Fr Bill Morton, an American Columban working in El Paso, Texas, across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where Australian Columban Fr Kevin Mullins and Irish Columban Fr Michael Donnelly work in one of the most violent areas caught up in the drug war, thanks those who support the work of Columbans. Thanksgiving Day in the USA is a very special holiday, one centred very much on the family and one that invites people to thank God for the many blessings we have.
Father Morton had an unusual path to the priesthood. He found his vocation partly through a 'Born Again' girlfriend. We published this interview in the November-December 2003 issue of Misyon.
Change of Plan
Fr Bill Morton's first job was as an air traffic controller. Later he became a Columban missionary priest. In this interview, he tells how that happened.
Q. What is your family background?
A. I was born into a large Catholic family in Philadelphia in 1952. Frequent discussion about faith, politics and social issues around the dinner table, regular attendance at Sunday Mass and recitation of the family rosary were buttressed by lived values of hospitality to anyone who came to our door. After secondary school, I enlisted in the Navy and qualified as an air traffic controller.
Q. Was it a stressful job?
A. At times. On one occasion when I was in training at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida I cleared a plane on to the main runway when all of a sudden an A-7 from the aircraft carrier Lexington requested an emergency landing. I had to clear him to land on the crosswind runway and as he touched down I saw him bounce on one tyre, which burst and then bounce back on the other wheel and that tyre burst as well. The plane spun off the runway into the dirt. My heart was in my mouth. The canopy popped open and, thank God, the pilot was OK.
Q. Was your religion important to you during those years?
A. As a young man of 18, in a new place without the influences of family and community I began to drift. I rarely went to Mass and seldom thought about God. I went to bars and nightclubs, drank and smoked heavily and experimented with drugs. At the same time, a man named Jim in my air traffic control unit used to speak to me about Christ, leave little pamphlets in my mailbox and invite me to go to his church.
Life in the fast lane was leaving me empty and longing for something and so I began to attend church and eventually had a conversion experience. I told my parents I had been 'born-again' and was no longer a Roman Catholic. When I went home on vacation there was friction in the family over my 'conversion.' My father said, ‘You're no born-again Christian; you're a fallen-away Catholic!’ They invited a well-known religious woman to the house and together tried to convince me to return to the fold. They were all seated in the living room and I at the top of the stairs armed with my Dake's Concordance, an evangelical Bible designed to refute Catholic doctrine.
Q. Were their efforts to convince you successful?
A. No. Back in Pensacola I became even more involved in the Church of the Open Bible. We worked with the youth and started a Christian coffee house and a Jesus rock group. I would pick up the teenagers in my Volkswagen mini-bus for Sunday services and our Friday night coffee house called Freedom Road.
It was a kind of hippie type thing, a very casual atmosphere where we mixed music with Scripture and preaching. We invited the kids to accept Jesus and receive counsel about family, drug and other problems. It was a joyful and creative time for me and deepened my sense of mission.
Q. How do you look back on those years?
A. I have remained friends with Jim, who witnessed to me, and I still delight in telling him I would not have become a Catholic missionary priest without that profound experience in the evangelical church. Through it I developed a more personal relationship with Christ and an appreciation of the Scriptures. I overcame my Catholic reticence to share faith and I developed a much more outgoing approach.
Q. What then brought you back to the Catholic Church?
A. Though I agreed with and experienced personally this relationship with Jesus, certain behaviours like smoking, drinking and swearing were stressed as litmus tests of Christian life. There was a lot of quoting of Scripture and arguments about who was saved and who was not. I began to think of the Catholics I knew who didn't quote much Scripture, who smoked or drank, but who were also generous, compassionate and non-judgmental people.
I asked myself: ‘If Jesus came back whose butt would he be kicking?' I concluded that it would more likely be my own, because of my self-righteousness, rather than the man on the street with his bottle.
I was madly in love with one of the girls who sang in our Christian rock group. She had been raised Protestant and one day she asked if we could go to a Catholic Mass. We went to a Saturday evening Mass at St Mary's and it was a lively celebration with guitars and songs and a young, Irish priest who preached with fervour and humour. Though still very much a member of the Church of the Open Bible I had a fleeting ‘I could do that’ thought about the priest.
My girlfriend enjoyed the visit and so we began to go each Saturday evening and then to the Open Bible on Sunday morning.
My mother had also written me a very challenging letter, quoting John 6, and asking me how those who claim to interpret the Bible literally understand the Eucharist. I didn't get any convincing answers and began to hunger to receive again in the Catholic way.
Though I had always disliked confession as a youth I began to long too to hear those words of pardon and absolution and finally made up my mind to seek out a priest. Around this time my girlfriend suggested that we break off for a while to get things into perspective. This upset me at first but thoughts of priesthood and mission continued to float around in my head.
Q. Why did that happen?
A. My process of conversion was liberating me spiritually, psychologically and socially. I had always wanted to fit in, to be liked by others. Now I began to live out what I perceived as the values of Christ, living from within whether others liked it or not. I was becoming the person I had been created to be.
Mission came from my desire to have others share this freedom and joy that God had given me. A year or more before I came back to the Catholic Church I saw a Columban ad in the Navy Times newspaper. The ad said simply, 'I bribe you with uncertainty and I challenge you with defeat.' I cut it out and put it in my wallet although I'd never heard of the Columbans.
Later, when I returned to full communion with the Church I wrote to the Columbans enquiring about the missionary priesthood. When I told my evangelical friends about this emerging call some were very upset. It was a painful experience to break with people who had become close friends.
Q. After your ordination as a Columban priest in 1985 you were assigned to Taiwan. Was that another drastic change of culture and outlook?
A. During my years of formation and early priesthood, I had changed from being a Protestant fundamentalist to a Catholic fundamentalist. I was always prepared to argue, to prove what was true from Scripture or Church teaching.
Assigned to Taiwan I discovered that the people in general thought there was no difference between Catholics, Protestants, Mormons or any of the other groups. I saw how the Holy Spirit could work also outside of any Christian church.
One example was the great kindness of my friend's mother when I became ill. Mrs Chen didn't know me well and was not a Catholic. In the mornings I would see her offering incense to the Chinese gods of the sky and the mountains. Her charity and hospitality to a stranger, a foreigner, made me think the Spirit was here and working.
Many of my certainties about life and religion were shake-up and I had to reconstruct my way of seeing things. Cross-cultural experience deepened my conversion.
Q. Now you work on the US/Mexican border. What are you doing there?
A. If Taiwan challenged me to reshape what was going on in my head, the poverty that I saw in Juarez and on the US/Mexican border forced me to look at what was going on in my heart.
I wanted to offer service to those people. I felt the need to become involved, to be in solidarity instead of just talking or writing about it.
I see myself, too, as a bridge person between the two countries. Those of us who work on the border are not lone rangers. We can help build bridges.
We invite people to come here and experience the Third World on their own doorstep. Many theologians today insist that there is urgent need for mission in the First World.
It is there that many of the world's most serious problems and injustices have their origin. United States individuals and groups that visit are challenged by the poverty and injustice but even more, they are evangelized by the faith, resilience and sense of community of the people here.
In this way I see the border ministry as a way of being on mission to the First World, to my own people.
Of course I trust that there are young people on both sides of the border who are hearing the call to be Columban missionaries.