The Unpredictability of Providence

by Fr. William Goldin - Priest of the Diocese of Orange, California

I was born on April 20th, 1983 in San Diego, California — the first child of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother. Two years later my only sibling, my younger brother, was born. During my childhood, neither of my parents practiced their respective religions in the least.

My dad was born in 1942 and grew up in an observant Jewish family of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) descent. My dad’s father was a conservative Rabbi and a professor of Jewish studies.  During his childhood my dad was obliged to participate in the religious observances of Judaism, but never to the degree of my grandfather.  When at the age of seventeen my dad moved to California to begin college, he left behind adherence to his childhood faith.  My mom was baptized and confirmed as an Episcopalian but did not grow up practicing her faith, and while my brother and I were growing up this did not change.

My brother and I were raised in a smattering of the two faiths. We celebrated the ‘fun’ holidays of both religions (those involving festive meals and/or gift giving) but there was virtually no depth to our faith life. We would celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, but each of these holidays was more about familial joy than religious observance. And there was a great deal of joy! I loved each of these holidays but we only paid lip service to their religious origins. If I had to quantify our faith life, I would say that we were more Jewish than Christian. However, given my family’s preference for Judaism, the tacit understanding was that should my brother or I ever become observant, we would become observant Jews.

Before 1997, I could not have cared less about the question of God’s existence or non-existence. I considered myself a “very doubting agnostic” (a description I learned from an older cousin of mine, which seemed to fit my situation), and I was almost entirely uninterested in asking the big questions. I think that observant cradle Catholics often have the view that all non-believers are in some sense antagonistic to the idea of God’s existence. I can tell you from personal experience that this is not always the case. I simply did not care. I never prayed, never questioned, and I was fine with this.  Or so I thought…

My journey to faith in Christ began in 1997 when I was 14 years old. I attribute this decision in part to two factors: First, in short succession three of my grandparents died between 1995 and 1998. For the first time in my life I was exposed to death and I was frightened by it.  I remember asking my Jewish grandpa what Jews believe regarding the afterlife while riding behind the hearse carrying my grandma to the cemetery.  I found his answer vague and unsatisfying (though I now recognize I should not have expected a satisfactory answer from a man in mourning).  I began to wonder what would happen to me after I died—something to which I had not given more than a passing thought—and I wanted to know more about what I should believe. The second and more important factor leading to my conversion involved a trip my family took to Italy in the summer of 1998. This trip forever changed the course of my life.

Taken though I was by the monuments, art, and architecture of Rome itself, I was completely taken aback by the sheer beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica in particular.  I remember being captivated by the thought that the people who created this monument believed in God and I could not understand why I did not have any faith.  St. Peter’s was the most beautiful building I had ever seen, and while the sheer sight of it did not convert me on the spot to Catholicism, my visit there began what was, in retrospect, an inexorable march towards the faith. I took innumerable pictures of the Basilica, inside and out, and—whether I knew it or not—my heart began to be softened towards both belief in God and the Catholic faith.

Our visit to St. Peter’s Basilica, however, was not the only aspect of my family’s trip that made an impact on me. During our visit to the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel, I happened to notice a group of American priests with a bishop sitting down near the museum entrance. I had rarely seen priests before and I was so impressed that I asked if I could take their picture. I remember feeling drawn to them, surely an odd response for a non-Catholic teenager.

While these experiences may not seem very significant at all, they had a deep effect on me at that time, and they led to an even more important event that occurred during the same trip. One day, I decided to buy a Rosary as a gift for a Catholic friend back home in California. Knowing nothing about this devotion, I bought a cheap rose-scented Rosary from a street vendor near the Vatican.  Then, feeling a kind of deep awakening within myself, I walked back to the hotel, lay on my bed, stretched it out across my chest and said in the most conspiratorial and romantic tone I could muster, “I baptize myself with this Rosary.”

My “baptism” that August day in Rome—which, in retrospect, seems suggestive of what the Church calls a “baptism of desire” but of course wasn’t a real baptism—began a process of deep soul-searching. While I would not have been remotely comfortable with the idea of becoming a Catholic, I was nevertheless sure that there was something profound in what St. Peter’s and the Vatican represented, and I was determined to find it. Little did I know at the time that the Rosary is also a privileged Marian prayer, and I am sure the Mother of God was well aware of my “baptism” in her prayers that day!

We returned to California a few weeks later and I began my sophomore year in high school. Slowly but surely the seeds planted in Rome began to develop. I began to pray for the first time in my life. I distinctly remember kneeling on the floor of my room in my parents’ house and praying: “God, I don’t care what you are…but if you exist, I want to know you.”

After my Jewish grandpa’s death in May of 1998, we inherited all of his books. Since he had been a religious scholar, we had religious books in abundance on every bookshelf, including many copies of the Bible.  One day, I grabbed a Bible that looked good to me and began to read it. I did not think too much at the time about the fact that it was a Catholic Bible. I began with Genesis and Exodus but decided to skip forward and read the New Testament. Once I began to read, I was taken by it and read it cover to cover. During this time I was also praying and I slowly began to realize that not only was I coming to faith in God, but that I was also starting to think that perhaps Jesus might be divine. I decided to bring it to prayer. Instead of praying about whether or not God existed—I now believed quite deeply that He did exist—I started to ask, “Are you Jesus?”

In the autumn of 1998 my parents hired my math tutor to teach me how to drive.  He was a lapsed-Catholic who had turned evangelical.  As we drove around the freeways, I would pepper him with numerous questions such as “Did Jesus know He was God?” While he may not have known it, I was being assisted in coming to greater faith in both God and Jesus Christ through these discussions with him.

During this time, I also began to read about Marian apparitions throughout the world, and this proved to be the beginning of the end of my initial conversion process. I firmly believe that once you involve the Mother of God in your prayer life, you cannot long remain uncommitted to her Son. I had never heard of Marian apparitions and when I read my first book about the purported apparitions of Mary at Medjugorje, I became completely enthralled.¹ I was convinced that Mary the Mother of God had appeared to people in the world, and I was overwhelmed with the joy that comes from faith. I bought a set of Rosary beads on eBay and I taught myself how to pray the Rosary from Internet instructions.

At the same time this was all going on, my astute mother, realizing my growing interest in Catholicism, bought me a book entitled Basics of the Faith: A Catholic Catechism by Dr. Alan Schreck. I devoured it.

By November of 1998 I realized that the time had come for action; I had to become a Christian. Yet despite all my forays into the Catholic world, I still decided to give the Protestants one last chance. I flipped open the phone book and called the first Protestant church I could find. I am convinced to this day that the Holy Spirit used the pastor of this church to convince me, once and for all, that I should not become a Protestant. I will never forget our conversation. I called and asked, “How does one become a Christian?” His response, verbatim, was, “Well, yuh come in on one of our baptism nights, and we dunk yuh!” I politely thanked him and hung up the phone. I was not looking for a “quickie conversion.” The next call I made was to Immaculate Conception parish in the Old Town section of San Diego. I asked for the Mass times and decided that I had to go.

Once again, my wonderful mother came to my aid. As I was still not a licensed driver, she graciously agreed to drive me to the next Saturday morning Mass. This Mass, my first ever, was by no means extraordinary; in fact, looking back it was a fairly simple and uninspiring experience for the handful of daily communicants. Nevertheless, I was impressed! I had never seen such obvious faith before. I remember being deeply moved by the particular fact that the congregation was kneeling. This was not prayer by rote; no, these people believed.

I decided on the spot that I had to become Catholic and after Mass I inquired into the matter with the pastor, Msgr. Alphonsus Moloney. His response, spoken through his thick Irish brogue, was simple and to the point: “Well, ye join RCIA”.

Although my five-month RCIA experience was unusual for a 15-year-old, I believe Msgr. Moloney could somehow sense that I was ready to enter the Church.  I received my dad’s permission and received the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil on April 3rd, 1999.  I finally realized why faith was so important and I felt at home.  The beauty of the truth had converted me and the conversion was deep.

I began to experience the call to priesthood almost immediately after my conversion. In fact, I became convinced that God was calling me to the priesthood, and I made no secret of it with my family, friends, or Msgr. Moloney, who was now my spiritual director. I was certain of my call but knew I needed to go to college first.

After graduating from high school I went off to the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C. to pursue religious studies. I meandered through several majors before settling on vocal performance (classical singing and opera). I had attended a high school for the performing arts in San Diego and when I arrived at CUA I had a voice lesson with a soprano from the Metropolitan Opera who told me that I had the ability to sing operatic music and that I should go for it. Soon I virtually stopped thinking of the priesthood as a real option. Oh the fickle passions of teenagers!

I also found some deeply religious Catholic friends, and getting to know them changed me profoundly.  For the first time in my life I began to experience Christian community and I loved it.  I praise God for the gift of these friends, with whom I remain close to this day.

After two years at CUA, I decided to transfer to the Royal College of Music in London, where I spent a wonderful but very challenging year.  Vocally I grew by leaps and bounds, but I greatly missed my Catholic community of CUA friends.  I continued to practice my faith in a city of extraordinary Catholic churches featuring glorious music, art and liturgy. But I also realized that I was not happy in a totally secular milieu.  I returned to CUA to finish my degree with the Catholic friends who had come to mean so much to me.

My thoughts about priesthood resurfaced during my senior year at CUA. I started to doubt that I was called to be an opera singer and I wondered about whether any life other than priesthood would ultimately be fulfilling for me. I had dated a girl for a short time in college but I did not feel ready to develop the relationship into something more serious. I was starting to feel deeply confused about my vocation. I had a brief meeting with the vocation director of the Archdiocese of Washington but I was also not ready to make the leap to join seminary formation. I decided to put off any big decisions and instead went off to graduate school to study vocal performance.

After applying to several graduate schools I settled on the University of Hawaii. But within a month of arriving realized I had made a mistake and switched to UCLA, where I began pursuing a Master of Music degree. 

During my time at UCLA my thoughts about priesthood increased but serious doubts persisted as well. Once I got settled in Los Angeles, I began attending Mass at an Eastern-Rite Catholic parish.  I fell in love with the Divine Liturgy and the spiritual patrimony of the Eastern Church, not to mention the art and architecture.  I made Russian Catholic and Russian Orthodox friends and actually began to feel drawn towards joining the Orthodox Church.  I was fully aware that leaving the Catholic Church is a major affair—in this case, schism—and at the same time I was beginning to think that maybe the Orthodox Church was the true Church. And this was terrifying to me. Thankfully, one of my saving graces during this time was my friendship with some of the Norbertine priests of St. Michael’s Abbey in the Diocese of Orange. I am deeply grateful for their guidance.

By the end of my time at UCLA, I had realized that I really did not want to be an opera singer for the rest of my life and that I was also totally confused about my faith. I had fallen in love with the liturgy of the Russian Church so deeply that I felt that if I did not do something fast I would be in serious danger of leaving the Catholic Church.  I came to think that if I were to save my faith I needed to study Catholic theology.  Even though it made no financial sense, I applied and was accepted to the Master of Arts in Theology program at the Dominican House of Studies (DHS) in Washington, D.C. 

Attending the DHS was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  During my three years there, I fell in love with Catholic theology and with the philosophical and theological tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas (Thomism), and my doubts about the Catholic faith dissipated like smoke. I still loved the Russian liturgy, but I began to realize the profundity of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and I witnessed the meeting of beauty and truth in the academic and liturgical life of the Dominican community at the House of Studies. Most importantly, the Dominicans taught me how to think with the Church, and it was at the House of Studies that I experienced my intellectual conversion to Catholicism. This period was also wonderful for the discernment of my vocation. I explored my options; I dated a girl, sang with the professional choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, worked at the Dominican Theological Library and once again felt the joy of Catholic friendships: old and new, clerical and lay. Multiple priests from the Eastern Province of the Dominicans helped me significantly during these years by their friendship and intellectual and spiritual guidance.

After the DHS I continued my studies in theology with the thought of pursuing a Ph.D. in theology and becoming a professor.  My thoughts of priesthood persisted but I was still not ready.  As such, when I was given a scholarship to study at the licentiate level at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, it seemed that divine providence was guiding me.  I moved to Belgium to begin my studies in systematic theology and it was there that the Lord finally got me.

At that time there was also an American seminary in Louvain and I found myself in classes with some American deacons and priests.  One day a deacon named Kevin Barnekow from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee invited me to join him for a beer.  In an unguarded but equally providential moment I told him that I was seriously thinking about becoming a priest. I have often said that if one is thinking about priesthood, and one wants to remain uncommitted, it is not a good idea to tell a priest or a seminarian, because any fervent priest or seminarian will quickly try to rope you in! And Deacon Kevin did just that.

After that drink, Deacon Kevin got to talking with one of his friends, Deacon Troy Schneider from the Diocese of Orange and, unbeknownst to me, both of them got busy on my behalf.  I suspected nothing when Deacon Kevin invited me out for another beer the following week.

When I arrived at Stapleton’s Irish Pub in Louvain that November evening, I realized something was going on.  Deacons Kevin and Troy were not the only guys there. There were a bunch of seminarians from the American seminary as well as a priest. This priest, Fr. John Neneman, was then the vocation director of the Diocese of Orange and he had been told all about me. It was a setup!

During the evening, Fr. John came up to me and said, “My name is Fr. John Neneman and I am the Vocation Director for the Diocese of Orange. I hear you are thinking about priesthood and that you are from Southern California. I will be here for three days. If you want to talk to me, here’s my card. Email me.” I emailed him immediately, spoke with him the following day and within a short period of time I was invited to apply to the Diocese of Orange. I figured that if God had to send me to Belgium to get me back to California, I better pay attention.

After I finished my degree in Louvain, I returned to California and began my formation at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. During my time at St. John’s and since, I have had wonderful spiritual direction and guidance from multiple priests. I would also like to sincerely thank Bishop Kevin Vann and Bishop Emeritus Tod Brown for their kindness and for supporting my vocation to the priesthood.

Studying for the priesthood has been a great experience and I am so happy to finally feel at home in my vocation. God’s providence has guided me all the way but often I was too blind to see it at the time. If you are thinking of priesthood, do not be afraid to “put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4). I fought the call to enter seminary for a long time and it was not an easy decision for me to make. And yet, if there is one thing I have learned in all of this, it is that if one is seeking God’s will in good conscience, He will reveal His plan to you—and often in ways that you cannot even begin to expect. For indeed, God’s providence “reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and…orders all things well” (Wisdom 8:1).

1.  I still view Marian apparitions as a great gift of God but want to acknowledge that I am uncertain as to the authenticity of the purported apparitions at Medjugorje.  I submit to the judgment of the Church on this matter.