A First Things interview with Fr. John Bartunek about his conversion, Mel Gibson, and more…
The following is a recent interview with Gayle Trotter and Fr. John Bartunek. Posted with permission.
Gayle Trotter: This is Gayle Trotter [of First Things], today I’m speaking with Father John Bartunek, a priest in the Legionaries of Christ and the author of several books, including an insider’s view of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ [Inside the Passion]. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Father Bartunek.
GT: Father, can you explain the contradiction of Mel Gibson and his film? How do we have such a spiritually deep and powerful movie as The Passion of Christ from someone whose personal story is so complicated and, many would say, less than exemplary.
JB: I think his own story, his own contradiction or challenges, his own journey, is really similar to all of our journeys because we’re all contradictory. We all have the potential for great good and the potential for great sin — that’s the human condition. I think in his case it’s been magnified for the public eye because he’s such a celebrity, such a public figure. And also sometimes I think that people who have been given great gifts in the area of creativity have a greater spiritual sensitivity, and they can even be more vulnerable when it comes to the spiritual warfare that every Christian is undergoing. So I think we all fight the spiritual battle, and unfortunately Mel has had to fight it in the public eye and that’s really exaggerated the bad parts but also maybe even the good parts. So I pray for him every day and I don’t think the good that his work has done should be ignored just because of the struggles he’s been having.
GT: Father, you did not come from a religious household. Would you agree that American culture is so infused with Christianity that you couldn’t resist becoming a Christian?
JB: [laughs] That’s an interesting question. No, I remember when I became a Christian, and it was a very intimate and personal encounter with Jesus Christ and the ambient of faith — him speaking to my heart. It was a very conscious decision to become his follower so I don’t think that it was just falling into where society was going or wherever a particular group was going. And, frankly, I know plenty of people who live in the same culture and are not following Christ, are not his disciples so I don’t think it’s an automatic thing. I think God always respects us. Obviously a culture can help or hinder our search for God, and I think we’re in a period now in American culture where the popular culture, anyway, is definitely hindering it, especially because it encourages so much immorality. It’s taken away respect for moral integrity and moral norms.
GT: I understand that your parents divorced when you were a child. Do you have any spiritual advice for kids who are currently experiencing the divorce of their parents?
JB: Absolutely. I think that children who are experiencing the divorce of their parents or whose parents are recently divorced really need to look to God as a father and to the blessed Virgin Mary as a mother if they are Catholic. God’s spiritual fatherhood — he is the source of every family. And his love doesn’t depend on circumstances and doesn’t get tired and doesn’t wear out and it’s real. And that can be an anchor and a foundation for a very fruitful life and a very meaningful life, even if your own family life isn’t ideal or has even completely fallen apart.
GT: That’s very encouraging. When you were in college, you spent some time in Italy soaking up the magnificent art and architecture. How did this affect you spiritually?
JB: My time in Europe and Italy and also in Poland and exposure to that magnificent, as you say, Catholic culture as expressed in the art and the architecture and even the liturgies had a profound effect on my spiritual life. It actually activated a whole sector of my own soul that I had never known existed. From the exposure to that kind of profound beauty that is explicitly linked to the Christian faith, I felt like I was waking up, spiritually. I felt like there was a whole new world to discover. A whole new path to go down to come closer to Jesus Christ that no one had ever even told me about and that God was leading me down. The art and the architecture — the elements of that profound Christian culture which had been developed through the centuries by men and women of faith — it spoke to me very deeply. It spoke to me very deeply and began to tell me that I was part of a bigger story. That the church — God’s family — wasn’t just my little church in my neighborhood. No, it was a much bigger story and there was more that God wanted to tell me and more that he wanted to show me and more than he wanted me to do. So it was a turning point in my life. It really was.
GT: Would you say that it was the time in your life when your faith really came alive for you?
JB: No, I would say my faith came alive when I was 13, and I started going to an evangelical Christian church. I went for about six months without really believing anything. And then there I first heard God speaking to my heart and I became a follower of Jesus. So that was the beginning — that’s where it started. What happened when I went to Italy was my particular vocation, my particular calling began to come over the horizon: my calling to the priesthood. To give my life, entirely, to serve God and his people in the church. That’s what came out of my year in Italy and in Poland and that immersion in that Catholic culture.
GT: How did you make that final decision to actually become a priest?
JB: The final moment of decision came after a long journey, as you can imagine, which began there in Italy. Then I finished college and I continued studying the Catholic faith because I had some doubts about the Catholic church. I had some misunderstandings, as well, about their teachings. So I worked through those. I didn’t want to pretend that I didn’t have those. So I met regularly with a priest for a couple years until I worked through those, and then I really became convinced that this is the church that Jesus had started and that he was calling me to attend to that church, and I wanted to become a priest right away. And it was funny, when I was confirmed in the Catholic church, the priest I had been meeting with told me, “Well, maybe you should wait. You don’t want to confuse your call to be Catholic with a call to be a priest. You know, one step at a time. Take it easy.” So at that point I left my teaching job. After college I had started a job teaching. And I went to Chicago and started a career in the entertainment industry, which is where I always thought I would go. That was kind of my long-term career goal. I’d always dreamed about making movies about historical subjects — writing and maybe directing. So I moved to Chicago and began doing that, and then the idea of the priesthood just wouldn’t go away. It was like a sunrise: It just kept getting brighter and brighter and brighter. And it’s funny, when that priest advised me to wait before joining the seminary, I decided, “Maybe that’s a sign from God that I’m not supposed to be a priest,” so I started to date again and actually met a wonderful woman and we had a very beautiful dating relationship. It was kind of like the perfect match. It was that relationship that was the final indicator to me that I at least had to try the seminary — that I really felt God was calling me. Because I actually loved that woman truly and sincerely; it was a more mature love than I’d ever had with anyone I’d dated before. And I knew that, because I loved her, she deserved a husband who could give himself entirely to her, be a true husband, die for her, live for her. And in my heart, when I looked into my heart, there was part of my heart — the deepest part — that I couldn’t give to her because I felt like God was asking me to give it to him. And so that to me was a profound insight into my own vocation to the priesthood.
GT: Do you think the priest who advised you was right in giving that original advice so that you could come to the place where you understood that?
JB: Oh, I don’t know. I think it worked out okay, but I don’t know if I would give the same advice to a young man in my position at that time. As we mentioned at the beginning, I really believe that in society, in the culture, there’s always a kind of spiritual battle going on and we can’t be naïve. When God comes and asks us something, when we delay, we give more room for the enemy of our soul to stir things up and confuse things.
GT: If someone is interested in being a priest, how would he learn more about it?
JB: The first step, an easy step, is a great website called vocation.com which a few of us put together a few years ago, and it continues to reach out to thousands of young people who are thinking about the priesthood and also religious life. So there are a lot of testimonies there and there are some things, like a guideline. If you feel that God is calling you, you need to respond. And that doesn’t mean that you need to join the seminary today, but you need to put yourself in a position where you can hear and heed God as he guides you along. That means daily prayer. That means finding someone who can give you some good advice, a spiritual mentor. It means beginning to take the steps to visit young men who are in the seminary. To talk with priests who you trust about their experiences in the priesthood. Instead of just sitting in your bedroom and going over it in your own mind, taking concrete steps is the best way to give the Holy Spirit room to really guide you.
GT: You mentioned that you started out as a professional actor before you became a priest. Did your training and experiences as an actor help you at all in your priestly duties?
JB: I think so. It’s hard to measure exactly. I’d been acting since I was five years old in the theater so it had always been part of my life — drama and theater. I think that it helped developed two things that have been helpful in the priesthood. One is a sensitivity or a capacity to listen, a sensitivity to the needs of others. In theater acting, you really form a bond with the other actors. To bring something alive, you have to form an emotional sensitivity and a capacity to really listen to what others are saying so you can make real on stage the exchanges that people are making. So that’s one thing and as a priest you really have to know how to listen. To know how to listen and to know how to determine what’s behind what’s being said, especially when you’re giving spiritual guidance, when you’re hearing confessions. And then the second thing is, obviously being on stage for many years made me comfortable in front of an audience. And in a sense, when you have to preach a homily or a retreat or when you’re giving a conference as a priest, there are similarities. You are in front of a congregation, which is like an audience, so I think it’s helped me to be able to do that more effectively.
GT: You shared that with Pope John Paul II, too, right?
JB: That’s right, although his theater was a little bit different.
GT: What inspired you to write The Better Part?
JB: The Better Part is a book designed to help people of today pray better and get to know Christ in a personal way. It’s so funny; the two books that I’ve written and that have done pretty well, neither one was my idea. The Better Part was an assignment I received. I’m a member of a religious order which has priests working throughout the world, giving retreats and giving a lot of one-on-one spiritual guidance to lay men and women. That’s the core of what we do in our order. A couple years ago there was a general sentiment among a lot of members of my order throughout the world that there was a need for some new resources that could help lay people today grow in their prayer life. They all saw that the Holy Spirit was leading these lay men and women to a deeper life of prayer, but the resources available to help them were older resources and didn’t really connect with the needs that they have in today’s world which is so digitalized and media-saturated and has so many challenges. So I got an email from my superior asking me to come up with something that could help people do that. So my vow of obedience was enacted, it triggered in there, and I started working on The Better Part.
GT: And what is the source of the title, The Better Part?
JB: The Better Part is a line from Luke chapter 10, when Martha and Mary are having Jesus and his apostles over for dinner and Mary, the younger sister, is sitting in the living room where Jesus is talking with his apostles and she’s just at his feet, drinking up every word he says. And Martha is in the kitchen and the dining room setting the table and getting everything ready and she’s doing all the work. And she gets fed up with her sister Mary so she comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, can’t you tell Mary to help me out a little bit? I’m doing all this by myself.” And our Lord looks at Martha and says, “Martha, Martha, you’re worried and are fretting over many things but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” So the better part is always to give first place to God and his activity, so that our activity flows from God’s love working in our hearts and from our knowledge of God’s will and that’s really what prayer is all about. Prayer is all about anchoring our lives in God, giving him the first place, and allowing our lives to be a response to discovering God’s love. So we thought it would be a great title to a book that helps people in their personal prayer.
GT: You write about many types of prayer. What type of prayer do you prefer?
JB: That’s an interesting question. I see the three main types of prayer going together. Vocal prayer, which is where you use someone else’s words, like when you pray the Our Father. Liturgical prayer, which is when you pray together as the family of God, when we go to mass, for instance. And then personal prayer, when you’re just one-on-one with God. I think they all go together. They’re all necessary, they’re all a part and they all have their individual purpose and benefits. But I think the keystone or the real piece that makes all three of those work well is your personal prayer, your personal God time every day, where you’re talking to God in the quiet of your own heart, about what’s important to him and what’s important to you. I try never to miss that. And when I do that then my ability to pray during mass is better. Then my ability to pray the vocal prayers — that for instance in my order when we pray together as a community — is better, because the Catechism teaches us that fundamentally prayer is a relationship, not an item on a to-do list. And so you need to have alone time with God where you reflect on his word and you allow his word to seep into your heart and to enlighten your mind and that is where you tune in to God’s mission for your life and the adventure he wants to lead you on. So that would be my preferred type, I think.
GT: All Christians at some point in their lives deal with doubt. Have you experienced doubt and how did you overcome it?
JB: Doubt is an interesting term. There’s actually a theological weight to that term. I would say I’ve experienced difficulties. A lot of difficulties. Challenges, moments of confusion, moments of weakness, moments of frustration, or even sometimes seasons of frustration. But I can’t say that I’ve ever doubted — since I became a believer — I can’t say that I’ve doubted that God exists. I can’t say that. But there have definitely been difficulties, times when it’s been hard to accept God’s love for me, for instance, or hard to do what he’s asking me. And how did I respond to that? I got on my knees and I prayed for strength. And you just pray for strength and you renew your commitment to Jesus. He’s trustworthy, and we learn that he’s trustworthy the more that we pray, the more that we do that personal prayer, that meditative prayer, that’s how we truly learn that he’s trustworthy. So then when the difficulties come, when darkness comes, as Psalm 23 says, “Even though I shall walk through a valley as dark as death, I shall not fear,” because he is by my side. And “As long as he is with us, who can be against us?” as Saint Paul says. So that’s how I deal with it — I just get on my knees and pray and then focus very much on what I know God wants me to do right now. And sometimes it’s so simple as, “Well, now it’s my turn to do the dishes.” So that’s what God wants me to do now. I can do that. And then the next thing, and then the next thing. I love Matthew chapter six, verse 34, where our Lord says, “Do not fret about tomorrow, let tomorrow fret over its own cares, for today, today’s troubles are enough.” And in times of difficulty I go back to that verse over and over again. I’m just going to focus on what you want me to do today, Lord, and leave the rest in your hands.
GT: So would you say that that’s your favorite Bible verse that gives you strength during hard times?
JB: That’s one of them. It depends on my mood.
GT: Do you have another one that you’d like to share with our listeners?
JB: I love that one and I love the one that comes right before it as well which is, “Set your hearts on his kingdom first and his righteousness and all these other things will be given to you as well.” It’s just putting God first, putting Jesus first, and surrendering that need that we all have because of original sin to kind of build a personal kingdom where we think we can control everything and create heaven on earth. And surrendering that need and shutting out and following wherever God leads every day. And that verse — both those verses — really help remind me. Although that verse from Jeremiah where our Lord says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you and before you were born I consecrated you.” That’s a powerful verse as well and I think I go back to that almost every year during my yearly retreat just because it shows that in the end, everything goes down to the fact that God loves each one of us personally and that is the bottom line. So I really do love that verse as well.
GT: Thank you so much, Father, for sharing your life with us so that we can be encouraged by what you have shared with us.
JB: You’re very welcome.
To hear the audio version of the interview click here and to learn more about The Better Part, click here. This interview was posted with permission.
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