Dion DiMucci considers himself a “ferocious” Catholic and proclaims that “the truth will set you free.” That is why he chose Dion the Wanderer Talks Truth: Stories, Humor and Music for the title of his recently published autobiography, which discusses many details about his life, including his music — think of his early hits in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including Runaround Sue, Teenager in Love, Donna the Prima Donna, and, of course, The Wanderer. An inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Dion continues to produce and record music today, but his relationship with God and his return to his Catholic roots are at the heart of his book and his life.
The book, which is an easy read, will be of interest to fans of his music as well as anyone who wants to reflect on his journey back to full communion with the Catholic Church.
Born and raised in the Little Italy section of the Bronx, Dion was baptized Catholic, but his dysfunctional family wasn’t religious and only saw the inside of church for weddings and funerals. Life in his neighborhood was gritty; he started drinking when he was 12 and using drugs a year later.
However, there was one bright spot in the neighborhood. “Mount Carmel Catholic Church was the hub of my little Italian neighborhood in the Bronx,” said Dion. “It was prominent, and I heard things like the Father, Son and Holy Spirit makes the sign of the cross. It was a kind of reverence, but who knew what was going on? I had no idea.”
Among the stories is a narrative of his journey to find “the truth.”
“My question, probably most of my life, was: What is truth, and who has the authority to define it? If the truth sets you free, what is it and where do you find it?” He added, “I didn’t know how to think until I became truly Catholic.”
In the book’s introduction, Dion states that the predominant theme is how Jesus Christ figures into every aspect of his life. Below is a brief excerpt from the book that summarizes the beginning of his journey:
I didn’t always see life that way. I was a millionaire before I was twenty years old, self-made up from poverty, and I was pretty impressed with myself. It was the typical rock-star attitude. The truth, however, is that I was living in darkness, falling deeper into the black pit of myself and my hungers. I’m one of the lucky rockers who lived long enough to learn I was wrong, and that’s a grace in itself.
The book is co-authored with Mike Aquilina, who is known for his writing about the early Church. The two became friends during a trip to Rome in 2005. They discovered they had a lot in common, including an interest in the Fathers of the Church, as well as coming from Italian families and raising daughters. Dion and his childhood sweetheart, Susan Butterfield, have been married for 48 years and have three daughters.
“Mike and I started talking about extended families and how some of them were yelling and screaming at the Church,” said Dion.
As Dion told Aquilina stories about his life, they agreed that a book should be written. “I’ve been on this earth awhile, and my experiences have taught me something. I’ve had a few very memorable things that really altered my life, changed my direction, and kind of put things in place, so I said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
The first of these life-changing moments occurred on Feb. 3, 1959, the day Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson, died in a plane crash, when Dion’s life was spared.
Dion was touring with them as the “Winter Dance Party.” They had the opportunity to fly to their next gig, but the plane had room for only three. They tossed a coin; Dion won the toss, but let another go in his place. Remembering his humble roots, he couldn’t justify paying $36 for a one-hour flight.
Dion lived — but battled addiction for 14 years, until April 1, 1968, when he got down on his knees and asked God to take away his obsession with drugs and alcohol.
Since that moment — the second memorable thing in his life — he has never taken a drink or done drugs again. He wasn’t much of a regular churchgoer at this point, but he did begin praying on a regular basis.
The third memorable thing: On Dec. 14, 1979, he had a vision that changed his life: “I was in a 12-step spiritual recovery program for about 11 years, and I believed in God. But I said a prayer: ‘God, it would be nice to be closer to you.’ Suddenly, my world opened up. I had a vision of Christ and who he was and what he can do and why he stepped into history.
“It changed my life; I’ve never been the same. Ever since that experience, I’ve never had to doubt my self-worth ever again.”
He started attending a variety of evangelical churches; however, he noticed that these churches seemed to have conflicting beliefs. After talking about the Eucharist with a group of Catholics at a Christmas party, and then later watching programming on EWTN, he realized that he could find the truth in the Catholic Church.
He knew what he had to do. The next time he was in New York City, he took a cab to Mount Carmel Church and asked the priest to hear his confession.
The Church’s truth is a no-brainer for him.
“There are a lot of Catholics who think they are just born Catholic and they can do whatever they want,” said Dion. “They’ve never really accepted the Church or its teachings. It’s puzzling; they’re baptized, but they use their own minds to come to conclusions. I don’t. Actually, the Church has such an ancient track on truth that I just line myself up with the mind of Christ and go with it. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel or be smarter than the Church.”
He continued, “The book is a good thing to hand to people who are flirting with the Church and searching for the truth, but they are in love with the search. What the book is telling them is that you can actually come to the truth and come into a personal relationship with Christ. You don’t have to be in love with the search for truth; you can actually embrace it and come home. And that’s part of what the book is about too: It’s about coming home. Some people don’t even know where home is, and they don’t know what they are looking for.
“I love the Church. It gives me great peace, great comfort, strength, power, vision and a wonderful, beautiful worldview. I don’t get that from Fox News or MSNBC. I get that from the Church.”
Christine A. Smyczynski writes from Getzville, New York.