Ordained on Jan. 19 for the Orange Diocese, Father Matthew Munoz is currently the parochial vicar at St. Edward's Catholic Church in Dana Point, Calif. The eldest of seven children, Munoz is the grandson of actor John Wayne. He recently spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake from his home.
Do you have a favorite memory about your grandfather?
I used to tell my students that if I say anything about my grandfather John Wayne, I also have to say something about my grandfather Fernando Munoz. Although you haven't heard of him, Fernando was a Mexican immigrant coal miner that helped this country to grow. He came to the United States 82 years ago. He was a real cowboy.
In many ways, John's life on the screen depicts much of the life of my grandfather Fernando.
My grandfather John was just Granddaddy. As kids we thought anyone's grandfather could be on TV. As we got older we got to meet different actors and actresses. On screen they seem larger than life, but they're just human beings. I remember when Clint Eastwood was upand-coming, he brought one of his early films for my grandfather to watch. He was very unassuming and down-to-earth. It doesn't strike you as something different until you realize how many people's lives around the world have been affected by an actor.
My fondest memory is from when I was 9 years old. We were on Balboa Island. My parents let us drive the boat, but told us not to go more than 300 yards from shore. One day I asked my cousin, who was 10, to go with me, and we took the boat a mile up the back bay all the way to my grandfather's dock. When we arrived, in shorts and full of sand, my grandfather was entertaining guests with a formal dinner. He let out a big hoot, pulled me onto his lap, and asked me what we were doing there. I can still remember his huge smile, and the company smiling, enjoying that moment. I told him that Mom and Dad didn't know we took the boat.
He covered for me until we told the story a few years later.
Tell me about your family growing up.
I was born in Encino and my family moved to Tustin when I was 5. I am the oldest of seven, with four sisters and two brothers. My mother lost one son, and one daughter, right after birth. We always include them and have a prayer relationship with them. My mom's next pregnancy was twins — a boy and girl.
My father was an attorney for 30 years and for the last several years has been a Superior Court judge. My mom was a stay-at-home mother and was active at Church, teaching natural family planning and doing outreach with cancer patients.
Was there a time you fell away from your faith?
Yes, when I was in college my parents went through a difficult separation and divorce and it shook my roots for a good solid three to four years.
I was caught up in the secular ways of college life and was really searching. I felt as lost as anyone could be and was searching for meaning in life. I lost my faith at St. Mary's, but I also got it back. I graduated in May, but took my final course, in heretics, the following January.
During that class, taught by Brother Brendan Kneale, I learned about the heretical attitudes of history and how they have recurred through time and are still present in our modern time. At a time when I was seeking meaning and truth, that class was the spark that reignited my faith and got me back to the Church.
What did you do prior to becoming a priest?
After I graduated, I spent some time in my father's law office, I did some construction work, I coached high school cross country, and I explored an acting career.
One professor at St. Mary's encouraged me to be an actor. Although she didn't know about my grandfather, she felt I had a gift. So, for a while I worked in a Beverly Hills art gallery trying to sell art so that I could work on my acting career. It took just a couple of months to discover the emptiness in the work. I felt that the draw of the money and the fame and all that goes along with that lifestyle were traps for me in my life.
I had been through enough during college to know that I didn't need to see any more of it. I learned a great deal about the value of poverty and working together as a family from my father's side.
The prayer life was calling to me.
What led to your vocation?
I felt the calling more strongly at certain times of my life. As a young altar boy I began to experience this vocation. However, I used to think that the priests were dumb because they had to look at the book. I had memorized all the prayers and would pray them when I was serving.
When I was 14, I was invited to attend a junior seminary, but when I saw how many cute girls were going to Mater Dei I lost interest in seminary. I was active in youth ministry in high school, but the vocation slipped away in college.
After my final college class I experienced a tremendous conversion that led me to get rid of my worldly possessions and desires. Thereafter, I entered St. John's Seminary in Camarillo.
You were 14 years old when your grandfather passed away. Is there any truth to the deathbed conversion story that's been told about him?
Yes, one of the great stories of his life was that my grandmother prayed for his conversion. He would often attend Church with her and was involved with Catholic Charities and helped the Franciscan sisters with their charitable works.
He often used to take his boat down to Panama. He was fond of the Latino people and had a real heart for the working people. It was there that he met Archbishop Clavelle. When he got ill, Archbishop Clavelle wanted to baptize him, but couldn't.
His successor, Archbishop McGrath, ended up baptizing my grandfather. The current Archbishop Torres told this story to me on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12, 2000. My grandfather was very stubborn, but prior to his death, Archbishop McGrath said, “Come on Duke, let me wash you up,” and he converted.
Do you have a favorite film of your grandfather's?
Yes, I prefer The Searchers and The Quiet Man. My mother was in The Quiet Man, as was Maureen O'Hara. Maureen was at my ordination and is a wonderful Catholic woman. She was a good friend to my grandfather and was a positive influence.