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Anglican & EpiscopalianConversion Stories

I Will Draw All People To Myself

Fr. Jerry Brown
May 23, 2024 No Comments

I lay face down on the floor before the altar as the Litany of Saints was being chanted. Part of the lore of some of the priests who encouraged me toward ordination was that during the litany, not only saints, but others would appear in the ordinand’s mind. I could “see” several people who had encouraged me along my way, as well as some who had discouraged me, and it occurred to me that both the good and the ill I had experienced had served to guide me to that moment. However, they were not the primary focus. I could sense Jesus drawing me to his open arms and embracing me. Jesus was the focus.

Beginnings of Faith

The call to be a priest began at a tender age, even though my parents did not go to church. Although they had me baptized as a baby at the Presbyterian church in Napa, CA, where I grew up, I never attended Sunday school or worship services. Their religion was golf. Despite this, I built an altar in my bedroom with a picture of Pope Pius XII and some other odds and ends — a Bible from my grandmother and a creche I had asked for at Christmas. It was a cheap plastic nativity scene, but it meant a lot to me.

Growing up in a very Catholic town in northern California, many of my friends went to Mass each Sunday with their families. Occasionally, I was invited to attend with them. The old Latin Mass enthralled me. For my friends it was boring, but for me it was beautiful. I didn’t dare to think that, one day, I might be the priest standing at the altar, but I longed to be an altar boy like my cousins.

After graduating from high school in 1963, I joined a group of 20 graduates on a study tour of Europe. The local Rabbi, Dr. Leo Trepp, was our leader. He was one of those I recalled during my ordination. I was anxious to learn as much as I could on the trip, and a highlight of the experience was that we happened to be in Rome for the coronation of Pope Paul VI. I gloried in the many churches we visited and decided that, when I got home in September, I would become Catholic. However, my father didn’t approve.

During a “what do you want to be when you grow up” conversation with him, I mentioned that I thought I wanted to be a priest. It didn’t go well. At the end of the argument, he said, “Why don’t you go to your own church?” I responded, “Which church is that?” He said, “Your grandmother is Episcopalian.” The next Sunday, I headed to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. It was “high church” and looked Catholic, so I signed on. After confirmation, I began serving at the altar. Receiving communion was the highlight of my life.

Episcopalian Seminary, Priesthood, and Tragedy

In my junior year of college, I met an Episcopal priest who was the chaplain at Sacramento State University. I spent the summer in Sacramento taking English classes and living at Canterbury House, a small residence for Episcopalian students. Fr. Al was young and a great preacher, and I became one of his disciples. Being close at hand, I blindly followed him — he was, after all, Jesus’ man, no? Sadly, he took advantage of me and abused me, though I was not underage. For me, it was a deeply confusing time. I thought I could get closer to Jesus by being close to Fr. Al, and he assured me it was not a sin.

Many other students would have jumped at the opportunity to be in a special relationship with Fr. Al, but I was conflicted and troubled. Was there something about me that invited this? What I needed from him was for him to be a holy priest, but he had misinterpreted my devotion to him as a come-on. I remembered that incident years later, when young people would look at me as if I were Jesus; I saw how easy it could be for me to take advantage of them.

College over, I applied for seminary; the bishop sent me to Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in Berkeley. During that year, Fr. Al moved to the East Coast, and I never saw him again. Oddly, he was one of the people who came to mind at my Catholic ordination. Even though he hurt me, he was also a factor in my call. One of the faculty at CDSP mentioned in passing that Fr. Al had given me a negative recommendation — in the language of the day, he suggested I had a “hang-up.” The professor concluded that, regardless, I really was in the right place in seminary.

In my last year of seminary, I had another very powerful, though confusing, experience. A priest gave a lecture on the charismatic renewal, and that same evening, as I knelt on the floor of my dorm, I received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. The seminary education was designed to call everything into question; it was the era of “demythologization,” and Rudolf Bultmann was our guide. He taught that anything “supernatural” was added by the early Church, and he doubted that Jesus had even existed. After my powerful and emotional encounter with Christ, I was completely undone and even more confused and troubled.

I needed to sort through my education and square it with my personal experience of Christ, so I postponed ordination and spent the next few years reading and discerning the truth of Christ. I had never read C.S. Lewis, but he became my guide during those years and helped me to sort out my faith. I was eventually ordained in the Episcopal Church in November of 1972, and began serving a small congregation outside Sacramento. In a few years, the parish had grown dramatically, and when a leader in the congregation who was grievously ill was miraculously healed, the growth exploded. (By the way, this healed man also showed up in my mind at my ordination.) Suddenly, the charisms of the Holy Spirit were flooding into the ministries as Christ drew in ever more people.

The bishop had the reputation of being very negative toward the Charismatic Renewal, and with what was happening in the parish I needed to make an appointment and tell him. After my tale of the healed man and the movement of the Spirit, I waited anxiously for the bishop to fire me. Instead, he leaned back in his chair and said “Well, praise the Lord.”

My preaching was “confirmed… by the signs that attended it” (Mark 16:20) and my faith was strong, but the enemy counterattacked. I had gotten married a couple years before, and when Kathy, my wife, gave birth to our first, the child was stillborn. My world collapsed, and many of the old conflicts and troubles resurfaced. I blamed Kathy for the death of the child; it’s a long story, but in essence she had been raised in Christian Science and feared the medical establishment, so she decided to give birth at home. The death of David, our baby, divided us, and my coping mechanism was to throw myself totally into my work. Eventually, after years of counseling, we separated. I left the parish for another one in Berkeley, while also teaching part-time at the seminary. An affluent congregation gave funds to provide full-time ministry for three years, with the idea that the Good Shepherd mission there would grow and become self-sufficient. Early on, the plan seemed to be working, but my depression increased, and I felt like I was wandering in a wasteland. It was clear to me that I needed to do something else to make a living. There were several nurses in the congregation, and they said, “Go to nursing school.” (At the time there was a terrific shortage of nurses.) So, I continued half-time at the church and went to school.

The AIDS Epidemic and Our Lady

When I started working full-time at the hospital, I resigned from the parish, and when a position came open in the AIDS unit at Kaiser San Francisco, I jumped at it. I had a desire to care for the lepers of our time, and it seemed to me that I had found a new ministry. I worked in that unit for seven years during the height of the epidemic. Little we did made any difference to our patients, who died in vast numbers. (Oddly, some of those patients who had made an impression on me were also in my mind as I prostrated myself at the altar during my Catholic ordination.) The Archdiocese of San Francisco supplied a Catholic chaplain to our unit, Sister Mercedes, who came seven days a week to see her “muchachos,” as she called them.

One day, we were both in the break room, and I asked her, “Sister, how do you find the strength to do this ministry?” She said, “Have you heard of the Virgin of Guadalupe?” I had, but I knew nothing about the apparition. She explained that the Mother of Jesus had called her to do this work in His name. That didn’t mean much to me; I believed in the virgin birth of Jesus, but Mary had never been much of a focus for my faith. I watched Sister visit with the boys; many had been raised Catholic, but because of their lifestyle, they were angry and separated from God and their families. I watched her non-judgmental approach and saw the miracle of reconciliation occur as they approached death. I perceived that something truly holy and special was occurring through her ministry.

One Sunday, after working all night and having several patients die in our unit, I went to the Episcopal church where I was resident. Church of the Advent in San Francisco is a very “high” church, and near the altar, there was a shrine to the Blessed Virgin. After the service, I knelt before it to commend the souls of those who had died to God. I felt that her arms embraced me, and in her, the arms of Jesus were opening to me, calling me.

Not long thereafter, I caught pneumonia from one of our patients and ended up in the hospital for 10 days with horrible complications. I remember waking up one night, not knowing where I was, profoundly fearful, and calling out to the Lord. He showed Himself to my mind with His arms extended, saying, “Come to me.” I saw that, while I had not abandoned my faith, I had put everything else before God.

When I was well enough to go back to church, I ended up attending the local Catholic parish. The crucifix in the front of the church, always in the past a symbol to me of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and suffering, was transformed in my mind to the living Christ, who said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). As I wept my way through the Mass that Sunday, I knew that I had a clear call to “come home.”

Conversion and a New Priesthood

I spent the next few months talking to as many priests as I could to begin the process of finally becoming Catholic. I started RCIA at a parish south of the city and was confirmed at the Easter Vigil in 1995.

At first, the call seemed to be for me to put Christ and his Church ahead of everything else, and because I had experienced enough turmoil in the ministry of the Episcopal Church, I had no interest in ordination. But my pastor kept encouraging me, so I took a long weekend retreat at the Carmelite House of Prayer in Napa Valley, praying and seeking God’s face. After the retreat, I visited my dad, and he could tell something was happening. I explained to him that I wished to move toward ordination, and he gave me his blessing. Still, there were several obstacles I needed to deal with.

First, I needed an annulment to move forward, and Kathy, my ex-wife, was dead set against it. Oddly, when the annulment was granted, not only did it open the door to seminary for me, but Kathy met someone and married. We had been separated for 13 years, but it took the healing of the annulment process to open the door for her to a new marriage. Annulment does open up old wounds and fears, but also resolves them; it is truly a healing process. In 1998, I entered St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, CA. I didn’t need to complete the whole curriculum since I had several degrees, but the faculty required two years of residence in order to give a recommendation.

I worried that it would be a miserable time and feared I might be turned down for ordination, but I felt that I had to trust Jesus’ leading and give 100 percent. Those two years were actually wonderful; I had a library at my disposal, classes I found interesting, and fellow seminarians who accepted me and made me a part of that community. Having the opportunity to go to Mass daily kept me growing. That summer, I went to Mexico to do language immersion with 17 other seminarians. During that time, four of us went to Mexico City and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I entered the shrine more or less a skeptic, but was encountered by “la Virgencita.” As I gazed upon the image on the tilma (reed cloak) of St. Juan Diego, her hands seemed to open, and her extraordinary presence in that place brought me face to face with Jesus, her Son. After the visit, I read everything I could on Our Lady of Guadalupe, as well as the other apparitions and Church teaching on Mary. Another obstacle dissipated.

The big obstacle, though, was authority. From the outside, the Catholic Church appears as a big monolith that gives little freedom to the People of God, requiring them to have blind faith. I learned, however, that this is not the way the Church actually functions. At every step along the way, I had the opportunity to question and to engage the truth. The bishops have life and death authority over seminarians, and as a part of the process of ordination, we were required to give assent to the Magisterium of the Church — that is, to the Pope and the body of bishops. Much time was spent on understanding the dogmatic teaching of the Church (Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement) and to understanding teachings such as priestly celibacy and other elements of priestly life and ministry. I was never forced to accept anything to which I didn’t freely and openly give consent. In the ordination liturgy, we are asked to give respect and obedience to the bishop and his successors. In sum, I came to understand that being docile and open to the truth made my promise of obedience something that clarified the relationship between the priest and his bishop. Along the way, I read from cover to cover the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I found reasonable, and in short, true. The documents of the Second Vatican Council were also a great help for understanding why the Church teaches as she does. After being immersed in Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy (correct practice) in the seminary, the pieces fell into place for me as I moved toward the goal of priestly ordination.

That is not to say that I did not struggle. When I arrived at St. Patrick’s Seminary midyear, I was placed with a class that would be ordained in 2000. My ordination was held back until 2001, in order to fulfill the faculty’s obligation of completing two full academic years for a recommendation. It was painful to watch my classmates being ordained while I was not. However, with patience and trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I was ordained a transitional deacon in January of 2001, and then shortly thereafter, on February 22nd, I was ordained a priest.

On the Job

After ordination, I was assigned to St. Joachim parish in Hayward, a large multicultural parish with an excellent school and many ministries. I jumped right in with my first pastor, Fr. Sergio; there were also three newly ordained deacons and an excellent staff.

It was during the “Long Lent” of 2001, when the sexual abuse crisis erupted. The Oakland diocese had been very proactive in protecting children, but with all the pain that resulted from the revelation of the abuses, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I was also delegated by my pastor to call on and spend time with families who had suffered at the hands of a particular notorious priest who had been assigned to St. Joachim some years before. The diocese had set aside funds to enable counseling for the abuse victims, but for the most part the families did not want to deal with it. As a result of the abuse of their children, most of them were no longer practicing their faith, but there were a couple of families who were still active in the parish. While it is all too human to sweep such pain under the rug, my own experience of abuse helped me to empower those who would take advantage of the resources we had made available. By the end of the year, I felt that we had made a difference.

St. Joachim parish also gave me my first opportunities to celebrate the Mass and preach in Spanish. The faithful who worshiped in Spanish were very kind and enabled me to get comfortable with the liturgy in a second language. Because they were so welcoming, I got good experience toward my second assignment, which was as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Concord. St. Francis had been an entirely English-speaking community. Although they permitted Spanish Masses in the church, these Masses were celebrated by priests from an organization called Concord Hispanic Ministries; they had Masses in three parishes, as well as in school auditoriums.

The bishop decided to put the Spanish speaking Catholics back into the parishes and dissolve Concord Hispanic Ministries, so the day I arrived at St. Francis, 2,400 Spanish speaking families arrived as well. It was good for an overly entitled English speaking congregation to make room for others, although there were stresses and strains along the way. Sadly, the previous pastor had a serious drinking problem that ultimately took his life, and the pastor before him had active Alzheimer’s disease for several years, and some of the staff of both school and parish had taken advantage of the leadership void, getting paid for doing nothing. All that had to be cleaned up while I lived my first year at St. Francis of Assisi, a parish that one of my brother priests described as “notoriously cranky.” Human relations is the cross of being a parish leader, but with faith and perseverance, we got through the transition, and I settled in for an anticipated long ministry there. But that was not to be.

I gave my obedience to the bishop that ordained me, but he was replaced in 2002 by Bishop Allen Vigneron (now Archbishop Vigneron of Detroit). One of the parishes out in the Delta area of California, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Brentwood, needed a new pastor, and some dozen brother priests had turned it down. Too far away, too much Spanish, and too much debt were the usual reasons given. Finally, our new bishop called in desperation and asked if I would consider it; my answer, based on obedience, was an unqualified “yes.” The parish had been without a pastor for a couple of years, and a young priest, Fr. Ken, with whom I was very close, was their temporary administrator. I called Fr. Ken and drove out to Brentwood. He showed me the church, which had been built in 2004; it was now the end of 2006. In the course of our time together, I confided in him that the bishop had asked me to be pastor. I asked if he could give me some time to spend in the church to pray and seek the Lord’s will. The new church was beautiful, thoroughly from the post-Vatican II era, but with traditional elements that made it feel like a church. I had the sense that Jesus’ arms were opening to me in that place, that He was calling me to be there. I ended up being the pastor of that parish for 10 years, and it grew from some 1,700 families to over 6,000 during my time there. Demographics drove that growth, but the parish was also alive and bursting with ministries.

For me, it is the people who make up the parish, and I quickly fell in love with them. Fortunately, they seemed to respond to me as well. The enormous debt I had inherited was paid off within a couple of years, allowing us to borrow around four million dollars to build a hall, offices, and classrooms. This new debt was also retired before I left. I asked the bishop to allow me to retire in my 70th year, partly because I had experienced a brush with cancer, but also because the day-to-day pressure on a pastor is enormous, even though most people think we only work one day a week.

Retired but Still Working for the Lord

Jesus always calls us to himself and to ongoing conversion. After retiring, I immediately got involved in ministry in the diocese of Stockton, where I moved to be near family. I hadn’t expected to be busy, but I love being a priest and doing the things that priests do. In 2022, Bishop Myron Cotta of Stockton asked that I take on a parish in crisis: St. Anthony in Manteca. The previous pastor had resigned, and the circumstances greatly divided the community. It was my task to heal those wounds, or rather be the midwife that allowed Jesus to heal them. St. Anthony is a wonderful parish with a great school and many ministries, and I was graced to be present for the transition of the parish from the loss of their previous pastor into their preparation for a new one. Behind the church’s altar stands a life-size crucifix, with Jesus inviting the faithful in with outstretched arms. I mentioned previously the verse about the Son of Man being lifted up and drawing all to Him (John 12:32) — this, coupled with the sight of such a dramatic crucifix was, and remains, a powerful image and message, not only for me personally, but definitely for the people as they returned to Mass at the end of the pandemic. It is true that Jesus continues to love us and call us. I am grateful to the Lord, who has opened His arms to me, and through my ministry, to those who have come to love Him.

My personal experience, especially with abuse, caused me more than a little heartbreak, not to mention downright confusion as to what it said about me as a priest. Abuse is not the stigma of a single church, though; it is found everywhere. We cannot change the past, but we can change how we respond. Because God was always my loving Father, Mary my loving mother, and Jesus the source of all good, by the grace of God, I did not respond with anger and hatred toward the Church and the priesthood. Perhaps my experience was less drastic than others; still, my simple faith is that, when we are faithful to God, He can use every experience in our lives to bring good out of evil, life out of death.

Fr. Jerry Brown

Fr. Jerry Brown is a priest of the Oakland Diocese, now serving in active ministry in the San Joaquin Valley. He has four children, two of whom are living – a daughter, Amy, in Portland, and a son, John, in Anaheim. He currently resides in Lodi in the Diocese of Stockton, after having spent many years serving in the Oakland Diocese as pastor of several parishes, as well as director of ongoing formation for priests.

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