Though I was baptized Roman Catholic as an infant, my first memories of church are attending an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation in the D.C. area. Then around the time I was nine years old, my parents began investigating other Christian traditions. Their concern, as my dad put it to me, was that the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics all read the Bible and yet, they each believed something different. He said, “Truth is not variable: the Holy Spirit can’t be inspiring contradictions!” My parents’ search led them to return to the Catholic Church when we moved to California a year later. Now I wonder what might have happened had there been an Orthodox parish in our new town.

We attended a pious parish with good priests, and developed early habits of regular prayer, confession, and attendance at the services. Our lives revolved around our parish. It was at the parish youth group that I met my future wife, Annemarie. During my senior year in high school, I felt called to study for the priesthood. I went off to Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, where I was in an undergraduate program for men who were preparing for the priesthood—called the Pre-Theologate. During this same time I befriended some Eastern Christians—Byzantine and Maronite Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. I began to attend services occasionally at the local Greek Orthodox parish with my friend and eventually started helping the local Byzantine Catholic priest by serving in the altar. I was quickly falling in love with the deep spirituality and traditional liturgy of the Byzantine East. Toward the end of my junior year, I came to a turning point and realized that I was not called to be a Catholic priest. A few months later I re-connected with Annemarie, and six months later we were engaged.

I finished my degree at Franciscan, and later that summer of 2002 we were married and I started law school in San Francisco. We soon discovered a Byzantine Catholic parish in the city, and began attending regularly. When our daughter was born a year later, she was baptized there. During this time we began to follow the fasts, daily prayers, and services of the Christian East, all of which we found very meaningful. Many of us in the parish went so far as to describe ourselves as “Orthodox in union with Rome.” But as time went on, two things troubled us: 1) if we are “Orthodox,” why is it that no Orthodox bishop would recognize us as such; and 2) if hesychasm and spiritual fatherhood is so important in Orthodox spirituality, where are the elders and spiritual mothers in the Byzantine Catholic church? While we were wrestling with these questions, we moved to the East Bay suburb of Castro Valley. One Saturday we were in San Francisco and decided to go to vigil at a little OCA mission there. Walking out of the service, we were struck by the similarities with the Byzantine Catholic parish we normally attended. At the same time we felt something different and powerful in our hearts that night. In the days and weeks that followed, we couldn’t shake that experience.

Several months later, we decided that it was time to attend Liturgy at an Orthodox parish on Sunday, although we did not feel ready to make any decisions. We planned to go back to that mission parish in the city, but as providence would have it, we forgot to set our alarm and slept in. Instead we drove down the street to the local parish, Resurrection Greek Orthodox Church. The priest came out during Orthros and greeted us. When he realized that we didn’t speak Greek, he told us that when the chanters sang in Greek and we didn’t understand, we could pray the Jesus Prayer in our hearts and our souls would still receive the grace. We were so touched by his concern and piety. After Liturgy, the priest rounded up a couple other families and took us all to lunch at a local diner. For the entire lunch I fired questions at him, and he responded thoughtfully and in a way that addressed exactly what my heart needed to hear. As we stood up to leave, we told Father that we needed to become Orthodox. In the Orthodox Church we found the traditional teaching of Christ and His Apostles, an ancient and profound liturgical worship, but also the deep, lived spirituality of so many saints—canonized and not, ancient and current. In Spring 2004, we were received into the Orthodox Church and remain so grateful to God for this blessing. I often joke that we walked into church that Sunday and the parish hasn’t been able to get rid of us since! There are so many people within the parish that greeted us from the start and were so welcoming to us—they have since become like family. More importantly, they have become true teachers of Orthodoxy to us; their love and openness continue to communicate Christ to us.

Just as before, our lives revolve around our beloved parish. Annemarie leads Mom’s Bible Study and teaches Sunday School. She and our two daughters sing in the choir, while our sons serve in the altar. I chant and serve on the parish council. Recently I finished my first year studying in the Diaconate Program at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. God willing, I will complete the program in the summer of 2020. We covet any and all prayers as we prepare for the next step in our service to the Church.

Justin’s Journey