all your dreams, goals, and desires and everything you want to do with your life.’ He withdrew HE motioned throwing it all out the window.
“I said, ‘Lord, that's my life you just threw out the window.’ Jesus then said, ‘John, I'm going to give you my dream, my goal, my desire and what I want you to do with your life.’ And then He was gone. I felt panicked. This was so personal.”
For the next 3 years, Father Riccardo remained unsure of what God had planned for him. He did some Christian outreach and then took a job with Ford Motor Company in accounting and was dating again.
While reading his Bible one day, he came across the passage in Matthew: “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”
Although something stirred in him, he thought, "Oh nuts! I think I'm suppose to do this." He wanted to throw his Bible on the ground. Instead, he cried out: "Lord, I don't get it. I thought of marriage once, that didn't fit; the brotherhood didn't fit, I started dating again, that didn't fit..."
Suddenly, he heard a clear voice: "John, I'm inviting you to live single and to do it as a priest."
Father Riccaardo responded, "Lord, if that's what you want me to do, then you better give me a desire for it, because I don't have it." By the fifth day, he longed to know more about the priesthood.
Father Riccardo started in Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major seminary in Detroit in 1991. Walking into the building for the first time, a wave of peace washed over him. He thought, "I'm finally home."
After a year-and-a-half at the seminary, Father Riccardo was invited to finish his theological studies in Rome. Prior to admission, he needed a physical. Although in excellent health and only twenty-six, testing indicated possible heart irregularities. After a stress test, the cardiologist asked if there had been any serious childhood illnesses. There were none.
An unexplainable scar tissue was found on Father Riccardo’s heart. It was nothing to be concerned about, he was told, but it could occasionally cause shortness of breath.
A month into his studies in Rome, in the chapel one day, Father Riccardo was meditating on the three pivotal moments in his life: “My first memory of the crucifix, the vision in the car, and the invitation to be a priest.” It was at that moment when it became clear that the scar tissue on his heart had come from the hand of Jesus.
He was ordained a priest in 1996. As for that scar and the possibility of shortness of breath?
“Often, during the Mass, at the moment of consecration, when I lift the bread and wine and it becomes the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, I often lose my breath and feel as if my heart is being squeezed,” he said. “It is a reminder to me of the day God barged into his life, and brought me to the joy of the priesthood.”