Father Larry Richards wants to cut through the pessimism he finds in the Church.

His audiotapes on confession, the Mass and Truth have been heard by hundreds of thousands of people. A popular retreat leader and public speaker, he recently unveiled The Reason for Hope Foundation and website as a means to reach a wider audience with Christ’s message.

Father Larry serves as pastor of St. Joseph Church/Bread of Life Community in Erie, Pa. He is also the Spiritual Director of the TEC (To Encounter Christ) Retreat Program for the Diocese of Erie.

He spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from his office in Erie.

Did you grow up Catholic?

I grew up Catholic, but not very practicing. My father was Presbyterian and my mother didn’t attend Mass. I was born in 1960 and baptized on Easter Sunday. My mother was young when she had me, and on the day of my baptism she gave me away to Mary. My parents sent me to a Catholic grade school where we went to daily Mass. I think that was a great influence in my life.

My whole faith comes from my grandmother. My family didn’t go to church. She would come and pick us up and take us to church every week. She said a Rosary for me every single day while I was in seminary. My prayer was that God would just let her see me get ordained. I was ordained five years before she died.

Grandparents are the ones who can have such an influence on the faith of their grandchildren. My parents were practically anti-Catholic. It was my grandmother’s prayers and perseverance that got me through.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Pittsburgh. I am the firstborn of three children. I have one brother and one sister. My father has been married twice. He was an alcoholic his whole life. My mother has been married three times. So, I have a lot of step brothers and sisters. Both of my parents were cops in the Pittsburgh police force. They thought I would be a cop, too. In some ways I am.

How did you come to your vocation?

During my junior year in high school, I remember reading the play “Our Town.” At one point the deceased female character is sitting in the graveyard, and I realized for the first time that I might die at some time. Just because I was brought up Catholic didn’t mean that it was true. My great-grandmother was Jewish. I wanted to discover the truth.

I would go to downtown Pittsburgh and sit in Epiphany Church. I’d pray, “God, are you here? Do you or don’t you exist?” After months of this, I came to the sense that God was alive. My reply was, “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do.” I got the sense that he wanted me to be a priest.

The pastor wouldn’t recommend me to go to seminary because my parents weren’t churchgoers. I had to get a black, female, Protestant counselor in high school to write me a recommendation.

I started with the Divine Word Missionaries. When I left them, I joined the Erie Diocese. I was ordained in 1989 to the Diocese of Erie.

The word “truth” gets used and misused. What do you mean when you use that word?

For truth to be truth, it has to be objective. Jesus says, “I am the Truth.” When we talk about the Truth, we mean the person of Jesus Christ. You can believe in Father Larry or not. I still exist. If Christ is Truth, he exists and he is God. We have to surrender ourselves to him, but how do we live it? We need to become people of prayer and people of love. Christ was in relationship with his Father and he gave his life for us. It means that God is first in our life, and we need to give our lives for others. My hope is that the objective reality of truth and our subjective reality of knowledge of truth will become one.

I believe that Jesus is Truth, but he wants us all to have an experience of being loved by him. So often people want to argue and debate and philosophize about truth, but Jesus is to be experienced. If it remains philosophical, people can barter about it forever. People need to experience truth.

What led you to found the Reason for Our Hope Foundation?

My big thing has been evangelization. I’ve done over 700 retreats for high school students and conducted Teens Encountering Christ (TEC). I’ve been doing these since I was a deacon.

Some years back, one of my retreatants worked for the Mary Foundation. He asked if they could put one of my talks on tape. I didn’t know much about their work, but I agreed and we put out a tape on confession. That went really well, so we did another one on the Mass explained. Then we did one on Truth.

The foundation is an outgrowth from me doing retreats and my work with the Mary Foundation. We repackaged and updated the talks.          

We use classical art on our products. Sometimes, we as Catholics don’t package things well. They look cheap. We want to give people something that looks really good and that they will appreciate. Our website is the top of the line. We want to meet people where they are.

With The Reason for Our Hope, we want to bring hope to the world.

Aside from your work with Reason for Our Hope, what else are you doing?

More than anything else, I hear confessions. You have to do so much healing of people who have been wounded by a bad experience with confession. I just did a retreat with 1,500 people. During the evening, we had 18 priests hearing confessions. We went until 12 or 1 a.m. and many of these people hadn’t been to confession in 20 to 30 years.        

Would you describe the lack of people receiving this sacrament a crisis?

It’s a crisis because people haven’t been catechized. I taught at Cathedral Prep High School, an all-boys school, for eight years, and there was always a line for confession because I never sugarcoat sin. There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. There is only conviction. God loves you and is willing to forgive you. People are afraid of sin because they are afraid of being condemned. Jesus died to forgive you. Let him forgive you, will you? Who doesn’t want to be saved? Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery, “Does anyone condemn you? Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” God calls us all to be holy. That’s the struggle.

There is such a need for people to go to confession, but they are afraid or they haven’t been catechized. There is a great freedom that comes from it. I tell people, when you go to a counselor, you pay, but when you go to confession, the priest gives you new life.

Your outreach isn’t meant just for Catholics. You have a real evangelical feel to your work.

Yes, I meet once a month with 11 evangelicals. They’ll ask me about Mary or the Eucharist and I’ll explain it to them. Their response has been, “Boy, Larry, we could all believe that.”

I preach the Catholic faith in a Protestant way. Some people will ask me, “How did Billy Graham get into the Catholic Church?”

Growing up with a Protestant father, I want to see the union of the two.

What do you see for the future?

The Church right now is pregnant and is waiting to break forth with hope for the world. We’ve had our problems, but Pope John Paul II had a real vision. He pushed us. Now it’s about ready to take fruit. We need to be the light of the world.

We as Catholics, and I as a priest, are called to be lovers. We are sometimes great judgers, but not great lovers. We need to focus on love. So often we’re seen as cursing everyone. Let’s show them the light, the love, the hope. I’m a big-time optimist. God already won. We need to be the instruments of that.

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.