A God Greater Than Golf
Dominican Brother Peter Hannah shares how his life changed from putting to preaching.
If things had gone according to the dream of his youth, Dominican Brother Peter Hannah would have been playing in this year’s PGA Championship. The tournament, which runs Aug. 8-11 in Rochester, N.Y., showcases the best players in the game, and it is the final leg of professional golf’s four major tournaments (the other three being the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open).
While the PGA Championship was something Brother Peter had hoped to play in one day, God, as they say, had other plans.
Instead of focusing on golf, Brother Peter’s mind is now intent on the feast of St. Dominic, Aug. 8. The founder of the Dominicans inspired Brother Peter, 35, to join his order and become a priest. Brother Peter is currently a deacon, and he is scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood on the feast of the Visitation, May 31, 2014.
Brother Peter recounted his conversion story to Register correspondent Trent Beattie in time for the feast of St. Dominic.
How did you start playing golf?
I remember seeing the beautiful green golf courses on TV as a child, but it wasn’t until the summer after eighth grade that I started playing. There was a neighbor friend my age who was also interested in golf, and we were on the greens many hours over that summer. There was something about the beautiful courses, clean air and the atmosphere of respect for an ideal of sportsmanlike conduct. That, combined with a desire to get lower and lower scores, was a marvelously addictive experience.
It almost seems like a religious experience.
Yes, I didn’t realize it at the time, but, eventually, I came to treat golf as a replacement religion. When there’s a spiritual void, something has to fill it, and oftentimes that something is sports. It’s easy to make recreation a religion these days, and men in particular tend to fall into this trap.
Were you raised in a devout family?
I was raised as a Presbyterian Christian in Monterey, Calif. We would go to church as a family every Sunday. However, like most young people, I didn’t consciously engage in my faith. Then, in high school, I went through a rebellious phase, where I grew so interested in golf that I lost interest in attending church or giving God a place in my life.
My consuming interest in golf stayed with me through my first years of college at the University of California-San Diego. I was able to play on their traveling team and represent the school at golf tournaments. I even had the desire to play professionally. I put the emphasis on desire, because, after my tenure at UCSD, I would have had to, at best, play on mini tours before getting a chance at the regular PGA Tour. I was a decent player, but definitely not good enough to go straight onto the tour.
What are some of the most important things you learned from your UCSD years?
When I first got to UCSD, I was happily swept up in athletic, academic and social activities around campus. I did my best with golf and grades, and, on the social end, I chose to join a fraternity to establish bonds with other young men my age.
There are good aspects to fraternity life. You can get to know other people, learn organization and leadership skills and raise money for charitable causes. However, the other side of that two-edged sword is the partying atmosphere, which encourages many destructive modes of behavior. The drinking, drugging and denigrating attitudes toward women are staples of that partying life.
By my junior year, I was starting to become disillusioned with fraternity life, and I wondered if there might be something more satisfying. Like many contemporary people, I imagined that if I were to commit to any religion I’d want to study non-Christian ones first.
Before I could do that, however, my father recommended Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis to represent Christianity, and I finished it in three days. It was amazing how Lewis offered answers to questions I had but couldn’t even articulate. I realized, with the help of grace, that Jesus Christ was not just a nice man, but God become man. After being convicted by reading Lewis’ masterpiece, I realized that Christ was categorically different than other major religious figures, such as Buddha or Mohammed. To believe in Christ was to believe that he was the Son of God and to follow him completely. I was so convicted that I lost interest in studying non-Christian religions.
How did that change you?
Becoming a committed Christian changed everything for me. I became more optimistic, began reassessing many of the habits I’d acquired in fraternity life, and eventually lost my immoderate attachment to golf. I discovered that only by offering God first place in my life could I treat golf in a balanced and healthy way.
I went from reading C.S. Lewis to reading G.K. Chesterton, the first person I came across who wrote of the Catholic Church as if it were a distinct entity. Previous to Chesterton, I had read and heard of Christianity only in general, amorphous terms, but now I was reading of the Catholic Church as the vehicle Jesus Christ established to spread his teaching.
What happened next?
I graduated from UCSD with a degree in history in 1999 and then pursued a master’s degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., which is a Great Books school. [The books are called “great” because of their role, for better or for worse, in shaping Western culture.] We covered classics from thinkers such as Aristotle, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, right up to modern-day works from Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and others. I enjoyed hashing out ideas with my classmates, who ranged from devout Catholics to committed Protestant Christians, to agnostics and atheists.
Actively considering so many ideas from so many different authors really helped to refine what I believed in. Even though St. John’s is not a Catholic school, I became increasingly Catholic in my ways of thinking. I found myself able to defend the Catholic position on certain issues much better than I could the classic Protestant position.
While attending a Mass I was invited to by a Catholic friend, I had quite an experience. When the priest elevated the Host, it was like a lightning flash of inspiration. I was kneeling there, with hundreds of people at the Sunday Mass, and I thought, “If what the Catholic Church teaches about the Eucharist is true, this is the most astonishing and beautiful thing that I have ever seen. If the Catholic Church is right about the Eucharist, then I must become Catholic, since God is manifesting himself here in a way he isn’t in other Christian communions.”
While still in Annapolis, I decided to give the Lord one hour of prayer per day. The Episcopalian church I went to was locked on the morning I resolved to begin the daily hour. But the Catholic one had a little side chapel set aside specifically for prayer — what I would later learn is called “perpetual adoration.” Within about two months after frequenting this chapel, I came to believe in the real presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Once this happened, I was on my way to being received into the Church in the upcoming summer. Only six months after this, I discerned a call to the priesthood.
How did you decide to become a Dominican?
As I began discerning religious communities, I realized that, though I deeply valued contemplation, I wasn’t called to be a monk; and, though I very much liked engaging the world in an active way, I needed a strong contemplative element in my life. The Dominicans had the perfect balance of these qualities, in my mind.
Having grown up on the West Coast, I knew that part of the country was in great need of evangelization. That led me to be a part of the Western Province of Dominicans, and it influenced my choice of a religious name. My full religious name is Brother Peter Junípero. Blessed Junípero Serra was the Franciscan friar and priest responsible for founding the chain of missions along California’s coast. The mission he began — to bring the Christian faith to California — I very much identified with and wanted to take up again, as it were.
One simple way we friars evangelize is by wearing our white Dominican habit. I was actually in the grocery store recently and ran into some guys at the checkout stand who were wearing sweatshirts bearing the name of my fraternity. After greeting them and telling them we were members of the same frat, they stared back with somewhat dumbfounded looks. After one of them got over his initial shock, he asked, looking at my white Dominican habit, “What’s with the getup?” I explained who I was briefly, and he shot back in an only semi-joking manner, “Whoa. You give me hope.”
Have you found the habit to be a plus, in general, when it comes to evangelization?
I’ve been approached countless times in public when wearing the habit and have gotten into sometimes extensive conversations about all sorts of spiritual subjects: religious life, Christian moral teachings, prayer, how celibacy and poverty can be paths to spiritual freedom. So many people today are hungering and thirsting for a trusted person to talk with about the Catholic faith. Much of what they’ve heard is formed by the media, so I see wearing my habit and offering myself to anyone who has questions as a very simple and easy way to evangelize and present a clearer picture of the faith. It’s being that “visible sign” John Paul II and Benedict XVI so frequently exhorted us religious to be.
St. Thomas Aquinas valued recreation in the overall context of the Christian life. If he played golf, which PGA player do you think he would play like?
I see similarities between St. Thomas and Ernie Els: fairly large-framed, steady and plodding. They share a cheerful disposition, but with an underlying strength. There’s a calm confidence about both of them. They work hard and can bowl over the opposition through sheer, steady perseverance.
What about another Dominican saint, Vincent Ferrer, and St. Dominic himself?
St. Vincent Ferrer was known for being a very charismatic preacher, “on fire,” you could say. He would travel around Western Europe preaching about repentance and living a virtuous life. The corresponding golfer for Vincent Ferrer, in my mind, is Seve Ballasteros. He was always full of fire and passion, and you never really knew what to expect from him on the course.
St. Dominic was also a passionate preacher, but he was very disciplined. His work did have a set pattern, as he methodically set about to bring people back to the truth. That makes me think he would play golf like Jack Nicklaus, who had an inward intensity and fire, combined with outward discipline. Nicklaus could be very intimidating to his opponents but retained an ever-gentlemanly disposition, even amidst fierce competition.
A Catholic life lived to the full can combine this inward intensity — in prayer, striving after virtue, sternness in the face of falsehood and anything that threatens human dignity — with an outward gentleness and meekness. This is a combination St. Dominic had, and one that we would do well to imitate. We need men and women who, out of love for God and neighbor, desire to bring others into the fullness of good that Jesus Christ wants us all to have.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.