Russ Rentler is a physician, musician, missionary and apologist. He didn’t plan the combination. It’s all because of a resolution he made to follow Jesus.
Rentler shares those experiences in popular coffee-house concerts that benefit his biannual mission trips to Haiti. In an easy style reminiscent of John Denver, Russ reveals the story of his life. “Late Have I Loved You” echoes St. Augustine’s years away from the Catholic Church.
The treasure always has been at my feet
Given to me as a child, given to me as a child.
Like many of the Aquarius generation, a young Russ, along with his brother, badly wanted to fit in with the rock ‘n’ roll culture, which seemed to promise a sense of belonging. Even though their parents took the family to Mass, their home life was one of strife. At 14, Russ didn’t see any disconnect between playing guitar at folk Masses and listening to Black Sabbath at home. He also experimented with drugs and alcohol.
Fortunately, this destructive lifestyle lasted only a year. Unfortunately, the cure meant that he and his brother would leave the Church. They found meaning in a charismatic Bible study. “It was the first time I emotionally connected with God,” Rentler recalls. He flushed his drug stash, burned his albums and parted with his prized electric bass guitar.
Rentler shared his newfound joy in the Lord with his high-school sweetheart, Sue. They married, but just three years later she was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer. There was no known treatment, and every prior case had been fatal. With the support of their church community, the Rentlers believed that if they only had faith God would send a cure.
Even though Russ was a doctor by then (a profession he didn’t really want but was convinced that the Lord wanted), he lived in denial of Sue’s disease. They prayed and lived as if a cure was inevitable, and had two children. In his view, any mention of her possible death would be to doubt God.
Many years later he would write a song called “The Way to Emmaus” that expressed the bewildering grief of the disciples, a grief that Russ personally experienced when Sue eventually died:
We spoke of Jesus,
We hoped he’d free us,
But he was crucified, he was crucified.
Reversion to Catholicism
There was no theology of redemptive suffering in Russ’ church. In fact, if you weren’t healed, it was not seen as God’s will but as your failure to trust him. The only person who seemed to understand was an old friend from his college Bible study. Bernie was now a Catholic priest.
Father Bernie told him that Jesus wanted Sue to share in his suffering and that far from being a failure of faith, it was a privilege. He quoted St. Paul: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
That was just one of the Scriptures on redemptive suffering that was missing from Russ’ biblical formation. That discovery marked the beginning of his return to the Catholic Church.
In the meantime, Russ remarried. Deb was a devout evangelical and fellow former Catholic. It was she who first spoke of her longing for the Eucharist. She also had left the Church in her youth, after her parents’ divorce. After a few years of unsatisfying worldly pursuits, she also experienced the exhilarating sense of rescue in being “born again.”
But where once she had been so joyful with a love of Jesus, Deb was experiencing her own dark night of the soul. Life as a wife and stepmother was a difficult adjustment. She no longer “felt God” and began looking for anything that might bring him back: charismatic retreats, praise and worship, Bible study. Russ’ devotion was so different. He told her he hadn’t felt God’s presence in more than 20 years. After his experiences, he wanted nothing to do with the emotional side of faith. But Deb wanted “more of God.” She found him, just as Russ had, in the theology of suffering.
Through reading the writings of St. Thérèse, Thomas à Kempis and Mother Teresa, and even once praying to Mary, she learned to unite her suffering to Our Lord’s. She found herself reconnecting to the Catholicism of her childhood and attending Mass during the week.
It was during the elevation that the thought came to her: What if it’s really true? As “The Way to Emmaus” relates:
Then our eyes were opened
in the breaking of the bread.
Our hearts burned within us
at every word he said.
Deb longed to return to the faith of her childhood, but Russ was firmly against it. Any church that had produced pedophile priests, he reasoned, couldn’t be of God.
Nevertheless, when his mother died, he and his brother — now an evangelical pastor — found her rosary and crucifix. Russ gave them to Deb, and something in him realized that, in spite of his parents’ pain, Catholicism had worked for good in their lives.
When his whole congregation attended a viewing of The Passion of the Christ, Russ was overwhelmed by the graphic display of Christ’s suffering: “Jesus underwent all of that pain and suffering for me, so I said, ‘I would do anything for you, Jesus. I would even become Catholic.’” He left the theater knowing he was about to experience major changes in his life.
Russ and Deb re-entered the Church together and had their marriage consecrated to God. Receiving the words of absolution after 35 years brought tears that Russ never expected would flow. He chronicles that sentiment in “Stained-Glass Windows”:
As I speak the timeless creed,
Passed on to us by saints
Together with all of heaven,
I say, “Yes, Lord,” I believe.
Resolving to follow wherever Christ would lead has led him to continue the work he began as an evangelical missionary in Haiti. It was after one of those trips that he wrote “Jewel of the Caribbean”:
We gave away some aspirin, vitamins and hope,
All the while my heart was riding high up in my throat.
‘Catholics Are Christians’
After his conversion many of his evangelical friends ended their friendship with him. Churches canceled his concerts. “I told them that being Catholic hasn’t affected my dulcimer playing,” he recalls. “They didn’t think it was funny.”
He hopes to convince others of the truth of the Catholic faith through his website, Crossed the Tiber, and his Facebook apologetics page: Catholics ARE Christians.
His music has taken an apologetics turn as well. “The Nicean Blues,” a humorous, catchy number, was the top video for over a year on the popular Love to Be Catholic website:
To say we worship anyone but Jesus Christ our Lord
Is a fundamental fairy tale of which I’m getting bored.
Converts well relate to Rentler’s music. “‘Untier of Knots’ has been a consolation and something of a personal theme song for me as I work through many of the difficult circumstances to arise out of becoming a grateful convert to the Catholic Church,” noted Owen Swain.
Commented Kim Luckey, “He and his music were very special to me in encouraging me in my reversion to the Catholic faith three years ago and continue to be special to me in reminding me of how beautiful our faith truly is!”
In 2009, he released his first all-Catholic album, called appropriately “Way to Emmaus.”
Listener Maureen Sullivan expressed her thoughts on the new CD this way: “‘Way to Emmaus’ has enabled me to see my Catholic Church through new eyes. I have been a Catholic all my life, and his CD so simply and beautifully relates the treasure we have.”
Susie Lloyd writes from Whitehall, Pennsylvania.