As a University of Virginia graduate, Father Ed Hathaway was once a Cavalier. Yet his decision to become a priest was anything but. His discernment was forged in painful circumstances that caused him to ask serious questions about the meaning of life.

When Hathaway was a junior at the school, his father, Capt. Charles Hathaway, a decorated Navy pilot who had flown more than 300 missions in Vietnam, suffered a fatal heart attack while playing squash at the Pentagon Athletic Center. A graduate of the Naval Academy and recipient of the prestigious Tailhook Award, he was only 56.

The turn of events thrust the military man's son into a tailspin. “My father's sudden death brought about a big change in my life,” says Father Hathaway, now pastor of St. John parish in McLean, Va. “Almost immediately, I experienced a mid-life crisis.” He was all of 21. He had trouble keeping up with his studies and, by his account, withdrew. “It was an awful semester,” he adds.

If there was a silver lining in the dark cloud that had moved over Ed Hathaway, it was the grace God sent to draw him deeper into his Catholic faith. He began attending daily Mass, receiving Communion and praying the rosary. “Grace forced me to do a lot of soul-searching,” he says.

Two uncles and a grandfather had been doctors, so, at the time of his father's death, he was leaning toward a medical career. After graduating in 1983, he headed to Europe and enrolled in a graduate program at England's Cambridge University. All the while he continued to ask himself the big questions about life, death and what, ultimately, matters.

In England, he became deeply intrigued with the heroic lives of the English Catholic martyrs, including saints such as Thomas More (1478-1535) and Bishop John Fisher (1469-1535). His home church was Our Lady and the English Martyrs. There he experienced the richness of the Latin Mass and Gregorian chant. And, through discussions with friends, some of whom were Episcopalians who believed in the real presence, he came to cherish the Eucharist.

Once, while backpacking around Europe, he spent an unforgettable Holy Week in Rome. What he saw and experienced there must have left quite an impression. For, when he returned to the United States, he was more aware than ever of a growing restlessness. “There was a longing deep inside of me,” he recalls. This, despite the fact that he had enjoyed a couple of years of fairly easy success in the banking and high-tech industries.

Gradually, the vague sense of restlessness became a pointed hunger for something very specific: a life committed to the service of Jesus Christ.

At first, the calling was faint but undeniable — just strong enough to make him pause, pray and reflect. Then, with the assistance of priests such as Father James Gould, at the time vocations director for the Diocese of Arlington, Va., Hathaway found the courage to test a potential calling to the priest-hood.

He entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynne -wood, Pa., in autumn 1986. And, on May 18, 1991 — Pope John Paul II's 71st birthday — he was ordained a diocesan priest for the Diocese of Arlington by Bishop John Keating. Where? At the Cathedral of St. Thomas More.

Political Parishioners

In June 2000, Father Hathaway became administrator of St. John parish in McLean, Va., and, on Jan. 5, 2002, his 41st birthday, he was installed as pastor.

Government is never far from the minds of people who live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. — a fact that figures into Father Hathaway's pastoral approach.

“Our people are very much pro-America,” he explains. “The No. 1 industry of the area is politics.”

Indeed. His parishioners include not only politicians and employees of the federal government but also lobbyists, diplomats and even foreign dignitaries, who give the parish an international flavor.

Nearly 5,000 souls call St. John their spiritual home. Many are highly educated and continuing adult education, including Bible study, is one of the staples that contributes to the parish's vitality. “A dry intellect will not be able to engage the culture,” says Father Hathaway.

At St. John, piety, ongoing formation and a spirit of collegiality give the parish its identity. In between the two weekday Masses, at 6:30 and 9 a.m., adoration of the Blessed Sacrament attracts large crowds every day.

Father Hathaway says the parish family draws its spiritual strength from “devotion to Our Lord in the Eucharist and devotion to Mother Mary.”

Weekly novenas, daily recitation of the rosary and frequent opportunities for the sacrament of reconciliation enhance the spiritual treasury of the parish.

There is also a parish school for children from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. And St. John has a mothers club, a book club and its own bookstore. After morning Mass, many go to a nearby coffee shop, sit together as a group and say grace before having a cup of coffee and a bagel.

Mary Beth Riordan runs The Word bookstore at St. John. She and her husband, Dan, an insurance business executive, have four children. Like many parishioners, she grew up in an area far away from the Arlington Diocese. A native of Batavia, N.Y., just outside Buffalo, she says the parish is “thriving.” That's due in no small part, she says, to the fact that Catholic doctrine is taught without compromise here.

“We get the full loaf,” she says, “not just part of it. Being a Catholic and growing with others in your love of the Lord can be fun.”

She adds that Father Hathway, through his spirituality and youthful vitality, is a force “who brings everything and everyone together.”

Running to Win

Father James Gould, pastor of St. Raymond of Penafort parish in Fairfax Station, chairman of the board of Human Life International and spiritual director of the Catholic Medical Association, says Father Hathaway is “a terrific example of priesthood who reflects the model of a man who is prayerful, hardworking, generous and sacrificing. … He is a leader of the diocese whose opinions the bishop would trust.”

In college, Father Hathaway was a member of the University of Virginia swim team. Today, he works out and runs regularly. He received a medal for successfully completing the U.S. Marine Corps Marathon and was a competitor in the Seagull Century 100-mile bike marathon.

In going about his pastoral duties with all the vigor with which he approaches his athletic pursuits, Father Hathaway is a living testament to the wisdom behind St. Paul's exhortation in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.

“Run in such a way as to get the prize,” the apostle urged. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Wally Carew, author ofMen of Spirit, Men of Sports, writes from Medford, Massachusetts.