Monday, March 26, 2012

Christine O’Donnell’s Renewed Catholic Faith: A Gift of the Holy Spirit

By Mary Claire Kendall

It was a balmy but blustery day when I met former U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell of Delaware—dubbed the “Tea Party darling” in 2010—in Washington, DC, at the Sequoia Restaurant, overlooking the Potomac River.

The gusts of wind forcefully blowing off the Potomac almost made it seem as if the Holy Spirit was providing special effects to complement her poignant story about how she went from “nominal” Catholic to “on fire” evangelical to “passionate über” Catholic.

But then, the Holy Spirit looms very large in this story.

Christine Therese O’Donnell was raised in a big, close-knit Catholic family. However, theirs was a more cultural Catholicism in which her mother, respecting her Italian immigrant parents’ faith, ensured the children attended “catechism classes” and “received all the appropriate sacraments.”  Yet, the family rarely went to Sunday mass and, O’Donnell said, “didn’t even go to Christmas and Easter (services).”

Grandmom Chillano, whom Christine called “very devout,” was a daily communicant and very devoted to Our Lady and would bring Christine to mass with her whenever she could. Grandmom’s rich Catholicism overflowed into a rich family life. Each Christmas Eve, she regaled the family with the “seven fishes feast,” a cherished tradition Christine’s mother religiously honors, spending her birthday each year buying fresh fish at Philadelphia’s Italian Market, then cleaning it in preparation for this big-hearted celebration of the Savior’s birth.

The other source of spiritual nourishment came, ironically, when she would sleep over with her friend Eileen Rooney, who lived two doors up. Eileen’s mother was very Catholic and the condition for staying over, Christine said, was “to go to church with the family the next morning.”  Christine described the Rooney’s as “just very devout but very fun… We had six kids, they had seven kids—all close in age. Need we say more?”

As a child, she also attended the Moorestown Bible Camp one summer.  “It wasn’t something that we attended regularly.”  It didn’t fit with her family’s cultural Catholicism but, she adds, “I had a very real experience with God (there)… a Holy Spirit encounter (which) the Evangelical Church is so good at fostering… it was so real, it made such a real impression with me that it carried me into adulthood.”

“But, my childhood exposure to faith,” she said, “wasn’t a grounding… (or) an understanding”—a deficiency the Church could have mitigated.  For instance, she remembers preparing for confirmation and, while waiting for confession, this risqué girl told her, “you can do anything you want”—just confess it. “And when I went into confession I asked… is this true?  And, the priest just responded, say five Hail Mary’s for your own belief.  So, here I was an eighth grader going (what’s up) and he’s just saying, sinner don’t doubt.”

Without a solid foundation of faith, she was susceptible to the cultural messages.  “By high school, by college, I (was)… enveloped by the rhetoric. And, I was a liberal… (and) thought that to be pro-woman, I must believe… all these myths, all these cultural lies especially on abortion.  And, I was vocally, actively (involved)…”

While at Fairleigh Dickinson University, College at Florham, in Madison, New Jersey in the early 90s, her friend Eileen Rooney asked her during a visit, “Do you know how an abortion is performed?”

Christine responded, “Yes. I was there when my friend had an abortion and… I’m the one who told her to ask (Planned Parenthood, while on the phone with them) if it was a baby. I was kind of proud of that... I’m the one who sought the truth and this is what they said.”

But, Eileen persisted. “If you really want to know the truth about this, you can’t read what I do and you can’t read what the other side says, you have to read the medical journals.”

So Christine went to the city library and started pouring through the literature. The more she read, the more her assumptions were quashed. “I remember just being so horrified about what was written in the medical journals that I just slumped down on the library floor and was like stunned.”

She compares her reaction to that of Adam Sandler’s character in the movie Spanglish, who said “the planet cracked” when he found out his wife was cheating on him.

The consequences were profound.  As O’Donnell explained, “It was like, if I’m wrong about this what else am I wrong about?  And, it’s a very scary feeling when suddenly you’re at this crossroads in your life in college when everything you believe might be wrong… And, that’s what led me to, ‘OK, if there’s a truth about this, there is a truth...’”

That day on the floor of that library, she said, ultimately led her back to her childhood faith.  And, while Eileen’s mother bought Christine a subscription to The Wanderer after she became pro-life, her journey was only just beginning.

In the early nineties, while living in DC, she searched for the truth in the Evangelical Church, hearkening back to her formative experience with Moorestown Bible Church.

But, she said, gradually she found it incompatible with her cultural background. For instance, wine was discouraged and, because she was told it was God’s will to go without it and she “wanted to please God,” she did without.

“It truly was a journey,” she said, which included a move to Los Angeles to work with The Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth (The SALT), speaking openly on MTV’s “Politically Incorrect,” hosted by Bill Maher, and other shows about sexual practices demeaning to women and displeasing to God.

“Everything I did in the 90s,” she said, “was taken out of context in the 2010 campaign.  I was a confused young adult back then reaching for the truth… this very on fire evangelical (where) everyone that you meet you have to tell about Jesus Christ.”

In the mid 90s, she started spending more time in DC, where the political action was. “Being involved in the pro-life movement, “she said, “you meet people from all walks of faith. And, the Catholics I met didn’t fit with the perception I had of Catholics. They were very godly, very devout, very faithful… not this cult.”

When she socialized with them, she said, “I would experience… that happiness without crossing the line that I had in college (i.e., at decadent parties).  I found that joy that I was looking for… (because they) knew how to find the beauty in life… And, I’d wake up the next morning (thinking), that was a lot of fun.”

Meantime, she continued getting regular invites to appear on CNN, MSNBC and Bill Maher’s show to discuss current issues—a pattern that began when producers discovered her in Houston at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

Then Dr. Peter J. Colosi, who worked across the hall from her at the Catholic Alliance in 1996, started to give her “these beautiful encyclicals from Pope John Paul II… that really articulated the right position.”  

Virtually all her soundbites, she said, were based on the encyclicals. And, the Catholic Catechism, which Colosi gave her to consult in his absence, became “sort of a cheat sheet for a last minute call to go on television.”

As she read all these encyclicals, she realized her own “personal platform” as a conservative was not isolated but was part of a larger, integrated truth beautifully articulated by the popes.  “I began… looking through the lens of Pope John Paul II and his teachings (to)… see that everything is connected…”

“Hungry for more,” she said she began realizing, “when I would go on television in a hostile environment and articulate what the church would say about something, people couldn’t disagree because there was a truth there.”  Encyclicals like Love and Responsibility showed “the church isn’t a prude.”

“Maybe,” she began thinking, “I’m wrong about this Catholic Church.”

Prior to her DC experience, she said, her perception of Catholicism was “based on the actions of men and not (on) the teaching of the Church.”  For instance, “If you wanted good weather, you put a statue of the Blessed Mother in your window.” 
But, “the core teachings of the church,” she said, “(were) very liberating.”

“And, what I discovered was that many Catholics (like herself) don’t know what the Church teaches. So I just fell in love with the Church at that point.”

It was in LA, where she was spending time in her then a bi-coastal existence, that the Holy Spirit sealed the deal. 

She was living in a little Hispanic neighborhood in LA. One day she took a walk and encountered, appropriately enough, the Church of the Holy Spirit, which she described as “this teeny little adobe-style chapel” that would stay open outside of church services, even though it was a bad neighborhood. She started attending mass and “when I was stressed,” she said, “I’d just walk over there, sit in their chapel… just a one room building (and) I just started feeling comfortable.”

Then, one Sunday at mass, the priest, Fr. Elias (now in India), gave this beautiful homily about the Holy Spirit.”

As the gifts were being taken up, “Here I Am Lord” was played—the song that had always played at special and significant moments in her life. 

Kneeling down before the Eucharist, she said she felt somewhat conflicted. So she prayed to God in prayer, “If you make it clear, if there is no doubt where you need me, that’s where I will go.”

After mass, Fr. Elias was shaking everyone’s hand. As she walked out, he stopped and said, “Wait a minute” and “called me out, then shook my hand and said, ‘I’m Father Elias. What is your name?’ I said, ‘I’m Christine.’ He (replied), ‘Christine, God needs you in the Catholic Church.’  I was like ‘Ahh!’ (and) just started crying. And, he (said) “Would you like to come see me at my office this week?’ I (replied), ‘yes.’  And, later, in her meeting with him, he said that God (inspired) him… as he was preaching on the Holy Spirit… and saw me praying in the pew (to) ‘Tell her God needs her in the Catholic Church.’”

When she met with him, she said, “I gave a very long confession,” after which he received her back into the Catholic Church. The next week, ironically, she gave the commencement speech at a Baptist college graduation, where she was  viewed as an evangelical, not a Catholic speaker. 

But then, being a Catholic was a private love affair, for the time being.

Gradually, she let her Catholic friends know—and even one evangelical friend, from whom she was concealing her return to the Church lest it “shock” her. It turns out this friend was poised to convert and wanted to share her own shocking news.

“Truth,” O’Donnell says, “is inscribed on everyone’s heart and one thing I say in political speeches is that they agree with us, they just don’t know it yet. And, we’ve got to figure out how to clearly articulate these truths…”

For instance, regarding the “pursuit of happiness,” she explained, “Pope John Paul II said… happiness is being ‘rooted in love’—not ‘happiness is love,’ it’s the state of being ‘rooted in love.’  It’s through giving and sacrificing and putting the next generation ahead of your own needs… government can’t give this (rootedness) to you, this is something that only God can give you.”

“I’m passionate about this,” she said. “It’s so profoundly clarifying and liberating. By understanding the longing that he put on our heart, you understand why our founders created a limited government in such a way.”

That suggests to her a bridge to politics. “To me it’s so clear cut about the role of the Church in this next election; it’s just trying to articulate to the rest of the (Christian) Church the role that (the Universal Church) play(s).”

While it remains to be seen what Christine O’Donnell’s political future is, one thing’s for sure, she’s winning hearts now.

NOTE: This piece is a companion to the earlier review of Christine O’Donnell’s book Troublemaker, which appeared in March 15 issue of The Wanderer .  

To obtain a copy of the book, see

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