Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
I spoke to three members of the clergy, a priest, deacon and bishop, who experienced a conversion to the Catholic faith and went on to become ordained members of the clergy. Here are their stories.
Fr. Raul Lemus, Director of Vocations, Diocese of Santa Rosa, California
Fr. Lemus was born in El Salvador, and was brought by his parents to San Francisco when he was 4 years old. His father was a dishwasher; the family moved around to different neighborhoods in the City (“It got me used to moving around a lot, which is helpful when you’re a priest,” he quipped.)
As a boy, went with his mother to Mass at some of San Francisco’s most beautiful churches, including the Jesuit-run St. Ignatius. He said, “I was excited when my mom would give me a dollar to put into the collection.”
From age 14-22, however, he stopped going to church. He was a “smart aleck,” he said, and aspired to become an actor and comedian. His brother, Joe, recalled that despite Raul’s rough edges, he was well-liked. Joe said, “Raul was a playful kid. He liked to tell jokes, and was fun to be around.”
Raul got involved with drama and managed to steer clear of the worst aspects of the gang and drug culture that afflicted many in his community. His late brother Carlos, however, was not so fortunate. He developed a severe drug and alcohol problem, and the family moved to Petaluma, about 40 miles north of San Francisco, so Carlos could receive treatment.
The family’s new parish was St. Vincent de Paul, a historic church founded in 1857. The magnificent structure has beautiful marble altars, mosaics, statues and stained glass windows, as well as impressive domes and twin towers. Although Raul wasn’t practicing the faith, the traditional structure appealed to him. He said, “It has a lot of what I call ‘holy distractions.’”
While driving his parents to church, he realized that St. Vincent’s was a great place to meet women. He recalled, “God did a ‘bait and switch’ on me. I was attracted by the women, but I wound up becoming an altar server, lector and minister of communion.”
He joined the Jovenes youth group, and discovered he was a natural leader. It was during this time that he “fell in love with God and the Church, and realized something was missing from my life.”
He was impressed by some of the priests he had met, especially a family friend from El Salvador, Fr. Emiliano Caballero. Fr. Lemus said, “I liked Fr. Caballero because he was ‘normal.’ You’d ask him questions about God, and he’d answer them in plain Spanish.”
Happy priests play an important role in attracting young men to the priesthood, Fr. Lemus believes. He continued, “Fr. Caballero was a light-hearted man who’d tell jokes; he planted the seed of my vocation back when I was 10 years old.”
Fr. Lemus was ordained a priest in 2002. Fr. Caballero traveled up for Fr. Lemus’ ordination, and helped him vest for Mass. It was a happy day, recalled Joe: “We were all excited. Many people came, some from far away.”
Echoing the words of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, Father today tells his congregations, “My job is to help you get to heaven.”
Deacon Joe Calvert, assigned to St. Christopher Parish, Radcliff, Kentucky
Before his conversion to the Catholic faith, Deacon Calvert was a committed atheist. He recalled as a young man how he strolled the University of Louisville campus distributing copies of British atheist Bertrand Russell’s 1927 essay Why I am Not a Christian.
Calvert was raised Protestant, but by college he had begun living a secular lifestyle and adopted famous atheists such as Russell and George Bernard Shaw as his heroes. An avid reader, he began exploring Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Influenced by his professors and the texts he read, he was anti-Catholic. In fact, his “anthem” was the 1794 poem by British poet William Blake which concludes, “And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, and binding with briars my joys and desires.”
The Catholics he met knew little about their faith. He said, “I’d ask them ‘why do you genuflect in church?’ They’d say, ‘Because you’re crossing the middle,’ rather than because Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the tabernacle. I admit I said some terrible things about Pope John Paul II and Catholics back then.”
His wife, Berta, chuckled, “Yes, he was bad. He made fun of the Catholic Church and he was pro-abortion. People who know him today wouldn’t believe it.”
Oddly enough, it was Buddhist meditation that started him on the road back to Christianity. He was meditating twice daily according to Buddhist practices, when he clearly heard the message: “You will never be happy without Jesus Christ.”
Additionally, one of his favorite Eastern teachers, Eknath Easwaran (1910-99), recommended reading the poems of St. Teresa of Avila, which gave him a whole new perspective on the Catholic Church. He said, “I was taught that the Catholic Church had choked the life out of women for 2,000 years. But here was a woman who lived around the time of the Inquisition who was joyful, had a brilliant intellect and loved the Catholic Church.”
So, for the first time, Calvert began reading history written by Catholics. When the new Catholic Catechism came out in 1992, he read it cover to cover, “looking to poke holes in the logic.” He couldn’t find any. He said, “I did not rejoice as I finished the Catechism. If this book were true, then I would have to admit that I had been wrong about many things.”
When Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life) came out in 1995, he read it hoping again to “poke holes,” but couldn’t find any. He said, “As I put the encyclical down, I very clearly remember shaking my head and saying to myself: ‘I still don’t believe all this pope stuff, but if there were such a thing as a Vicar of Christ, he would write just like that!’”
Calvert began going on Catholic retreats and meeting with priests, including “humble and holy” Fr. Dennis Cousens. Calvert said, “When I met with Fr. Cousens, he asked, ‘What do you believe?’ I said, “I believe the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, I believe the pope is his vicar and I believe in the Real Presence.’ Father responded, ‘Well, that’s a pretty good start!’”
Calvert was received into the Catholic Church in 1995. He recalled, “As I stood there before the altar, I can remember thinking that nothing ever had ever felt so right as this.”
“It’s amazing. He’s had a 110% change. You can’t find a person more devoted to the Church than him,” said wife Berta. “I’m thrilled. It’s the best thing that’s happened in our lives.”
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska
Bishop Conley grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City. His father was a building materials salesman and his mother a housewife; he has one adopted sister. The family was nominally Presbyterian and attended church occasionally.
While in college in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, he studied the “Great Books”—favorites included the Confessions of St. Augustine and the writings of Blessed John Henry Newman—and converted to Catholicism at age 20. His father was “not too happy” about his conversion—he told him he’d given up the freedom of thinking for himself. But, he jokes, “I was a Grateful Deadhead, and my mom was happy I cut my hair!”
Both his parents converted to Catholicism themselves in 1991. Bishop Conley administered Baptism and Confirmation to each.