By Charlie Johnston
(Before I write about my Birmingham visit, I want to firmly clarify something. I am getting letters and emails asking about Fr. Mitch Pacwa or EWTN endorsing me. Neither Fr. Mitch nor EWTN has or is going to endorse me. How could they? An angel is not speaking to them. I say that one speaks to me. I would not recommend anyone endorse that – and in fact, in the past, have told some officials, both private and clerical, who considered doing so that they absolutely should NOT. Only I am responsible for the claims I make – and that is as it should be. Others may say whether I follow the Church with fidelity and whether I am worth hearing, but they would be venturing into territory they should not by endorsing me. I have made many friends in Birmingham, including in the EWTN family. I am glad to count them as friends and will take counsel from them. I think most would say I am worth hearing. But that is all.
It goes back to something I have warned against – seeking a guru to relieve you of your moral responsibility. YOU must discern. When you stand before God, He will not be interested in hearing the excuse that “Charlie said…” or “Fr. Mitch said…” or “EWTN said…” Each of us is personally responsible to God for every decision we make. If I am right, 10,000 of the most brilliant theologians in the world denouncing me will not matter a whit. If I am wrong, 10,000 supporting me will matter just as little. Our Lord says in Matthew that “Wisdom is justified by her deeds…” and in Luke that “Wisdom is justified by all her children…” To the extent that I encourage you to hold fast to the Church and the faith, may the Lord bless me. Should I ever lead you away from the Church, may the Lord curse me. You must discern.
I am glad of my friends at EWTN, though I do not endorse everything that is said there. I reckon those there who are my friends feel the same of me. That is sufficient. Please do not ask me further about endorsements for it is an irrelevant vanity.-CJ)
When I went to Birmingham I was able to mix a little family visit with business. My sister, Kim, who often clears comments here, lives about 70 miles northeast of the city, so I stayed with Kim and my brother-in-law, Bryan. I got in late
Wednesday and had to head out early Thursday,
Deacon Terry Rumore of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Pell City was my host and guide. He is perfect for the role. We have been in communication by email and phone for some time – and he is tied into just about everything in the Diocese. He was there for much of the growth of EWTN, the Shrine in Hanceville and is close to all the top authorities at both EWTN and the Diocese.
Funny thing about that. EWTN is probably second only to the Vatican as the worldwide center for Catholic communication. Odd that it should rise in Alabama, which is less than five percent Catholic. Over a decade ago one of my priests and I were talking about the incredible accomplishment Mother Angelica made in raising that great center up. My priest asked me if I had ever been in Irondale, where it is located, and my eyes went wide. I had no clue it was in Irondale. From nearly the time I was born until I was about three and a half, my mother and I lived in the Norwood section of Birmingham with her parents. But My great-grandmother lived on a remote hill above the train-yards in Irondale. I loved our long visits with my great-grandmother. The sounds of the trains all night were soothing to me, particularly since the sounds I heard at night in Norwood, then one of the roughest sections of the city, was often gunfire. We would spend days, sometimes weeks with my great-grandmother. There was a big boy in Irondale who thought I was a cool little kid and often took me on rides in the basket at the front of his bike. My grandmother worked for a time before I was born at the Whistle Stop Café in Irondale, which was the model for the café in the book and movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes.” (I asked Mom once if Mamo ever barbecued an abusive wife-beater like in the book. Mom said not that she knew of. I told my priest that I was undoubtedly the Catholic seed from which EWTN grew…heh heh. He retorted that I wasn’t even Catholic then. “But God knew I would be,” I responded.
Thursday morning I was at EWTN at 10 a.m. Jeff Hahn, the employee who made this video, was taking me on a complete tour of the facility.
I waited in front for Jeff – and then for his Father-in-Law, Deacon Terry to meet me. Jeff was finishing up a meeting, so Deacon Terry and I got the chance to chat at our first real meeting not filtered through the phone or computer. He is a delightful, voluble man. (Hee hee, in the video I tell him at one point to pipe down so the rest of the folks could get their questions in. The crowd roared with laughter, for Deacon Terry is a wonderful, lively and well-informed man, but he likes to talk even more than I do. He took it in good spirit, but pokes me that I “attacked” him and complains that his own son-in-law wouldn’t edit it out of the video. But how could his son-in-law edit out what was the favorite moment for all the locals?)
The tour was astounding. EWTN has eight feeds going out all the time, slightly different for every part of the world. They have crews covering things involving the Church and the faith in every part of the world. Jeff handles, as I understood it, Internet service and digitizing their programming. He oversees a department of five people. A huge project they are working on now is putting together a digital library, so that people will be able to pull up any of their favorite episodes of old and new programs on demand. EWTN has been around long enough that that is a massive effort. I was astonished at the painting he had up in his office, for it looks as much like how Jesus appears to me as anything I have ever seen. There is another portrait I once saw that looks much like the Lord appears to me, except the hair is different.
For lunch, we were to meet Fr. Mitch Pacwa and Fr. Anthony Mary, then go over to a Middle Eastern Restaurant that was a favorite of Jeff. On the way over, I got the notion that Fr. Mitch had not been warned that what I had to say involved some prophetic elements and visitations. He got very quiet in the front seat. As it turned out, though, Fr. Mitch is incredibly knowledgeable about both Church and world history, which is pretty much my wheelhouse as well.
We ended up taking absolute delight in each other. When you talk with someone that is really conversant with your area of expertise, it is a delight, for you can quickly delve very deeply into the subject. Alas, I must confess that Fr. Mitch is more knowledgeable than I am (don’t tell anyone). He is just a brilliant, erudite and original thinker, with knowledge both comprehensive and deep. Sadly for Deacon Terry, Fr. Mitch and I were having so much fun talking about what we liked that we constantly strayed from what Deacon Terry wanted to hear about.
Fr. Mitch had ordered some hummus for all of us that he said was great. I had a friend who used to order hummus all the time – and I considered it to just be expensive dirt, which I laughingly told the group. Well, this was spiced marvelously and I liked it, so I tried to surreptitiously scoop it up with my Pita Bread. Fr. Mitch doesn’t miss much, though. At one point he grinned at me slyly and said I seemed to be liking that dirt pretty well. “Best dirt I ever had,” I enthused.
I was delighted that Fr. Anthony Mary remembered my friend, Fr. Regis Scanlan, from Denver. Fr. Regis did some programs on the Eucharist some years back for EWTN. Fr. Anthony told me that Fr. Regis was one of Mother Angelica’s favorite priests; that she loved his blunt, direct, completely orthodox, no-nonsense homilies. He was just her style, she told the other priests there, lively and full of laughter, but solid as a rock when he took the pulpit.
We were enjoying it so much that, after lunch, Fr. Mitch invited us to come on over to his house for a while. Deacon Terry had been teasing him about his cowboy hat, but having spent so long walking on my pilgrimage, I recognized what a great hat it was – and was complimenting and defending it every time
Deacon Terry poked fun. When we got to the house, Fr. Mitch grabbed an extra one he had and gave it to me as a gift. I laughed and told him I was going to tell everyone in the country this was my Mitch Pacwa hat. He laughed and said that was fine – maybe grab a few new viewers out of it. Fr. Mitch is an avid hunter – and very gifted at it. He likes bow hunting best. He typically donates the meat to places that need it, while keeping the trophies and having them mounted. He showed me a whole host of pictures – and then had a surprise. He is a friend of our friend, Bishop Rene Gracida – and a few years back, Bishop Gracida was on a hunt with him. He had the pictures. He asked me if I had ever heard tell of the time Bishop Gracida tried to kill Pope Benedict. I thought it must have been some accident or something, but Fr. Mitch said, no, Bishop Gracida tried hard to kill Pope Benedict. He had a wicked grin, though, so I asked for an explanation. Fr. Mitch noted that in World War II, Bishop Gracida was assigned to the bomber planes over Munich – and that Pope Benedict, then Joseph Ratzinger, was assigned to anti-aircraft defense of Munich. Thus, Gracida was earnestly trying to kill the future Pope Benedict while Benedict was earnestly trying to kill the future Bishop Gracida. Fortunately for all of us, both of them had lousy aim in those days.
Since the dinner later that evening at Jeff’s house was a private affair, Fr. Mitch had not known about it…but he said he would like to come, and bring a friend, as well. Well who wouldn’t be glad to have Fr. Mitch Pacwa at a Catholic dinner?
We left and headed over to the business Deacon Terry owned in Birmingham, now run by his two sons, Terry and Charlie. We had a lively time there, with young Charlie grilling me harder than any authority I have ever run into. Charlie has felt burned at times by so-called mystics and wanted to put me through my paces. He did. I might have been put off, but he had a good spirit and I found he is the father of nine young children. I can’t get offended at anyone who has such generosity and openness to life. In all candor, people who are open to raising big families are heroes to me, perhaps the great heroes of modern times. Hee hee, I both liked him a lot and occasionally wanted to smack him. His brother, Terry, is the peacemaker in the family.
Afterwards, Deacon Terry took me up Ruffner Rd. to see if we could find the old dirt road going up the hill that led to where my great-grandmother used to live. We found it…it is very distinctive. It was now gated off – and others in my family had already told me that the house was long ago torn down. But it was evocative to be there. As with so many things known through your child’s eyes, the gigantic train yards were still big, but much smaller than my mind’s eye remembered. Then we headed on over to Jeff’s house, where I could rest up a little before dinner.
Jeff was already there, along with his wife, Catherine (Deacon Terry’s daughter) and his Mother-in-Law, Rita.
Deacon Terry and Rita have gotten to know my sister and brother-in-law. I had heard wonderful things about her, so I was glad to finally meet the whole family. They had Golden Rule Barbecue brought in for an authentic Alabama dinner. They thought they were giving me something new, but I have Golden Rule almost every time I visit. I have it because it is great and I love it – so it was a perfect choice. We all chatted and mingled for a while. As we went down for my chat, someone suggested Jeff video it. He got a camera, miked me up, and that is how we got this great video in such a relaxed setting. It was quite striking. We had five priests there. In addition to Fr. Mitch there was a traditionalist priest who frequently celebrates the Latin Mass and a Parish Priest from one of the toughest areas of Birmingham. You can see from the video itself what a great time we had.
The next morning I went over to the Shrine of the Blessed
Sacrament in Hanceville, often called Mother Angelica’s Monastery, for she was the driving force in founding it. I had breakfast with Brother David and some of the monks. Brother David coordinates the retreats at the Shrine – and they have many retreats particularly for priests from around the country and the world. Afterwards, Deacon Terry, my sister Kim and brother-in-law, Bryan, met us and we went up for a private meeting with Fr. Joseph Mary who directs the Shrine and Br. David for about an hour and a half. We went to Mass at the lower Church, after touring some of the building, which was concelebrated by Fr. Joseph and a visiting Mexican Priest. Finally, Fr. Joseph gave us a private tour of the newly opening St. John Paul II Eucharistic Center. It was amusing when, at the end, a video came up with Fr. Joseph thanking us for visiting, as Fr. Joseph stood next to us and listened to himself in the video with us.
The faithful are charged up in Birmingham. Well they should be…it has become one of the most important Catholic Centers in the world.